Art supporting formative assessment
An open-source e-portfolio tool was used at a Greek school to support students taking more responsibility in making decisions on how and what they should learn. Under the framework of the European project ATS2020, learning activities were developed to accompany the use of this e-portfolio tool, which made it easy to implement also with teachers and students who are relatively new to the creation and assessment of digital content. These activities cultivate transversal skills such as autonomous learning, collaboration, communication and digital literacy. The e-portfolio use was well received by the school leadership, teachers, and students alike. As the activities were implemented in several other schools in Greece, this enabled exchange between teachers across schools to discuss points of improvement and support each other.
La Grenouillère by Auguste Renoir - Nationalmuseum, Sweden, Sweden - Public Domain.
The policy context
In Greece, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has centralised control of the education system. All schools have to comply with the curriculum and the guidelines for its implementation, provided by the MoE.
Schools are funded via Municipalities and their financial management is done by MoE’s “school committees”. It must be noted, however, that financial considerations have a negligible effect on the implementation of digital formative assessment (DFA) practices in schools. The key factors related to the uptake of DFA practices at school level are the teachers’ training in formative assessment and the pedagogical use of technologies, the provision of the time and flexibility required within the curriculum, and the school IT infrastructure. The in-service training of teachers in the subject of FA is still missing. However, there is an in-service Training of Teachers in the use of Digital Technologies in the teaching practice (B-Level ICT Teacher Training).
Most learning subjects in Greek schools are taught in just one or two 45-minute sessions per week. Teachers have a busy teaching timetable and a big volume of the learning content that they are required to teach. These are practical restrictions for the proper implementation of DFA. The equipment in most public-school labs is also outdated. However, all schools have access to the Greek School Network where teachers, students and school leaders have individual accounts, emails, and access to e-learning platforms and digital education tools.
Formative assessment is advised in the national context. However, assessment in secondary education has remained mostly traditional. Recent plans foresee the introduction of descriptive assessment throughout compulsory education.
Although there is no central/nationwide strategy for formative assessment, most Greek teachers view student assessment as a continuous reflective process and use it as feedback to adapt their teaching. Some apply DFA practices in schools on their own initiative (e.g., portfolios, authentic evaluation). The national digital platforms ‘Greek School Network’, ‘MySchool’ and ‘Digital School’ provide the enabling infrastructure and tools (e-learning, collaboration and support services, Open Educational Resource repositories, etc.). The country’s strategic priorities for education also include the teachers' professional development with an emphasis on digital skills. There is interest in incorporating DFA in the curriculum of the aforementioned national action for the In-Service B-level Teachers’ Training, which contains a wide variety of teaching strategies and digital tools.
The 2nd Gymnasium Paralias (2ο Γυμνάσιο Παραλίας - 2nd lower-secondary school of Paralia) is a small public school in an area of social housing units of the city of Patras. The school has around 100 students from diverse social backgrounds. There are students who help their families daily, in agricultural and manually performed tasks and others who lack motivation for learning although they do not have out-of-school tasks to perform. Moreover, the school facilities are shared with a vocational high school (sharing the schoolyard with older students, which may affect younger students’ attitude towards learning). Teachers share the view that students have difficulties in achieving learning goals. The school’s association of teachers tries to encourage students by involving them in creative activities (environmental programmes, European projects, eTwinning actions, teaching visits etc), to increase their interest in learning.
The school has participated in the implementation of an open-source e-portfolio tool called Mahara in the classroom.
Digital tools used
Mahara is an open-source web application to build e-portfolios and collaborate with peers.
An electronic portfolio (also known as a digital portfolio, online portfolio, e-portfolio) is a collection of electronic evidence assembled and managed by a user, usually online. Such digital evidence may include text, files, images, multimedia, blog entries, and hyperlinks. An e-portfolio can include students’ reflections and comments on this evidence and their own learning.
