Acquiring the Skills

Is this the only program that really focuses on the way your students will acquire the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century?

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Steve Zimmerman of OSePA simple and elegant tool that teachers can use to create and maintain digital portfolios for all their students, Open School ePortfolio was created by a team of educators in New York (affiliated with the Open School Project) and a brilliant design team in Mexico with whom they’ve collaborated for many years, since the time they did editorial development work for U.S. educational publishers, according to Steve Zimmerman, founder of the OpenSchool ePortfolio. The creators of OpenSchool ePortfolio (OSeP) saw a need to provide a tool for a more holistic assessment of student growth and achievement, says Steve, who goes in-depth here on just what it is, does and will do for the future of students, teachers and schools.

Victor: What does the name mean?

OpenSchool ePortfolioSteve: The name comes from The Open School Project, a small nonprofit that a group of like-minded educators started a few years ago in NYC. We consult with independent charter schools on leadership search, governance and school culture issues. We have a strong belief in things like collaborative leadership, progressive education and, above all, that if we truly uphold the idea that democracy complements education (thank you, John Dewey), then our schools must be models of that democracy. We created a manifesto of sorts—the OPEN model—as a guide for creating “community-based, democratically-operated” schools, which we believe helps incubate innovation. That model is free and on the website: www.open-schools.org

Victor: What can an educator do with it?

OSeP 3Steve: First of all, it allows teachers to create digital portfolios for their students—eportfolios, which can stay with the student year after year as a record of growth and learning. And it does this in a matter of minutes—the entire program has been developed under the credo of “minimal teacher transaction time.” Then, it has an absolutely marvelous “project module” which lets teachers create “portfolio projects” which can be as simple or complex as the teacher wants and also lets the teacher create a multi dimensional rubric that can cover everything from common core standards to NETS technical standards, artistic growth, etc. Once a teacher posts a project, students are notified that a project is waiting for them and they login, ideally on a iPad or other tablet, read about the assignment—or see a teacher-made video about it (if the teacher wants to do that)—and then do the project. Students can upload text, audio, pictures or video of their projects and publish to their eportfolios. Afterwards, the teacher can assess the projects with the built-in tools. Teachers can set preferences for projects and allow students to view and comment on each other’s projects if she wants. Parents are sent invites, too, so they can see the projects. And, again, the teacher decides just what to share with parents.

The benefits are enormous. As projects are coded by subject areas and tags, students, parents and teachers can look at any sequence and see growth over time. There is a personal, self-directed side of the eportfolio as well, which is meant to act as an incentive to help students transition from the world of teacher-directed instruction to the world of self-directed lifelong learning and reflection.

Victor: How is it unique? Any competitors?

Steve: There are a number of other products that can be used to create digital portfolios but OpenSchool ePortfolio is unique in a number of key pedagogical and developmental areas such as the “project creation” module and rubric-maker I’ve described. It’s integrated with an iPad app that lets students easily record and upload pictures, video, audio evidence of their work. Another unique feature is the “personal” side of the student eportfolio, which is shared with classmates.

A number of companies, such as Digication and Three Ring are presently in the eportfolio market with good products. Others, such as Evernote and Google-sites are Web 2.0 tools that can be used to create lovely eportfolios. For that matter, however, high school students can construct their own eportfolios as websites and use Adobe tools to make it pop. But none of these platforms has the back and forth interplay between student and teacher that is the heart of OpenSchool ePortfolio.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

OSeP 1Steve: We are about two years into the development of OSeP. We started out with the idea of creating a School Information System that had an eportfolio feature for assessment but decided that there were already a lot of SIS’s on the market and the idea of creating yet another way to track attendance and lunch money just wasn’t that compelling. So, we decided to focus on the piece that was closest to our heart—the eportfolio. We are still in relatively early stages of development. We have a ways to go to implement all the things we want to do with this.

Victor: Where did it originate and where can you get it now?

Steve: Anyone can sign up for the free beta version at: www.openschooleportfolio.com Once you have an account you can also download the iPad version from the App Store. The product originated through the relationship we have with a few independent, progressive charter schools in Queens.

Victor: How much does it cost and what are some of the options?

Steve: Right now it is only available as a free beta version for teachers and our plan is to keep it free for individual teachers. This single-user version has all the features of the ePorfolio project and assessment module but has certain limits to its functionality. For instance only one teacher can be associated with one student. We are developing school and district versions, which will be sold as a subscription and have more functionality in terms of how teachers are associated with students. School and district versions will also have more robust data dashboards and will have the option of running right on top of a SIS.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for and who is it not for?

Steve: The program can be used for any grade/any subject from Kindergarten through high school. It is especially beneficial for students who have special learning challenges or have been identified as ELL or SPeD and for their teachers. These are kids who, more often than not, are underperforming on standardized tests and therefore getting a lot of negative reinforcement about their skills and self-worth. Eportfolios allows these students to show what they CAN do, not what they can’t do. It’s a real motivator. It is NOT for schools that lack robust Internet service. Without a strong wi-fi network the iPads can’t be used to best advantage.

Victor: Your thoughts on education these days?

