ePortfolios, Y|N?

I retweeted a link to this post yesterday, and promptly found myself in the middle of a storm of debate about the validity and legitimacy of the points it raises.  As it’s not exactly a topic that lends itself to discussion in 140 character chunks, I thought I’d bring it here to see if people want to continue what turned out to be a pretty impassioned and heated discussion.

For my part, I think there are some good points made here.  While I think there’s a definite role for eportfolio technology in certain contexts, I’m not sold on the whole lifelong portfolios for lifelong learners rhetoric, and I don’t think it necessarily meets the needs or desires of learners or teachers.

My biggest issue is that there is a lack of distinction between a portfolio of work that is ultimately intended as an assessment resource to be externally viewed and evaluated, and a student’s body of work which he is supposed to reflect on and learn from.  The intrusion of workplace CPD into this space simply exacerbates this lack of focus and conflicting motivations.  While it may be possible for a single system to fully meet the technical requirements of these very different competing interests, I don’t think that’s necessarily the appropriate approach.  Learning is all about having the freedom and safety to fail, and about taking ownership of our successes and failures in order to grow as learners and as experts in the subject we’re studying.  Having authority over our own work is a fundamental part of that, and something that has to be handed over when that work is used for formal evaluation.

I don’t think we need specialised software in order to retain a record of our learning and progress.  A personal blog can be a powerful tool for reflection, a pen drive of files can be more portable and accessible than a dedicated tool, your youtube or vimeo or flickr channel is more than adequate for preserving your creations.  All of these have permanence beyond the duration of a course: although some institutions will allow continued access to institutional portfolio systems after a student has finished his course of study, it’s not a given and is always subject to change.  Using existing services ironically offers far more opportunity for true lifelong learning than a dedicated system.  And such distributed systems reflect the ways in which people reflect on and share their work outside the walls of the university.  I still have my ‘portfolio’ of my undergraduate work: the printed out essays I handed in with my lecturers’ comments written on them.  That was exactly what I needed as a learner, that’s exactly what I need now should I ever wish to reflect on that period.

For material to be used for assessment, yes, there is a need for secure and reliable storage systems and appropriate standards such as Leap2A and BS8518 to support the exchange of evidence, but the systems and processes should be appropriate to the subject and the material to be assessed rather than assessment being tailored to suit the available systems.

Many thanks to @drdjwalker, @dkernohan, @mweller, @markpower, @jamesclay, @ostephens, @jontrinder and @asimong for joining the discussion on Twitter.

3 thoughts on “ePortfolios, Y|N?

  1. I disagree with a lot that is in the original post, but I do think that Clark has a point (albeit exaggerated) when he says “The idea’s been around since the nineties but isn’t it odd that no one seems to have one?”. Of the seven reasons he gives, I think several are red herrings and several are strawmen that are only valid in part.

    This sort of dialogue reminds me very much of some of the discussion around repositories. The opponents and some of the proponents pick on a simplified regimented self-referring model of what one is and work to that as opposed to concentrating on what it is that needs to be achieved. With repositories we have some who come with assumptions that information systems should work based on arcane library standards for cataloguing and interoperability with other library systems. This encourages other to criticise repositories as being disconnected from the wider world.

    It’s a straw man, but it’s one that is built by both sides. It doesn’t matter to either camp that what many of us had in mind from the beginning was nothing like the repository as library system model.

    The way out (I think) is to forget about the strawmen (“repositories”, “metadata”, “learning objects”, “eportfolios” &c.) and focus on what it is that you want to achieve rather than an assumed means of achieving it (so for a couple of years I’ve been talking about resource management and dissemination & resource discovery and description instead of instead of repositories and metadata). It’s hard to shed the baggage of an established term, we’re only halfway there with repositories and metadata, but I think it’s worthwhile.

  2. It appears that Donald Clark (of the original post mentioned) has a reputation for provoking discussion – a good strategy to get attention :-) In the gentle breezes of CETIS debate (away from those whirlwinds) it looks like, as usual, we agree to a remarkable degree…

    Yes, indeed, e-portfolio tools have been used uncritically and unhelpfully (a bit like VLEs, OER repositories … name your (un)favourite piece of educational technology) but as with all the rest it’s a question of being discriminating about what they are good for, and how to use them to good effect.