- Adapt teaching to the real needs of students
- Cultivate autonomous learning so that students get used to formulating the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of their learning
- Reinforce student-teacher communication by using e-portfolios and focusing on developing personal responsibility.
The curricula provide the framework for implementing innovative teaching techniques (e.g., use of e-portfolios). However, this alone is not enough if it is not accompanied by a suitable infrastructure in the school. A well-equipped lab, a stable and fast internet connection, the technical support of teachers on issues concerning the use of ICT in the classroom, are important factors for the success of the intervention. However, even if all technical issues are solved, the most important factor is probably the pedagogical framework needed for guiding teachers in designing teaching scenarios. Teachers should develop the competence to exploit ICT in their everyday practice.
The school often develops activities that go beyond the lessons – for instance, environmental projects. These projects prioritise assessment and self-assessment, at individual as well as group level, without the stress of being marked and graded. In project activities, the teacher can find opportunities to try DFA before deciding to use it in their regular lessons.
Frequent exchange of views and practices between the members of the school’s association of teachers is of particular importance because it fosters the cultivation of a collective culture in managing learning at school. Thus, teachers can collectively confront obstacles, exchange good practices and give feedback to each other. In turn, students can benefit from the common approach adopted by teachers in managing various issues.
Research – Effective feedback
Hattie and Clarke (2019) explore research on feedback in classrooms. Their findings emphasise that:
- Feedback should be part of the teachers’ formative assessment framework;
- Students should be challenged, and challenges should be appropriately spaced;
- The normalisation and celebration of error are fundamental for learning;
- Mixed ability group maximises learning;
- The desire to learn needs to be prioritised over “external rewards that act as negative feedback or feedback focused on the students’ ego; and,
- Students’ motivation, curiosity and willingness to learn are in themselves important aims for learning (p. 8).
These findings support the school’s emphasis on narrative feedback and efforts to engage students in activities that motivate and raise interest. While this research refers to classroom-based learning, it may be equally relevant for digital learning. Teachers can also promote a culture where it is normal to make mistakes and give feedback, by exchanging feedback not only in the classroom but also with each other.
This art subject scenario was developed in the framework of ATS2020 in which the school participated. It involves 6 tasks to be implemented within 4-5 school lessons and includes synchronous face-to-face activities in the classroom as well as asynchronous students’ activities at home.
Students learn about the art movement of Impressionism, working both in small groups and individually to develop collaboration, ICT, and autonomous learning skills. The teacher evaluates the final work of students based on the pages they create in Mahara, an open-source e-portfolio platform.
Each student needs to create their own e-portfolio by adding files of impressionist paintings. Each student has their personal page, but also group pages where they can collaborate with each other and post comments and reply to comments by others. The teacher helps with task division among teams based on individual student strengths and helps them develop their own learning path to promote autonomous learning. The teacher evaluates the final work of students based on their page about impressionist art.
The teacher acts as a facilitator (both face-to-face and online) and promotes autonomous learning by helping students to develop their own learning. The teacher monitors the students’ e-portfolio pages and provides feedback to students in the tool’s digital environment, both on personal and group tasks. The teacher gets to understand better the students’ way of thinking and can help them develop appropriate learning strategies.
The main difficulty faced in Paralia School was students’ difficulty to access the platform from home. At first, it was not possible for all students to participate, either due to technical restrictions (no access) or due to their parents’ reservations to sign the related consent form. Most parents’ concerns were appeased after explaining individually the rationale and aims of the activity and the purpose of the consent form. Also, access was enabled by making the school’s computer lab available during the whole school day to any student requesting to use it: a computer was always available for working on the lesson on impressionism.
Students developed competences of written communication (e.g. expressing emotions, text adapted depending on the recipient etc). Moreover, low-performing students could easily complete the activities and this fact positively surprised the teachers.
The students themselves asked the art teacher to do more lessons like this. The teacher, despite her low level of familiarity with digital technology, organised a further lesson on Cubism with the use of e-portfolios. Teachers were pleased to see that students were using Mahara and making requests in the digital platform a long time after the lessons had been completed.
