The crown jewel of our year-long, job-embedded professional learning journey, The Connected Learner Experience, is the action research project that each team completes and presents at our year-end culminating celebration. Action research is a process in which our educators collaboratively examine their own educational practice systematically and carefully. They work together to identify a problem within their school or community, and then collaboratively to solve it. Action research is meaningful, positive, and reflective. It is data-driven, action-based, improvement-focused, and it’s transformative.

We’ll be posting a series of featured action research projects from our 2011-12 teams as they prepare for their culminating presentations. First up is this interview with our team from Fredericksburg Academy and their electronic portfolios for students project.

Founded in 1992, Fredericksburg Academy provides a strong liberal arts education within a safe, nurturing environment, offering students a breadth of challenging academic experiences that prepare them for the country’s best colleges and universities. The Academy is celebrating its 20th school year in 2011-2012. They enroll more than 400 students in prekindergarten through grade 12 with an average class size of 12 students.

View this exciting sneak peek into their electronic portfolios project, entitled Reflections

Your action research project tackled the possibility of using electronic portfolios to measure students’ educational development over time. What made you aware of this particular challenge in your school? Why did you land on this issue as the focus of your action research project?

Students tend to judge their academic progress in terms of their grades. We want our students to be able to understand and define their own educational growth rather than relying solely on teachers assessments. We want them to be able to recognize their particular strengths and weaknesses. We want them to learn ways to compensate for their weaknesses and likewise to fully utilize their strengths. We believe the reflective aspect of the electronic portfolio will facilitate this understanding. We also want our students to actively participate in goal setting. The portfolio process will foster that as well.

We wanted a student centered project. We believed we could get the most faculty buy-in on a project that benefited students rather than just faculty. We also wanted a project that would incorporate web 2.0 tools and one that would require our students and faculty to begin integrating those tools into their repertoire.

Fredericksburg Academy PLP Team

Left to Right, Seated: Michele Redding, Abi Haymes, Standing: Darlene Kolotos, Patty Estes, Sharon O'Connell, Camille Atkins

Tell us a little bit about the process you went through during your journey through PLP’s professional development this year? How did your action research come together? Who did what and how did you identify who would be good at different aspects of the project?

As we were going through the pre-game activities, many of us were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Some of us felt overwhelmed, most of us were worried about time constraints. Then we attended the opening meeting and we were inspired. We were motivated for change. Then we attended the first webinar and once again many of us felt overwhelmed by the intensity of the webinar itself, and a little intimidated at being held to task. We knew then our feet would be held to the fire. We did our share of “storming”, mostly about time. Then we started lurking and stalking on the ning, but we didn’t all feel safe to put our voices out there. Our team leader got out on the ning very quickly, and she nudged the rest of us to get out there too. Very soon we were all in. We joined discussions, we collaborated with other teachers and we gathered information centered around our own individual interests. When we began focusing on the action research project we coalesced. We had a common interest and that led us in a common direction. We worked as a team and it gelled. When someone was good at something they just took that thing and ran with it. We were all comfortable enough to let that happen. We acknowledged our strengths and weaknesses and worked together to support each other. One member was good at note taking, one member didn’t like presenting, we took those preferences into account. The mundane work we just divvied up. We met face to face at least once a week and we left each meeting with a task. We sought each other out between meetings for advice, direction and to celebrate successes.

What was your biggest revelation or aha moment during this year’s action research?


Reflections: electronic portfolios for students

Our biggest “aha” moment was at the opening meeting when Will told us that we either need to embrace technology in the classroom or get out of the classroom. We don’t know if those were his exact words, but that is the message we all heard. That had a profound effect on all of us and we have reflected on it many times over the past seven months.

How did the concepts and strategies you learned during your PLP journey help you along the way?

Overall, the idea of networked learning and connectivism helped us the most. The process of developing connections with people and information and then communicating in order to support each other’s learning was powerful. Our collaboration within the school community, the collaboration we experienced in the ning, and our research on the web were empowering. The PLP strategy of having a community leader and connected coach support us as we grew was very helpful. We are planning to utilize that model as we move forward with our faculty.

What was a major challenge or roadblock you encountered during your project? How did you mitigate this difficulty?

Obviously the first challenge we faced was finding time. We committed to each other to spend a small amount of time each week on the ning. We found that once we got involved it was rewarding and self perpetuating. Additionally we established a schedule of weekly meetings. Sometimes we just sat in the same room while each of us was on the ning; sometimes we shared things we had discovered on the ning. We encouraged each other to make the time, and relied on each other to push past excuses.

We all had personal issues to deal with. At one time or another someone in our group had to deal with a death, a wedding, illness, a second job, and teenage drama. During these crises we pitched in for each other.

Google Sites

The team settled on Google Sites for their students' electronic portfolios.

Another challenge we encountered was choosing what platform to use for our student portfolios. We explored blogs extensively since we were familiar and comfortable with them. We were just about to begin developing a template when one of our connected coaches suggested we investigate google sites. Within a day of that recommendation we had all played around with a sample site and really liked the potential. We concurred almost immediately to shift our focus. We settled on google sites as our platform and started developing a template that week.

What was the most positive or transformative thing to happen as a result of your project?

We will now have digital student portfolios at the academy and our students will benefit by it because of our work with the PLP. We are fortunate that our Head of School supported our efforts from the beginning. She is willing to stand behind our vision and make it a reality. That kind of respect from above is rewarding. It gives value to the work.

Relationship building has also been transformative for many of us. We have developed significant relationships among our team members. We have also developed more meaningful relationships with other (pre-existing) PLPeeps here at our school and with our head of school. We’ve extended our network of colleagues on the ning and have begun developing relationships there.

Do you think this project will have implications into the future? Is it ongoing?

Oh yes. We think this project will have long lasting implications for every member of our school, students, faculty, administration and parents. We have already discovered a new avenue to explore to utilize the digital portfolios in student-led parent conferences. Our action research project has been embraced by our head of school, faculty, and parents.

It is also ongoing because it utilizes technology which is in constant shift. The tools we use today in the portfolios will certainly be different from the tools teachers are using for the portfolios in five years. We will have to be in a constant state of training. Our team will continue to work to support the faculty in their technology proficiencies. Our immediate focus will be google for education and web 2.0 tools for the portfolio, also we will encourage transparent integration of technology into the classroom.

How has being a part of PLP changed you as a teacher or leader?

We are all more confident with our students and colleagues. We are more willing to express thoughts and ideas and we are using technology more. Our work, our lives even, have become more collaborative. We’ve learned new venues for collecting information and sharing information with others. We are confident and connected.

Join us for a year of action research and learning

Check out the complete details on this team’s ePortfolio project here. Like the idea of using action research to solve problems in your school? We have built an entire year of job-embedded learning around action research and social media tools called The Connected Learner Experience. Teams are forming now. Check it out here and join us for 2012-13.

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Sheryl is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice. She works with schools and districts from around the world helping them to infuse technology into their curriculums and by leading other digital conversion efforts. Sheryl also consults with governments, educational organizations and non-profits in development of their various professional learning initiatives. Sheryl is a sought-after presenter at national and international events, speaking on topics related to digital and online learning, teacher and educational leadership, online community building, and other educational issues impacting children of poverty. Sheryl served on the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Board of Directors for six years. She co-authored The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age with Lani Ritter Hall. Sheryl has four children and four grandsons, Luke, Logan, Levi and Tanner and a trio of dachshunds. You can find out more on her blog and on Twitter @snbeach.

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