Eportfolios as Reflective Assessment of Social Justice
This article explores the potential for eportfolios to contribute to the development of student critical awareness of social justice, including the role of the university as a social justice actor, through module assessment. It will critically address how eportfolios were introduced in 2019-20 to assess student reflection on social justice in a first year law module ‘Critical Approaches to Law’ at DCU. The use of eportfolio has emerged as an integral element of the learning landscape in higher education in the last 10 years (Bryant & Chittum, 2013). To date, there has been a slow adoption of eportfolios in Irish higher education (Farrell, 2018). Although there is some evidence of reflective assessment in comparative legal education, especially in schools with an emphasis on socio-legal approaches to law, and in clinical legal education, there is limited analysis of eportfolio assessment in classroom-based or blended legal education, (Waye & Faulkner, 2012) and none in the Irish context.
The article will discuss the motivation to use eportfolios; the benefits, challenges and lessons learned in the design of the assessment, the first time experience for the educator of marking, and student experience of eportfolios. It assesses eportfolios as a mechanism for prompting student reflection and the development of critical thinking (Farrell, 2019), with a particular reflective focus on social justice and university education as a social justice experience. (Connell, 2019). It queries the extent to which eportfolios enable students to incorporate prior learning experiences to their reflection, (Chen & Black, 2010) and for students to self-determine the parameters of their personal interaction with social justice questions raised by the experience in the module and their lived experience. (Brooman & Stirk, 2020)
This article explores the potential for eportfolios to contribute to the development of student critical awareness of social justice, including the role of the university as a social justice actor, through module assessment. My experience of eportfolios relates to a first year law module in the undergraduate BCL (Law and Society) degree at Dublin City University, with approximately 90 students. This experience is the first time introducing an eportfolio based assessment to this module. This article assesses eportfolios as a mechanism for prompting student reflection and the development of critical thinking, (Farrell, 2019) with a particular reflective focus on social justice and university education as a social justice experience. (Connell, 2019). It queries the extent to which eportfolios enable students to incorporate prior learning experiences to their reflection, (Chen & Black, 2010) and for students to self-determine the parameters of their personal interaction with social justice questions raised by the experience in the module and their lived experience. (Brooman & Stirk, 2020)
The uses of eportfolios in the literature are broad and varied. Although the author’s engagement with eportfolio is as an assessment tool, an eportfolio can be a tool or technology, a practice, a pedagogical model, an assessment method and a framework for learning (Chen & Black, 2010). According to Chen and Black, eportfolios have the potential to reflect traditional academic learning and a students’ prior cumulative learning in a manner that is “digitally rich, and provides authentic meaning because it represents the education that students have not only received but also how they have interpreted it and made it relevant for themselves.” (Chen & Black, 2010) With great relevance for our current covid-19 paradigm, Farrell recently demonstrated that for online distance learners, an eportfolio could reflect a “deeply personal space where students experimented with new ideas and approaches.” (Farrell, 2019). However, despite this versatility, the literature also cautions that eportfolios should not be understood as a panacea to radically enhance education and student experience. (Bryant & Chittum, 2013; Selwyn, 2016). In reviewing eportfolio literature, Farrell notes that student experiences using eportfolios can be undermined by a lack of technological support to students and a lack of student time to commitment the development of the portfolio. (Farrell, 2019, p. 120)
This article concerns the role of eportfolios as an assessment tool. The use of eportfolios as assessment reflects a belief that the technology can evidence student learning longitudinally and contextually, and also enable students to demonstrate learning outcomes. (Eynon & Gambino, 2017). Farrell indicates that there has been widespread adoption of eportfolios at an institutional level in particular in the US, UK and New Zealand. (Farrell, 2018 p. 155) To date, however, there has been a slow adoption of eportfolios in Irish higher education (Farrell, 2018, p 156). Traditional forms of assessment still dominate in Irish higher education; and arguably especially so in legal education where the requirement for terminal exams exists to enable law degrees to be qualifying law degrees for Law Society and Bar Council qualifications as a solicitor or barrister. The author benefited from Dublin City University’s leadership and initiative in engaging with eportfolio on an institutional level. DCU introduced a campus wide learning portfolio called Loop Reflect for 16,000 students in September 2016. To date, discussions in scholarship regarding eportfolio as an assessment have focused on its value at a programme wide level for students, with an emphasis on its utility in promoting critical thinking, (Farrell, 2019), employability (Ring, Waugaman, and Brackett, 2017), and reflective practice. (Enyon, Gambino and Török, 2014). However, to the author’s knowledge, there is limited engagement with the role of eportfolios as technology in the context of social justice and higher education, especially within the context of legal education.