The school head said that this experience was useful for teachers as it offers a way forward for teaching and learning. Thee-portfolio tool facilitated giving continuous feedback.
The e-portfolio based activities were also implemented in several other schools in Greece. This enabled teachers to share experiences with teachers from other schools to discuss points of improvement and support each other. Teachers from 4-5 schools in Patras and from schools in Athens and Pyrgos met each other, which was a useful experience for the both the teachers and the Paralia School as a whole. This synergy helped because common problems and wishes were shared with fellow teachers.
Moreover, the project researchers presented the scientific results of the ATS2020 project to the teachers, which helped them realise the common problems that teachers were experiencing in other countries.
Research – Professional learning communities
If teachers share experiences with teachers from other schools, this can help exchanging good practices, identifying common challenges, ultimately helping sustain new practices such as e-portfolios. Teacher professional learning communities have been shown to be more effective in supporting sustainable changes in teacher learning, job satisfaction and health, as well as student learning (Stoll et al., 2006).
Teachers benefit from collaboration with their peers within their schools and in broader networks. Increasingly, these networks combine online and offline interaction (Zuidema, 2011). Networks are most effective when they are structured and there is professional facilitation (McConnell, et al., 2013). Teachers are most likely to participate in networks and professional learning communities that address real problems encountered in teaching (Marcia & Garcia, 2016)
This series of lessons changed the way that a class learned. The students took greater responsibility for their learning and this could have an effect at school level in the long term, if supported by more teachers.
In the future, neighbouring schools could collaborate more often through suitably designed activities, e.g., graphics design students at the vocational high school could turn simple paintings into impressionistic ones based on elements spotted by the lower secondary school students.
The stress of grading students and the parents’ expectations often makes it difficult for teachers to focus on DFA. If some student assessments could be made in a descriptive manner instead of assigning a grade, this may encourage teachers to integrate DFA in their everyday practice.
The main obstacles pinpointed during its implementation were due to the facts that a) not all students had adequately developed skills in using ICT for learning, b) some students did not have internet access from home and c) not all teachers were aware of the value that DFA can add in their teaching.
E-portfolio use is transferable to any subject and age group and could be implemented school-wide: organising collaborative activities, encouraging autonomy and personal responsibility, and making time for self-and peer-assessment during the activity. To improve the uptake of e-portfolio use, alternative digital environments could be exploited (e.g. Moodle, eClass, Google classroom).
Some parents remained sceptical about the integration of internet services in lessons because they think that children at school should be “detoxed” from the intensive use of technology. Parents should therefore be informed to better understand the benefits of the good use of digital technologies.
The importance of engaging with parents and gaining their support is highlighted in this case study. It could be useful to provide information and organise parent workshops about the approach and the digital tools. Informing parents can go a long way, as shown by their increased willingness to participate after being informed about the project in this case. Teachers can share with parents the e-portfolios created by students. Parents might appreciate receiving regular information on their children’s outputs and the skills that they are putting into practice. This can also help parents understand better that good use of ICT is a great way both for learning-to-learn skills and for digital competences that will be useful to students in their future profession.
Students live in their own digital world and need to learn about educational applications of digital technologies. Social network techniques (uploading, commenting, sharing, presenting, etc.) among students is a powerful teaching tool. Using e-portfolios for formative assessment introduces the students to online content development and open-source tools.
It is fundamental to train teachers in innovative pedagogies incorporating digital technologies. In Greece, approximately one third of the teachers have already received training in using digital technologies in the teaching practice (around 57,000 teachers of all subjects by November 2020). Nevertheless, there is still a gap in the teachers training curriculum regarding DFA and there are plans to rectify this in the immediate future. Using open-source digital tools such as Mahara can help teachers get started quickly with e-portfolios for digital formative assessment and facilitate the exchange of practices across schools.