Plans and e-plans: integrating personal development planning into the languages curriculum

Author: Marina Orsini-Jones


This paper will illustrate how the integration of voice tools and subtitling software in conjunction with the use of a virtual learning environment (VLE) into the teaching and learning of Italian have enabled staff at Coventry University to explore innovative ways of delivering the syllabus and created more opportunities for students to engage with work-related activities and simulations in line with the government's drive towards an employability agenda for HE. The presentation will also show how the new tools have boosted students engagement and motivation. The major features of the voice tools and subtitling software will be demonstrated and examples will be given of activities carried out with learners of Italian from absolute beginner to advanced level. Examples will also be given on how the voice tools could be used to create spoken entries for an e-portfolio.

This article was added to our website on 18/01/07 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents

Conference 2006

This paper was originally presented at our conference: Crossing frontiers: languages and the international dimension, 6-7 July 2006. Download print version: this paper is also available as a pdf (85Kb)

1. Personal Development Planning (PDP): background and context

According to both the Dearing report (1997) and the QAA (Quality Assurance Agency) Guidelines for the Higher Education Progress Files (QAA 2001) - all students in HE should be offered the opportunity to engage in PDP (Personal Development Planning) from academic year 2005-6, where by 'PDP' is meant:

A structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development (QAA 2001).

The three main elements of PDP are reflection, recording and planning. The QAA document also specifies (2001: para 40) that as a minimum requirement students in HE should have:

  1. Participated in PDP in a range of learning contexts at each stage or level of their programme;
  2. Demonstrated that they can access and use the aids and tools provided by the institution to help them reflect upon their own learning and achievements and to plan for their own personal, educational and career development;
  3. With support, created their own learning records containing information on the qualities and skills they can evidence which can be drawn upon when applying for a job or further study.

According to the QAA document, good PDP should be a mainstream academic activity; linked to the learning outcomes of the programme of study; undertaken regularly and supported and valued by staff and supported by an institutional robust infrastructure; owned by the learner and, crucially, seen to be valued by society (employers and professional bodies). There is one problematic issue relating to the last part of the last sentence as most employers put the strongest emphasis on the process of PDP rather than its documented outcomes and do not welcome the prospect of having voluminous PDP records tabled or presented as part of recruitment activities (Edwards 2005). This should be made clear to students from the beginning, but might be problematic, as they might feel that there is no incentive for them in documenting achievement if it cannot be shown to future employers (and this repeats their frustrating experience of keeping a Record of Achievement - ROA - folder during their school years).

There are close links between the QAA directives on PDP and the government e-learning strategy in so far as the use of an 'e-portfolio' is advocated in the latter for PDP purposes (DfES 2003, in Beetham 2005:3). Beetham defines an e-portfolio as a collection of digital resources:

  1. That provide evidence of an individual's progress and achievements;
  2. Drawn from both formal and informal learning activities;
  3. That are personally managed and owned by the learner;
  4. That can be used for review, reflection and personal development planning;
  5. That can be selectively accessed by other interested parties e.g. teachers, peers, assessors, awarding bodies, prospective employers.

2. The European Language Portfolio and PDP for languages

Many UK HE languages departments have encouraged students to engage in PDP (please refer to the various PDP links on the LLAS website on this point), mainly via the use of the European Language Portfolio (Little 2002) and/or of a Virtual Learning Environment (e.g. Orsini-Jones 2004). In the UK HE sector, the ELP has mainly been used:

  1. as a tool for the partial or total assessment of languages skills via a collection of tasks/portfolio of evidence mapped against the levels of language competence within the Common European Framework in credited and not-credited languages modules in Languages Centres;
  2. as a reflective tool to encourage students to 'learn how to learn' within languages degree courses, mainly at level 1 of the undergraduate provision. The assessment of the ELP as reflective portfolio varies from institution to institution: e.g. pass/fail; percentage mark; formative, not summative; pre-requisite for progression, to quote just a few examples mentioned by the participants of the two 'Workshops to go' on PDP that took place in May and June 2006 - at the University of Manchester and at Coventry University respectively.

Although not an e-portfolio, the ELP does present some features in common with one. Students can type in sections of the dossier and self-evaluate their language skills against the Common European Framework in electronic format. The document is not however designed to be 'shareware' in the same way an e-portfolio is. It does not interact with the world-wide-web and can therefore be in electronic format (Word), but in a kind of linear and static form. Other weaknesses of the ELP highlighted at the above-mentioned 'Workshops to go' on PDP were the following, the ELP:

  1. Does not make any reference to the employability competencies required by employers these days;
  2. It is 'Common European Framework-centred' (bureaucratic), not 'learner-centric';
  3. It is cumbersome, repetitive, not DDAIV (1995) compliant (too many tables), obviously originally designed as a paper-based tool.

