Using technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 3 – managing student portfolios 1

In a previous post I gave an overview of the various options available for creating portfolios for EAP students. I concluded that while there are many tools out there that allowed for summative assessment of students’ work – basically collecting everything into one place at the end of the course – it was a lot trickier to find tools that would allow ongoing, formative feedback on students’ work.

We were faced with this challenge again this summer. Our pre-sessional course requires an ongoing assessment of various tasks (extended writing, literature review, diagnostic essay) and a place where they would be easily accessible for both teachers and students.

Last year we used the assignment feature within our VLE, Google Classroom, where work was put onto Google Documents. However, this was a workaround at best for us, it meant lots of additional work in the background moving documents around into various folders to make sure that both teachers and students could see them.  And there were additional issues with the students being able to see the teacher’s feedback as soon as they had written it and the possibility that students could delete their work or even edit their teacher’s marks/comments after they were received. It was not ideal but served its purpose as it was something we had to put together quite quickly.

This year we had a bit more time to think about it and my colleague, Nick Murgatroyd, looked carefully into what options we had available to us. We wanted to stick with Google Docs simply because our students all get Google accounts when they join the university and it makes it so much easier in terms of sharing. Google Docs also lend themselves very well to ongoing, formative and dialogic feedback as teachers and students can conduct comment conversations down the side of their written work.

However, we realised that the system we used last year was too unwieldy, prone to abuse and required too much work on the backend. So, Nick came up with the idea of using a Google Drive add-on called Doctopus.

Without going too much into the technical side of things, Doctopus is a tool that allows you to automatically generate documents for groups of students through a reasonably simple interface. Basically, you put a group’s details (name, email addresses) into a Google spreadsheet and then Doctopus takes you through a step by step process for generating folders for students to keep their work in, creating documents with the same naming format (e.g. Student name, group, assignment name), adding teachers as well as adding dates for when the assignment with be made unavailable so that teachers can mark it.  Once all this is set up, at the press of a button everything is generated and shared with students into their Google Drive.

the Doctopus interface opens up next to the spreadsheet where you create your class list

the Doctopus interface opens up next to the spreadsheet where you create your class list

What’s really useful for the teachers is that they get access to two folders that allow them to view students’ work in different ways. One folder lets them view by student name, so if they need to mark multiple pieces of work by one student or to look through a student’s work so they can write a report or conduct a tutorial they can. The other folder let’s them view students’ work at the assignment level. So, there is a folder for each assignment students do and inside it is the work of each individual student in the class. Obviously this is more useful when they are marking a specific assignment.

here are the two views the teacher has to access student assignments

here are the two views the teacher has to access student assignments

For us, the other useful thing is that the documents are owned by us (in Google Drive terms at least!) so students can’t delete or move them from the folder.

So, how has it gone so far…..?

It’s certainly much better than the system we had last year, it’s clearer for both the students and the teachers and we have more fine-grained control from the backend over when and how the documents are viewed by the student.

However, we have pushed the limits of what Doctopus is capable of doing. I don’t think it was ever meant to be used for large scale deployment of documents to students so the idea of pushing out hundreds of documents at the same time or embargoing the same number is clearly something it struggles with at times. Often when we are trying to embargo multiple groups at the same time, it hangs frequently or only does half the class. We then have to go in and do it manually to make sure it’s done for the whole group. It’s not a huge issue but obviously it is a little time-consuming for our tech team.

Because everything is on Google Docs and these are already shared with the teachers, it makes it very easy for them to go in and comment and mark when they need to. Students don’t actually have to write their assignments on the Docs themselves – if they wish they can use Microsoft Word,  Apple Pages or any other word processor/text editor they like – but they need to make sure that the text has been copied and pasted onto the Google Doc when it comes time for the teachers to mark it. This flexibility can be helpful for students as some of them like to use reference managers such as Mendeley that only work with Word.

In terms of how teachers are finding the system, the first week or so was somewhat chaotic as everyone tried to get to grips with the system. We have a lot of new teachers during the summer and many of them are unfamiliar with how Google Docs work and while we do some training during induction, inevitably it takes a little while to find their way around.

But since the first week, things have settled down and teachers seem comfortable with the process of commenting using Google Docs, and some have even praised the system.  It’s inevitable that some would prefer to mark on paper or in some other programme but the demands of the course and the departments require that we have a record of student work from the summer and this is really the best way to achieve it.  At least it takes the responsibility for saving the documents out of the hands of the teachers and the students and they can just focus on the process itself.

Will we continue to use this system in the future? Yes, definitely. We’ll continue to refine it and find ways to make it work quicker and better for everyone involved, but it’s currently the only way we’ve found to have a workable formative portfolio. We are looking into alternatives, our university has a license for a portfolio tool called Pebble Pad but we looked at the most recent update of that a few weeks ago and it still seems very limited in what it can do.  Again, it seems more directed towards creating a showcase of the work you’ve done rather than an ongoing process.

How do you manage students’ work during the summer school? Do they have to submit a portfolio of work of some kind; if so, what system do you use?

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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One thought on “Using technology to manage a pre-sessional: part 3 – managing student portfolios

  • Tyson Seburn

    Interesting Add-on, David. We have manually created individual shared folders for each of our students in the past i.e. sometimes up to 35 folders for one teacher to create and individually share with each student. I’m going to look into this and see through experience how it works. Thanks for the suggestion.