Innovative design programme is the talk of the classroom
Portfolios handed in by some pupils are often "neat nonsense", according to a design and technology education lecturer at Edinburgh University.
They frequently have little to do with the creative process and are pulled together by pupils retrospectively when the design has already been completed, argues Susan McLaren, a senior lecturer at Moray House. "They are just not authentic."
Give every pupil in the class a handheld computer, however, and you can truly capture the creative process, she is discovering.
This is what Ms McLaren has been doing at St Ninian's High and Our Lady of the Missions Primary in East Renfrewshire. S1 and P7 pupils have been using Fizzbook Spin mini-laptops, which allow them to draw straight onto the screen, take photographs, film and record sound.
"If they don't like sketching directly onto the computer, they can sketch on paper and take a photograph," she says.
Pupils can also photograph models as they take shape and record their thoughts in writing or audio about what they feel went well, what went badly and what they will do next time, at every stage in the process.
At St Ninian's High, Nick Blair's S1 design and technology class used the computers to help them create an award or trophy to celebrate an occasion or event. At the end of the task, which ran for five 50-minute sessions, he challenged them to make a short film selling their idea.
"Unlike a still image, they were able to demonstrate any moving parts or point out things about the construction," says Mr Blair, a chartered teacher.
Throughout the task, boys in particular appreciated being able to comment on their work verbally.
"Often when you ask them to evaluate their work, they can tell you its strengths and weaknesses, but they can't put it down in writing," he explains. "Pupils are able to thrive in this context, who would not have been able to before."
Ms McLaren agrees that the computers have made it easier for some pupils to express themselves. "The language of design takes time to develop," she says. "Some pupils articulate what they think far more easily by making a recording than by producing a piece of writing."
The handheld computers also make it easier for teachers to monitor pupils' progress, as their devices are synched to a master laptop, say Ms McLaren and Mr Blair. From here, the teacher can access their work, set tasks and give feedback.
Equally, the computers make it easier for pupils to access each other's work and collaborate by sending their designs electronically to one another.
"If Jimmy's drawing gets sent to Jamie, he can draw, sketch, suggest or make comments and it's then up to Jimmy whether or not he sticks to his original idea or takes all that on board," Ms McLaren explains.
It is also hoped the computers will smooth transitions by allowing teachers at St Ninian's to see the feeder primary's pupil work for themselves, as well as their teachers' comments.
The Edinburgh University project, called e-scape scotland, follows on from an e-scape project based in England (e-solutions for creative assessment in portfolio environments).
Researchers at the Goldsmiths, University of London technology education research unit found that having portfolios stored electronically, with markers able to access them via the internet, had resulted in a "very high reliability" of grading, "far higher than is normally possible with such qualitative assessment".
This year, for the first time, awarding bodies in England ran national awards using the e-scape system.
With A Curriculum for Excellence in the offing in Scotland, the focus here is on formative, not summative assessment.
"Most evidence that teachers are scooping up to talk over with their children, or looking at when they take things home, is in a jotter, is a drawing or an annotated diagram - it's flat," says Ms McLaren.
"Very rarely do teachers have the chance in a classroom to really hear children's thoughts or overhear what they are saying about their design idea.
"With this, they are getting a much more three-dimensional impression of what the child is able to do, because the information is multi-modal."
The official verdict on how successful the computers have been in aiding design will be delivered next summer, when Ms McLaren completes her research.