OSeP 2Steve: Although there are bright spots in many independent and public schools, we seem to be mired in a very sterile period of education in which our ability to quantify everything has fractured educational life. We talk about educational innovation, but our national obsession with “bottom-line” academic achievement (as measured by standardized tests) cannot possibly make us more innovative. Companies that obsess about their bottom line will not produce great products; schools that obsess about their bottom line will not turn out great students.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating OpenSchool ePortfolio?

Steve: When I was a young man back in the 70’s I taught Kindergarten on the West Side of Chicago. I was full of ideas about things to try in my class. The principal stopped by my class and said, “looks like you’re all having a great time here,” and left me alone. And gave me support. And that gave me the freedom to take risks, to innovate and excite the kids about learning. That freedom, for the most part, has been lost by teachers in public schools—a lot of it in the name of “accountability.” One of the things that we’re trying to do with OSeP is create a space and a tool that encourages teachers to be innovative in the way they construct their lessons, that helps them turn simple lessons into projects so that kids are motivated to show their stuff.

Victor: How does OpenSchool ePortfolio address some of your concerns about education?

OSeP quoteSteve: OpenSchool ePortfolio is our way of trying to change a backward dynamic. We feel strongly that a kid’s social-emotional, artistic, and technical growth is being overlooked in assessment. OSeP makes it easy for teachers to reference these areas with every project a teacher does. We do not feel that knowledge is power. Power comes from our ability to synthesize and create. OSeP encourages this kind of creativity and synthesis.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Steve: One of the problems with education right now is that we’re spending a lot of time and creating a lot of hot air arguing about the “means” of education—and there’s just not a lot of thought regarding its goals. If the goal of education is to create the greatest generation of test-takers the world has ever seen, then our love affair with testing (means) is serving us well and we might as well evaluate teachers (means again) solely on the basis of how well their students do on standardized tests. But if our goal is to cultivate a generation that will be able to deal with the terribly vexing problems of this century and carry the torch of innovation—well, we’re not headed in the right direction. We need to change the discussion. We should all take a long hiatus from arguing about teacher evaluations, or charter schools vs. regular public schools, or more homework vs. less homework until we have a discussion about our goals. It’s the 21st century. What are we supposed to be teaching? If we can have that talk, then maybe we can figure out the best way to get there.

Victor: Got a quirky or funny anecdote?

Steve: I love this line from Walden: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” I wonder what Thoreau would have said about Facebook and Twitter. Has all this connectivity made us any better informed?

Victor: Great quote, and excellent question, Steve! Anything else you’d like to tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of OpenSchool ePortfolio?

Steve: The true measure of a tool is seen in how it is used and what can be built with it. We have tried, earnestly, to make OpenSchool ePortfolio a tool with which teachers can more easily perform the great work they are entrusted with and with which students can more thoroughly show their capabilities.

Victor: Thank you, Steve!

Steve: Thanks, Victor!

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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4 Responses to Acquiring the Skills

  1. Mr. Beckman,
    You seem to nursing wounds from obscure skirmishes about purity while ignoringing the points made about teacher/student interactivity and need for better goals. The way out of our quagmire is not going to be a restored techie-Summerhill ‘what do you want to learn today, kids?’ Check out the actual product – maybe it could be useful for your kids.
    Dr. Richard Welles

    • joebeckmann says:

      I did look at it – twice. And it’s a didact’s alternative to the open source option that offers more choice with much lower costs. While it’s true that many teachers are wedded to disciplines of postsecondary definitions for k-8 instruction, it’s hard to prove their “relevance” to student-centered instruction and their utility in deriving feedback and assessments in forms that scaffold individual patterns of development and in terms describing skills critical to long range self-assessment. It’s not a matter of Summerhill, nor, for that matter, Montessori or Piaget to offer feedback in terms useful to developing skills defined by such groups as the Worforce Strategies Institute or the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, both of which have been used by portfolio builders in other settings. It’s not a matter of “what do you want to learn today” as much as it is who do you want to be in the future.

  2. Pingback: Free E-portfolio | Learning Curve

  3. joebeckmann says:

    It’s not the only software – between google, wiki, WordPress, Medium, Svbtle, Tumblr and others there are plenty of open source models. And there are also plenty of models of rubrics, categories, priorities, and frameworks for students to develop their own portfolios, as early as second or third grade if they and their teachers, parents, schools, and others allow it. The “Open School Project” is a proprietary site, with proprietary software (and Apple centered, at that).

    Finally, portfolios and ePortfolios have been around since before the days of windows. In Massachusetts, for example, they were mandated in 1993′s Education Reform (http://www.doe.mass.edu/edreform/), and several schools have updated those to software-based solutions (eg., https://sites.google.com/site/shseportfolio/documents/verified-resume). What’s critical to the long term viability of such portfolios, in spite of the international association that sponsors their college-level applications (http://www.aaeebl.org/), is how schools structure the assessments students do themselves. When, as Zimmerman suggests, teachers do it for them, the whole point of the process is obscured in a language of evaluation.

    And the last thing a portfolio ought to do is confuse assessment with evaluation. Which seems, pretty much, where Zimmerman’s model begins.

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