Luisa Canuto in Italian uses ePortfolios

ePortfolios can respond to the quest for developing different language skills, supporting learners’ thinking about their language learning and increasing motivation.

 

–Luisa Canuto, Instructor of the Italian Department


Back Story

I first introduced ePortfolios in 2017 in my Italian 301 class, an upper-intermediate language and culture course. My motivation to use ePortfolios was to encourage the students to become more independent and to explore the Italian culture on their own and according to their own interests. In other words, I looked at the ePortfolios as a tool to support the development of students’ autonomy and also to help them reflect on what they can already do and decide for themselves about what they want to achieve. I also thought that ePortfolios could be used as a communication or ‘marketing’ tool, for students to show their language competency level and therefore increase their professional skills.

Describe how you implemented ePortfolios. What was your assignment like? What did students do and how did the ePortfolio work integrate with the rest of the course?

I asked my students to use the ePortfolio as an exercise to imagine they were looking for a job in Italy. This again goes back to my motivation of wanting them to consider Italian also as a professional skill. The assignment involved writing a Curriculum Vitae (CV) and a cover letter in Italian. After looking at multiple examples of resumè in Italian, students were asked to write their own and post it on our course Canvas site. A few drafts later they were ready to post it on their ePortfolios.

The assignment included looking for a real job in Italy, which for the students meant searching different sites and then consider what else to include in their ePortfolio to increase their opportunities to be hired. Many of them decided to add their mini-bio in a narrative form or a short research paper in Italian. Others focused more on making their ePortfolios aesthetically pleasing and added videos or photos.

As part of this assignment, students were also expected to prepare for a job interview. Since I used the ePortfolio as a tool where a possible employer would look at their submissions, there was a follow up in my office. I would look at their portfolio and do a mock interview, in which I would play the role of the employer.

How did you assess the students’ portfolio work? What criteria did you use to evaluate their work and what type of feedback did they receive?

In language learning there are different skills the students need to practice on. Writing and speaking belong to the productive skills, while listening and reading are receptive skills. As writing exercises, I assessed their CV and cover letter, mini-bio and research paper, and checked their work for accuracy in the use of grammar, vocabulary and structures. I instead used the ePortfolio to assess their speaking skills when they came to introduce themselves at the job interview.

What was the result? Did you notice any changes in student learning? (e.g., increased engagement/ richer understanding of content, improved test scores/ grades)

I am not sure I can confidently say that there was a direct link between developing their ePortfolio and an increase in their ability to speak or write. However, the fact that students had to produce a world wide accessible document to showcase their Italian language level certainly increased their awareness and metacognitive skills. More than one of them told me how the ePortfolio exercise had provided an opportunity to self-assess, encourage them to take their own initiative in exploring contemporary Italy and increase their motivation to continue learning the language.

In terms of success stories, two students actually used their ePortfolios to find a job, which they did. One of my students had been working for Fashion Week in Vancouver and the person who managed the show knew my student could speak a bit of Italian. This manager invited my student to approach a couple of designers in Italy and a fashion school with the goal of becoming a kind of bridge between the show in Vancouver and the designers. Even if the ePortfolio was probably not the main reason that got her that position, my student was able to confidently use it to help her.

On another occasion, the Italian Chamber of Commerce contacted me directly because they needed someone for a position during the summer. I emailed my students who had just finished Italian 301 and this one student expressed interest. I told her to send the person a link to her ePortfolio and create a connection, which she did. Again, there was a very solid first impression. To be completely fair, I don’t want to put all the credit on the ePortfolio, but I thought it was a great accomplishment that they were able to use it as a tool to start the conversation.

I asked my students if the ePortfolio helped them to consider how to use their Italian practically in an Italian context, which was my main motivation. Some of their responses were:

[It] made me realise how I can use Italian in a more professional, realistic way. I learned how to present myself in another language which is immensely important if I ever plan to venture to the work field in Italy.

 

Having to do the ePortfolio in Italian while having to keep in mind it could be seen by potential employers gave learning the language another aspect, or purpose for me.

What were some of the challenges you faced? Is there anything you would improve or change?

I guess I was not expecting the resistance from some students, who didn’t quite see the value in doing this kind of assignment as they couldn’t completely see how they were ever going to use it. This is why this past term when I introduced the ePortfolio in my Italian 101 course I presented it with the message of:

This is yours for the rest of your academic life at UBC and more.

 

Still some students seem to resent having to do stuff online, which is something I want to respect. For example, next year, in my Italian 101 and 102 I’m going to propose an alternative to the ePortfolios. Those students who don’t want to do ePortfolios can propose and work on something else instead. I am also planning to make it a very low stakes kind of assignment or just five percent of the course grade. I lowered my expectations to the point of making it so simple they can create their ePortfolio in class.

In my Italian 301 course instead, the ePortfolio will continue to be used as a tool for cultural exploration and also for self-reflection, and possibly, for future career opportunities for my students.

What are the next steps for your use of ePortfolios? What are you planning to do in the next year?

We teach languages according to a framework. After many years of using North American textbooks which are all based on the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) Proficiency Guidelines, we are now adopting Common European framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). CEFR has always encouraged learners and teachers to implement the use of Portfolio (European Language Portfolio) as a tool to support the development of the autonomy of the learner, and cultural and self-awareness.

Since we are making this shift, I decided to start using the ePortfolio in my first-year classes as a “language biography” or as a way for students to keep track of their progress with Italian, of the learning strategies they find more effective for their language acquisition and of the other languages they speak. In recognition of their beginner level with Italian, students in Italian 101 can write their “language biography” in English. Once they progress to the next level or Italian 102, I invite them to start translating what they’ve written in English into Italian. Students in Italian 201 can continue working on their ePortfolio.

Do you have any advice for instructors hoping to implement something similar in their courses?

I would encourage them to carefully reflect on their motivation to use tools like ePortfolios and on what these tools can do for their course. Introducing something like this takes time away from other things and therefore one should consider what to say no to.

I certainly should use this piece of advice for myself (!) as I always expect my students to work on a variety of assignments. In justification of what I just said, I should add that much is happening when we are learning a language as a multitude of skills are involved, which is why my courses include a complex assessment method. Personally I also think that diverse assessment methods may increase students’ motivation to learn and more opportunities to do well in the course. ePortfolios can respond to the quest for developing different language skills and also for supporting learners’ thinking about their language learning and for increasing their motivation.