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PebblePad Conference

June 11, 2010

The last 2 days, along with a couple of TVU colleagues, I have been at the 1st PebblePad Conference held at Shifnal in Shropshire.

PebblePad is primarily an e-Portfolio tool (although the firm’s strapline is, justifiably, “not just an e-portfolio” as the product in fact offers many other possibilities to learners and teachers). TVU has recently purchased an institutional licence for PebblePad, and we will be receiving our first “train-the-trainers” instruction next week. In some ways, attending the conference without having a proper working knowledge of the software might seem rather odd, but it did mean that I could concentrate on what the technology offered, and what other institutions were using it for, without getting hung up on “how do they do that?”.

I’m putting up some initial thoughts here, while they’re fresh in my mind. Ideally I will revisit this – maybe using PebblePad itself – when I’ve had time to reflect on what I heard at the Conference. The speakers’ presentations should be available on the Conference website in due course.

The first keynote was from Geoff Rebbeck, of Thanet College Making waves: casting a pebble in the learning pond


I had previously heard Geoff talk about the use of Portfolio tools at the JISC event How can e-Portfolios support 21st century learning? He is clearly very passionate about the use of technology as a transformative tool, in particular as a way of personalising learning, and his presentation at this conference was inspiring. One key point which he came back to more than once was: you can’t standardise a Personal Learning Space: “personal” and “standardised” shouldn’t appear in the same sentence. This loss of central control can be difficult for the institution to get used to.  Geoff likened an e-Portfolio to an empty room – the user fills it up with what’s of worth to them.

Because the e-Portfolio is personal and private, you can be self-critical. But you can then share your thoughts with trusted colleagues and individuals. This helps to build supportive relationships and communities (both staff and students).

At Thanet (FE) College, all  students and staff have an e-Portfolio – from the Principal to the cleaner. However many lecturers (let alone learners) are not good at reflecting. So Thanet have set up a “How to reflect” course on their VLE, and enrolled all staff! The College has also integrated PebblePad into the Staff Development process: for example, the staff development evaluation form is in PebblePad– encouraging staff to reflect on what they learned at an event, not just to tick boxes rating the venue and presenter.

For students, key advantages of PebblePad are that it

  • allows the learner to plan and manage their own learning
  • allows the learner to judge themselves (rather than only relying on institutional / external validation or certification)
  • is personal – a way of presenting the whole person, “the real me” (including interests from any part of their life, not just College and work)
  • allows the learner to focus on what learning means for them

Geoff also had some nice one-liners which challenge the way in which FE is often managed and inspected. Here’s a couple of his asides which I thought worth noting:

  • instead of banning YouTube in Colleges, teach learners how to be safe online
  • “our job is to produce great learners not great stats”

The other keynotes also treated PebblePad, and e-Portfolios generally, as a potentially transformative – or even disruptive – technology.

Darren Cambridge, George Mason University, USA – Deliberative Assessment for Integrative, Reflective, and Lifewide Learning


Actually Darren made the point right at the start of his presentation that “E-Portfolio is a genre [of communication] not a technology”. His was a largely theoretical presentation on how the increased use of e-Portfolios demands changes in assessment. Given that I’m not directly involved in curriculum or assessment design, this was not directly relevant to my work, but I was interested to see reference being made to qualities being promoted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ LEAP programme – “Liberal Education for America’s Promise” – see
These tie in with a draft list of TVU Graduate Attributes which I’d seen earlier in the week, and which it was suggested should be integrated with PebblePad (in fact I’ve just noticed that the second day of our forthcoming PebblePAd training includes “Hands on activities building learning profiles such as graduate attributes, subject specific competencies or professional standards”).
Julie Hughes, Wolverhampton University Roots, (para)chutes and ladders: on growing and nurturing e-portfolio teachers and learners

Good though the keynotes were, some of the most useful sessions were the break-out sessions where practitioners presented brief case studies of PebblePad use in their institutions. Of particular relevance to TVU were case studies from Bradford and Wolverhampton Universities where PebblePad has been used in Midwifery courses, particularly as a way of enhancing students’ experience of their placement – and as an effective way of lecturers being able to keep in touch and monitor progress while students are on placement. At Wolverhampton, Midwifery lecturers had used PebblePad as a tool in developing a new curriculum, which meant that the team got to know the software before introducing it to their students. They also made use of former students to show the new cohort how to use PebblePad, and this apparently works well.

Other case study presentations included:

  • Phil Gravestock & Martin Jenkins, from the University of  Gloucestershire, presented on the progress so far of the JISC-funded Co-genT project, which is mapping employer / workplace learning outcomes (at Programme, Module, Unit, Task level) against established academic standards – so for example the project was mapping skills and competences required by Cathedral stonemasons in order to draw up and have validated an appropriate curriculum. As part of this, a glossary is being built up – see for work in progress – and it will then be possible to import terms into PebblePad so that learners can map their assets to specific outcomes. The idea is that this  approach can be adopted by other institutions wishing to draw up programmes for other professional and occupational areas.
  • Ian Clark, University of  South Australia, talked about the challenges of rolling out PebblePad among academics. He summarised the essential requirements as
    • convince staff of the value of reflective practice
    • give staff confidence to use it
    • develop appropriate pedagogy
    • use it across an entire Programme (not in isolated pockets)Academic staff are resistant to anything forced on them.  To get staff and student take-up any initiative should
    • save time
    • bring clear benefits
  • Robert Chmielewski, University of Edinburgh reported that PebblePad is used by students for creating digital essays

Throughout the conference there were presentations from students, and these provided a valuable perspective. At a plenary session on the second day, the students were asked for advice on how institutions should sell PebblePad to new students. Answers included

  • emphasise “What’s In It For Me?”
  • don’t tell students “it’s really easy” – the software might be easy, but it takes work to get good at building up a portfolio
  • very important for lecturers to know how to use – and to actually use – PebblePad if they’re going to expect students to make use of it
  • staff need to know why they want students to use PebblePad

Edit 14/06/10

All the case studies from the conference are available as PDFs at

Edit 18/06/10

Conference presentations also now available from

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