Reflective learning is often described as central to learning in the context of eportfolios, evidenced in empirical studies in different contexts (Eynon & Gambino, 2017; Farrell, 2019) There is some evidence that the use of eportfolios may be suitable as a mechanism for promoting student metacognition, “their awareness, tracking, and evaluation of their learning over time.” (Bosker et al. 2016, p. 33) Student reflection can concern multiple themes and topics related to their own career, positionality and identity, and learning experiences.
Interest in reflective learning is mirrored in legal education, but outside the context of an eportfolio. Emphasis on reflective learning typically concerns student professional development for the legal profession. Brooman and Stirk (2020, p.81) suggest: “The use of reflection in the context of undergraduate education is much misunderstood and underused, and this is even more pronounced in legal education.”. They conclude “development of reflective practice in legal education should take more account of the need for students to develop self-authorship and personal awareness as well as soft and hard skills for employment.” (2020, p.92)
The intention for my use of eportfolio as a form of reflective learning was to consider students’ experiences and education regarding social justice. To date, there has been limited scholarship on directing law student reflection to questions of social justice directly. There is a significant and growing literature on the role of higher education as both a site of oppression and resistance to social justice problems. (Stockdill & Yu Danico, 2012). Though academic and student social activism periodically demonstrates the potential for universities to be sparks of initiative for social justice action, (Connell, 2019), the banking concept of education offered by Paolo Freire remains relevant. For Freire, educational institutions and pedagogy often envisage students as empty, and the role of the educator is to deposit knowledge, which the students receive, file and store. (Freire 2000). On this model, course content is decided in advance and the process is essentially knowledge transfer (Connell, 2019). However, for Freire, education also has the potential to be a vehicle for individual and social freedom.
Education has significant transformative potential for individuals and society but this potential is seldom experienced as a neutral act. (Giroux, 2010). My hope in pursuing an eportfolio based assessment was to explore the potential to make this transformative potential and risk more explicit and tangible to students. This combination of transformative potential and risks in its application of social justice in the context of education leads Rowan to suggest: “Most academics have some ability to exercise some form of power as we make some decisions about teaching and learning”. (Rowan, 2018, 10)
My experience of eportfolios relates to a first year law module in the BCL (Law and Society) degree at Dublin City University, with approximately 90 students. The module was designed to capture the inter-disciplinary nature of law and legal education in DCU. The eportfolio as an innovative form of assessment was introduced to students early (week 4, semester 2) with support from the Teaching Enhancement Unit at DCU. Example E-Portfolios were provided to students from Loop Reflect (the internal name of the eportfolio platform). Finally, the marking rubric used in assessing the eportfolio was provided to students in advance. (Donaldson, “Holy Grail of Rubrics” (https://eportfolioireland.wordpress.com/resources/) The eportfolio assessment constituted 100% of the grade for this module.
My intention in designing this form of assessment was to capture students’ experience of reflective learning on social justice during the module in a novel and authentic way. This approach arose from discussions with the module’s external examiners regarding a desire to mitigate the end of semester exam as a form of assessment as a mere “knowledge dump”. It was also hoped that by enabling students to draw from content in other modules, they could see and demonstrate links between module and programme content. Finally, my desire to employ a more reflective form of assessment stemmed from a concern to encourage students to see links between course content and contemporary and unfolding issues of social justice and their own lived experience as a source of knowledge and expertise. The assignment instructions included several reflective prompts to encourage student consideration of their lived context, such as: “What did I think law, the legal system and careers was like before joining DCU? Has my thinking changed? How would I describe that change – positively, negatively, both? How did I understand my position in society before starting college? Has my first year experience in college and the content of my studies changed that?” My hope is that these and other prompts, and the capacity in eportfolio assessment to use both text and multimedia, would enable students to create a personal and reflective expression of their educational journey in law to date.
Education and law are deeply political activities. Silence in the face of social injustice is not neutral, but represents an affirmation of and contribution to harms experienced by others. Through the use of eportfolio as form of reflective assessment on social justice, I sought to encourage students to consider that they may be actors who experience both discrimination, marginalisation and privilege and opportunity both simultaneously and/or over the course of their adult lives and careers and provided them with a means to digitally and innovatively record and share these experiences.
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