Despite its weaknesses, the ELP has language specific features that could become 'assets' (or entries) within the bigger framework of an interactive e-portfolio. However paper-based portfolios, or portfolios that, like the ELP, originated as a paper-based tool, do not accommodate the range and variety of assessments that are now available at Higher Education level. Also, students' habits are changing and there is an increase in the e-submission of assessed work. Most UK Higher Education institutions offer 'blended learning' delivery of their courses (a mix of face-to-face and online learning experience, e.g. Orsini-Jones 2004). There are also examples of in-house produced e-portfolios, such as the one used at the University of Chester (Beigel 2005, details at 'Workshops to go' on the LLAS website) that are integral part of the first year assessment. Portfolios and E-portfolios are furthermore used as reflective journals for the year abroad experience (e.g. Donald 2004).

Now that languages have been listed as one of the 39 key aspects of employability listed in a survey of employer's needs in terms of desirable qualities in HE graduates (Yorke and Knight 2004), all students taking a language, either as a major or minor component of their degree course, should evidence their linguistic 'journey' via PDP. As for languages-specific degree courses, encouraging students to reflect upon the language learning process might enhance their employability prospects, particularly in terms of their 'unique selling point' due to the shortage of accomplished linguists in the world of work in the UK (Hagen 2004). There are examples of successful use of the ELP to teach both generic and language specific skills to first year undergraduates (e.g.: Davies and Jones 2001; Little 2002; Orsini-Jones 2004; Söntengs and Laxton 2006).

3. Case study: piloting an e-portfolio - PebblePAD - in module 'Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning' at Coventry University

An example of an e-portfolio is PebblePAD, developed at the University of Wolverhampton (see Sumner 2006 for a thorough review of the tool). Its creators claim that the tool has been designed to encourage students to take control of their metacognitive (learning to learn) process. The software is structured so that students cannot just add a portfolio entry (which is called an 'asset'), they must explain why they are attaching it, what type of entry it is, if it related to their educational/vocational/other experience. This makes the reflective process more 'visible' to students. PebblePAD also offers a pleasant interface (see Figures 1 and 2) and, although not very intuitive in terms of navigation, enables students to produce reflective entries of a very high quality (such as automatically produced templates for web pages, called 'WebFolios' or 'Web Blogs'). Another interesting feature of the tool is that languages students can use it to record their achievement in terms of speaking competence, as audio files can become an integral part of their e-portfolio.

A previous study (Orsini-Jones and Kohler-Ridley 2005) reported on the integration of metareflection via action learning and action research into a first year undergraduate module at Coventry University, Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning. The way the module was conceived, delivered and assessed was designed to foster independent learning and to make students assume responsibility for their learning (Orsini-Jones 2004). An adapted version of the ELP was used by students to record their progress and achievement between 2002-2005. In 2005-2006 they were offered to pilot the e-portfolio PebblePAD. The four most positive aspects found when comparing the use of the Word version of the ELP with the use of PebblePAD to record achievement - which confirm what is stated in existing literature on e-portfolios - were:

  1. Pride in the work produced: 'Exhibiting their work in an online portfolio appears to give students a sense of audience, lifts their expectations and boosts their confidence' (Beetham:8, see Figure 3 for a sample Webfolio)
  2. Ownership: It is empowering for learners to have the capacity to select their own evidence and to present it in their own style. The learners can give passwords to employers/teachers to share 'assets'. The student has ownership on whom to grant access to (unlike in a VLE - Virtual Learning Environment). But the teacher can choose to set up assessment 'gateways' if needed;
  3. Easy integration of audio-files: language learners can integrate spoken entries to an e-portfolio as 'wav' files to document their level of fluency in the language(s) studied.
  4. Durability: an e-portfolio will make recording achievement more viable on a long-term basis and could also be used after graduation, possibly charging a subscription to alumni.
Figure 1: PebblePAD interface

Figure 1: PebblePAD interface

Figure 2: Opening 'assets'/'viewing' assets

Figure 2: Opening 'assets'/'viewing' assets

Figure 3: A PebblePAD Webfolio with reflective notes - pop-up - on one of the entries

Figure 3: A PebblePAD Webfolio with reflective notes - pop-up - on one of the entries

The main drawback of using an e-portfolio which emerged from the feedback received in the pilot is the time required to train staff and students in the use of the software. Despite the fact that most students are ICT-literate these days, because of its many layers and its - at times - puzzling navigational features, reflection on PebblePAD proved to be more irksome to handle than reflection via a VLE (WebCT Campus was used at the time of the pilot at Coventry University) or the ELP template, for both staff and students. However, those staff (and students) that persisted with the e-portfolio - and did not revert to the Word version of the ELP - reported higher 'PDP satisfaction' levels.

