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.

The investment gap

I’ve just had a short chat with a lecturer who was taking a quick break from the class he’s in the middle of teaching.  He mentioned that he was using a SmartBoard, and his frustration at seeing what he could do with the technology if only he’d had proper training in how to do so – as he said, being one of over 100 people at a 20 minute demonstration 18 months ago just doesn’t count as training, no matter how much the powers that be might want it to.

He also reported a similar situation at another institution at which he teaches, which has invested a great deal of money in technology enhanced classrooms and none in training people how to use them.  As a result, the potential of these classrooms is completely unused, and lecturers are frustrated at their lack of knowledge of how to tap into it.

‘They don’t need to pay us to train!’ he said, suggesting that both institutions simply open the classrooms for an hour or two some evenings with a technologist there to help people out, and let small groups get actual hands-on practice with the technology.  It’s just not reasonable to expect a lecturer to have his or her first experience of using new technology be in front of a class of 50 students.

This lecturer’s enthusiasm for exploring new ways of teaching, and his vision of the things he’d like to be able to do if only he knew how, were inspiring and infectious, and it’s so frustrating to see such a clear example of why new technologies aren’t being made the most of.  The reluctance to invest in adequately training staff to use the new technology an institution has just spent heavily on seems like a terrible false economy.