Oberlin Blogs

Volunteers Wanted...to Reflect

February 14, 2011

Prof. Steve Volk

Think about your Oberlin education as a bunch of file cabinets. Got it? Good. Each one of the drawers contains some piece of your time spent between the moment you applied to Oberlin and that moment when the president welcomes you into the community of Oberlin alumni. In one drawer is the first economics course you took; in another the senior season you spent on the field hockey team. A third has your life in Tank; another houses the semester you spent in China. There are file drawers for the organizations you belong to, the summer internships in a chemistry lab, the ensembles you play in, your friendships, and all the other classes you took.

Sure, I'm describing your life at Oberlin or, better put, your life during those years that you are an Oberlin undergraduate. Put all those drawers together and they are known as a "liberal arts education." And, essentially, you are the only person who can put them together. Yes, we (your teachers, advisers, mentors) can give you a hand. We can tell you what you need in order to graduate; we help you transfer your study abroad credits into the proper departments; we talk to you about life after Oberlin. But you are the one who has to make sense of it all. And that's not easy. Because everything is in separate file drawers, and all the drawers are closed.

Now, what if you yanked them open and let the drawers talk to each other, so that what you did during a semester in Uganda can become a part of your Politics course, the teamwork you developed in field hockey is tapped to encourage greater collaboration on an art project, etc. You get the idea.

I'm talking about integrative learning. Integrative learning is more than having all the drawers talk to each other (although that's a part). It is a commitment that the task of finding meaning in a "liberal arts education" is not just yours, but that of the faculty, and of the whole institution.

And that's where I come in. I'm at the beginning of a three-year project whose goals is to better integrate liberal arts (and conservatory) learning at Oberlin. There are obviously many ways to do this, but I am particularly interested in one right now: how to use conscious, intentional, and continual reflection to help you think about your learning. The purpose of all this reflection is not just to better understand what you are learning, but to make it easier for you to apply what you learn in one area to many other (still unknown) circumstances.

One way to do this - and the way I'd like to explore with your help - is through the creation of ePortfolios. Think of them like our (by now tiresome) file cabinets, except that they are virtual. Into the economic drawer you deposit (upload) those "artifacts" (examples of your papers or projects) that you think best reflects your efforts in the class and that you have learned most from. Same for your internships, athletic activities, study away, etc. Along with the artifacts, and more important than just pressing a key to upload a psychology paper, you also write and upload your reflections on this work or activity. The reflection doesn't just have to be about what you learned (which may be about how to find equilibrium wages in a labor market), but may also be about what you discovered is the best way to read economics texts, or the best way to study for economics exams, or how to ask good questions in economics. And you also record your reflections on how what you learned in working out a dispute with your roommate actually helped you think about labor bargaining, or team work, or collaboration.

One more point: this (the ePortfolio itself) is something you take with you when you graduate; which you can show to future employers (who, by the way, love them); and which you can look back on.

So here's the deal. I'm looking for VOLUNTEERS. Students who would like to begin working on their own ePorfolios now. I provide you with access to an ePortfolio system, you use it (more instructions provided) and, every now and again, we get together to talk to other ePortfolio users about how it's going and what you're getting out of it (or not!).

Interested? Contact me (steven.volk@oberlin.edu) and I'll be in touch with further details. And thanks.

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