    Perhaps we can go further and say that, yes, it is time for some seriously critical reflection to scope the requirements both of the software and the practice or e-portfolios, if there are to be positive results in the long term. The “lifelong” question to me is even more tricky, as perhaps whether a lifelong approach is useful depends on the personality of the individual. I wouldn’t want to lay down the law on that kind of thing (as Donald Clark provocatively appeared to be doing initially, though of course in rational discussion his position is much more nuanced)

    The one thing I would suggest, particularly for people who are familiar with the routine e-portfolio literature, is to read Darren Cambridge’s new book. It really impressed me. It takes the discussion to a whole new level, beyond what I have written. Remind me to write a fuller review sometime. As it happens, Darren is really not at all positive about the kind of portfolio tools one normally sees. But I won’t go on here just in a comment, just to say that people need to read Darren before attempting deeper discussion.

  3. Firstly, Rowin, Just a quick comment about your reference: “a lack of distinction between a portfolio of work that is ultimately intended as an assessment resource to be externally viewed and evaluated, and a student’s body of work which he is supposed to reflect on and learn from.”

    Surely this is one of the first failures of ‘institutional thinking’ – I would strongly suggest that the main assessment tools and the related artefacts should be part of the institution’s VLE/MLE rather than the personally owned ePortfolio. – In terms of assessment, the ePortfolio then becomes a support tool for internal verifiers to use as a ‘backstop’.

    Secondly, I do not see the ePortfolio as being that ‘pantechnicon’ of all of a student’s learning. Consider the ePortfolio as more like a loose-leaf ring-file in which the learner places appropriate artefacts as needed at that point in time and for a selected audience.

    However, as I have said elsewhere, I noted Donald’s diatribe with some amusement. I do really wonder what planet he comes from. His blog-post reminds me of the exclamation of the proud mother, watching her son out on parade, “Look! Everyone is out of step except my son!” As an articulate speaker, Donald certainly amused his audience at the recent ‘Assessment Tomorrow’ conference at which I spoke. However, this was a meeting of assessors and educationists, which he was certainly not. As a self-confessed employer from a previous generation he certainly had little understanding of the education market, of the extent to which an ePortfolio culture is spreading within all areas of Teaching & Learning, and, for that matter, how teaching and learning methods have changed since he was at school.

    Amongst a group of circa 200 delegates most were ‘pro’ ePortfolios in some form or other. To this group the title of my presentation was “ePortfolios – why so slow on the uptake?” (http://www.slideshare.net/maximise/why-so-slow ) In this presentation I explored some of the reasons why ePortfolios are not making as rapid progress as we might expect (but with a few exceptions). I am therefore flattered that Donald should take several of my concerns eg of the 40+ VLEs providers in the UK, institutionalised systems, interoperability, the lack of ePortfolio related CPD, the contrast a modern generation of Web2.0 learners, the steady revolution in Teaching and Learning styles etc. However, despite the massive world-wide interest in ePortfolios and the take-up by hundreds of universities, CoPs and many thousands if not millions of mainstream learners, he took the problems that I referred to and turned them on their head, not as issues to be understood and constructively overcome, but rather reasons for the obdurate rejection of ePortfolios. (Babies and bathwater come to mind.) I did mention that recent accessions to my blog had reached over 11,600, and that there have been over 100,000 thousand accessions to my posted works on SlideShare and Issuu. Even to the extent that on the Monday before the conference I had my first reader from Mongolia, on Tuesday a reader from Siberia and even whilst I was speaking, a first-time reader from Sierra Leone – in all, readers from 131 countries.

    I did, of course, mention the impressive interest shown by people in New Zealand and Australia, along with the whole-State provision of eFolio in Minnesota and the scores of initiatives throughout America and Asia. Also that all mainstream learners throughout the whole country of South Korea were provided with an ePortfolio and that through the national provision of the GLOW VLE to all schools in Scotland pupils had access to a form of ePortfolio.

    Donald rejects the ‘Shoebox Syndrome’ out of hand. But I wonder if he has photographs at home, or framed certificates in his office, or artefacts in his attic that he might reflect upon and gain some satisfaction? Does such a person go through life without celebration of special events or reflection of past glories? Can life really be that sterile? Can such a person go through life without ever attempting to present him/herself in the best light without a short CV or evidence of credentials? To Donald I say. “Wake up! You live in a digital world where the ePortfolio is that natural ‘preferred option’ for so many of us. Because you choose to think differently is no reason to condemn the rest of us to a pre-digital age.”

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