E-portfolios and badges for the common good

I learned several things at the e-portfolio and identity conference (ePIC) 2014 that I attended 9th and 10th July.

1. People agree it’s political

The response to my presentation (What will we need to learn and have evidence for? on Slideshare) reassured me that many of the excellent people at the conference shared something like my sense that the world of learning, education, e-portfolios and open badges is more political now than it has ever been in the past history of this conference. It is not simply well-meaning educators helping “their” learners to a richer, more fulfilling education, learning and life (a great aim though that remains). It is, to me, increasingly about what kind of society we want.

Serge Ravet (whose conference it is) and others have understood a political dimension to e-portfolios since the beginning. It seems now that it is increasingly plain to everyone.

2. It’s not about the technology, but about what it’s used for

People are understanding, but do not all yet understand, that it is not the technology by itself that makes the difference, but the ends for which it is used. Maybe this needs to be explained a bit more…

There seems to be a tendency for people to attach their cause (if, as often, they have a cause: in our case, predominantly an educational cause) to any new technology that comes along, perhaps with the justification that the new technology makes it easier to do things differently, or at least gives people the opportunity to do things differently.

Think first of e-portfolios, because this conference started as the “ePortfolio” conference (and I’ve been to all of them). Yes, e-portfolios can be used to promote reflection. They can be used to give authentic evidence of authentic learning – whatever that may mean – but then they can be used to assemble and present evidence of almost anything, in almost any way. Thus, many people in this community (myself included) would like to play down the label “e-portfolio”, and instead focus on the values of the kind of learning and education that we think benefits people and society, which we would like to see come about through the use of e-portfolio technology.

Think now of Badges. Mozilla Open Badges includes a technological framework perhaps mixed in with some implicit values. One major appeal of Badge technology is that it promises to be a tool that can be used to reclaim credentials from the grip of established educational, training, or professional institutions. And this aim goes along with much else laudable in learning technology and forward-looking practice. But, equally, Badges can be used by established players to replicate the existing systems of qualifications and certificates. In no way does the use of Badges ensure that a system is in accordance with any particular set of values, aims, or aspirations. This was understood several times in the conference discussion.

Thus, we need to be careful that we don’t overemphasise the technology, but keep a clear eye on the values we want to promote. This may mean making those values explicit; but then I would say it’s time to do that anyway.

3. It’s not about having a “line”, it’s about being open

It’s easy to imagine some groups of people – and maybe this includes politicians, authors, speakers and many academics – attaching themselves to a recognisable “line”, which can be “sold”, in the form of manifestos, books, papers, talks, or project proposals touting the “next big thing”. Maybe having a consistent, recognisable line contributes to their success. Maybe it is vital component of their public identity. I wonder if sometimes it becomes their personal identity as well.

Personally, I don’t want a static “line”, I want to be OPEN. I thrive on openness. I love seeing and feeling the evolution and growth of ideas that are freed from the constraints of their originator’s conceptual framework, to have lives of their own. I love seeing young people venture beyond the constraints of their background and upbringing, and exploring new ideas, new places, new thoughts, new ways of being, freely choosing the traditional or the new.

And, particularly, I relish the thought (as Theodore Zeldin also expressed in “An Intimate History of Humanity“) of what could ensue when two or more open people come together; when they risk trusting each other; when they find that trust justified; when they freely and openly share their good ideas; when they grow into truly fruitful collaboration and co-creation.

4. Motivation is not just about intrinsic or extrinsic

Reflection on the conference conversations suggests that the question of intrisic motivation and extrinsic (or instrumental) motivation is not as simple as it might first appear. Following Alfie Kohn, who spoke remotely, one can indeed see extrinsic rewards as squeezing out natural motivation for learning. But if you see other people’s approval as an extrinsic reward, might Kohn’s view be setting up an autistic nightmare of individuals sociopathically following their own whims, no matter what others say?

It might be more fruitful to put that typology of motivation to one side. The reward of seeing other people’s needs being met – of seeing them thrive – may be best seen as intrinsic, but my guess is that few people have the courage and strength to follow this through without the extrinsic reward of approval of one’s trusted and valued peers.

Maybe this is related to what Adam Grant expresses in his recent book, “Give and Take“. Givers are intrisically motivated to contribute to other people’s good, but far from the myth that givers are losers, they often shine out as supremely successful in business as well as life. The idea of delight in the satisfaction of the needs of others is shared by Marshall Rosenberg in his Non-Violent Communication work.

These are just two pointers to something that seems to have been almost entirely missed out from educational theory. It’s about what works as motivation for the common good, but the common good is something that doesn’t appear much in the kind of thinking that might be described by Robert Kegan and others as “modernism”, which is more to do with the individual than the collective. Personally, I identify my own desire to promote the common good with the kind of reconstructive post-modernism written about by Kegan.

What is the relevance to Cetis, and to learning technology?

This is a question that naturally relates to the fact that this post is on the Cetis web site. Here I am moving beyond what I learned at the conference, and relating it back to my (currently half time) affiliation.

  1. The fact that the technology is not the biggest issue is one that we have known in Cetis for many a year. Nothing new here, then, but it is a worthwhile confirmation and reminder. It’s the human practices and culture that are the challenge.
  2. Cetis is not at present in a good position to be explicitly political. But I do believe that our advocacy of what is “open” in education and technology has a political dimension, and that needs to sit happily with a host that appreciates that, rather than awkwardly with a host that finds it an irritant.
  3. Maybe, and here I own up to speculation, maybe it is time for us as Cetis to resume the role that we used to play for many years – that of facilitating, fostering, promoting discussion within communities of practice, which are fundamentally places where peer groups meet to investigate collaboration, or at least to share knowledge openly.
  4. And lastly, a question: how can e-portfolios, badges, or other related technology support the values, the politics, of sharing, collaboration, and the common good?

Perhaps I may compare the ePIC conference with the Cetis conference. The Cetis conference, like ePIC, is a conference of enthusiasts, but this year, instead of being free of charge, the Cetis conference was successfully run at a very moderate cost. Maybe the ePIC conference (or whatever it will be called) can move to a similar point but in the opposite direction, reducing its cost to encourage wider participation, and to enable the ongoing participation of the enthusiastic supporters that we have kept. We all need to be careful with expenses such as keynote speakers. Cetis did well this year, but we all need to be careful to get the right people, if anyone!

So, I hope that the enthusiasm and engagement of the ePIC conference continues, and that the community it represents grows and develops towards the common good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>