The main issue with integrating PDP into the languages curriculum, which has emerged from qualitative and quantitative data collected at Coventry University over the last six years, is nevertheless not linked to ICT problems encountered, but rather to a certain resistance to engage in metareflection amongst first year students. All students see the portfolio as a challenging task and many fail to appreciate the links of reflective practice to the world of work, even if this is highlighted with examples from real settings and practised with problem-based learning. This ties in with the existing literature on independent learning. Allen (2002) reports that little is known about students' attitudes or ability to conduct self-directed learning. Kreber (1998, quoted in Allen 2002) contends that "less willing students are 'initially uncomfortable with the unwanted freedom, flexibility and responsibility' that a self-directed approach to learning implies (Kreber, 1998, p. 84, in Allen 2002)". The two quotes below, from students taking module Academic and Professional Skills for Language Learning, exemplify some of the problems encountered:

I really haven't got a clue on what I am supposed to be doing concerning the portfolio. Could you please clarify me with this?

[Message posted in the portfolio help forum in WebCT by a student who attended regularly in 2005-2006]

The most challenging task was probably the portfolio as I was unsure of exactly what needed to be included. It is difficult because it is supposed to be made up of anything we find relevant but it took a while to realise exactly what types of things needed to be included. [Interviews 2004-2005]

Allen, yet again, provides an insight on one of the possible sources of the above problem in his 'PDP top tips' (2002:21):

Despite the various benefits to students, because PDP places additional demands on them, it should come as no surprise if student conservatism is one of the principal sources of resistance to the development of PDP.


Whether plans or e-plans are used, an integrated and highly structured approach to the integration of PDP into the languages curriculum is recommended in the first year of undergraduate studies.
For students to take PDP seriously all or part of it should be linked to the assessment requirements for the course. An appreciation of metareflection can be developed via targeted language-specific tasks that also integrate the development of generic employability competencies. At the PDP workshops that took place in 2006 the following recommendations were made by participants:

  1. Leave some choice to students on the assets/entries chosen for the assessment.
  2. Offer students the opportunity to do an (assessed?) oral presentation on their portfolio/e-portfolio (suggestion by Ali Dickens, LLAS) en lieu of checking their written portfolio entries, to see if the can 'sell' the PDP process as required by employers.
  3. Liaise with employers and schools/colleges to make portfolios/e-portfolios meaningful and interoperable (not a waste of time like the ROAs).


Allen, D. The PDP Handbook (2002).
available at

Beetham, H. (2005) 'JISC report on e-portfolios in post-16 learning in the UK: Developments, issues and opportunities'.

Beigel, S. (2006) A case study of the effects on student attainment, and on retention of personal development planning (PDP) via departmental mechanisms for improving student learning and through the institutional Progress File.
available at

DDA (1995) Disability Discrimination Act 1995 Part 4 (London: The Stationary Office Limited. Crown Copyright.
available at:

Davies, V.E. and Jones, M.R. (2001) The European Language Portfolio: a major step on the road to learner autonomy. In Coleman, J. A., Ferney, D. Head, D and Rix, R. (eds.) Language-Learning Futures: Issues and Strategies for Modern Languages Provision in Higher Education. London: Central Books/CILT, pp 63-70.

Donald, S. (2004) Supporting students abroad: the role of year abroad logs and Personal Development Portfolios.
report on this talk available at

Edwards, G. (2005) 'Connecting PDP to employer needs and the world of work' Higher Education Academy guide
available at

Enhancing the student learning experience in Modern Languages - Personal development planning, skill development and learning support in Modern Languages at HE. Workshop to go (2005).
available at

Hagen, S. (2005) Languages and cultures in British business. Communication, needs and strategies. London: CILT.

Little, D. (2002)'The European Language Portfolio: structure, origins, implementation and challenges' Language Teaching 35(3):182-189.

Orsini-Jones, M. (2004) 'Supporting a course in new literacies and skills for linguists with a VLE: Results from a staff/student collaborative action-research project at Coventry University', ReCALL 16 (1):189-209.

Orsini-Jones, M. and Koehler-Ridley, M., (2004) 'The agony and the ecstasy: Integrating new literacies and reflective portfolio writing into the languages curriculum', Proceedings of the SCHML/CILT/UCML Conference, University of London. Navigating the New Landscape for Languages.
available at

Orsini-Jones, M. and Polisca, E. (2006) (organisers) 'Workshop to go: Integrating and e-portfolio into the languages curriculum' Coventry University and University of Manchester, May/June.

Promoting and evaluating the use of the European Language Portfolio (ELP) in Higher Education
available at

Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education (2001) - Guidelines for HE Progress Files
available at

Söntengs, K. and Laxton, J. (2006) SS4LL - Study Skills for Language Learning
available at:

Sumner, N. (2006) 'PebblePAD'. Association for Learning Technology Newsletter (ALT-N) (5), July.

Yorke, M. and Knight, P.T. (2004) Embedding Employability into the Curriculum. York: LTSN/HEA Generic Centre.
available at process=full_record&section=generic&id=338

Related links

Pebble Learning Limited