E-Portfolios — What’s the Point?

It’s not very original of me to keep playing off of someone else’s blog, but Will Richardson’s post, No Child Left Without a Portfolio, inspired me to write on something that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the last couple years.

I recently took part in a technology roundtable discussion with members of my institution’s faculty and staff (and a couple of students) about the future of our technology proficiency requirement for our undergraduate students. A couple of colleagues from our graduate campus noted that they were beginning to use electronic portfolios to assess computing proficiency, as well as present pedagogical skills. I commented that I thought most undergraduate students already had a default portfolio of projects (papers, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, and other electronic materials), but it was sitting on their computers, unorganized and unused since the assignments for which they were created. Certainly those materials might be collectively used to demonstrate the array of technological proficiencies that our students learn.

Still, that use of electronic portfolios seems rather limited. What is the point of electronic portfolios, why would we want to use them, and why has there been such resistance to the idea of them on many campuses? I think the answers to these questions are connected.

Reasons for an electronic portfolio (in no particular order)

  • Demonstrate competence in some skills
    • This gets at what my colleagues from CGPS and I were discussing before.
    • Many teaching programs require paper or e-versions of these now.
  • Gather and reflect on one’s work
    • This might be one way of encouraging a kind of self-reflective (or self-repairing) learning. “Here’s all of the papers you’ve written for your classes in the history department. Reflect on what worked, what didn’t, what you learned about yourself, your researching, and your writing.”
    • In the ideal form, such e-portfolios might even come to serve as a central theme to the liberal arts experiences, a kind of connective tissue between individual classes and between courses and the larger collegiate experience. “Why am I taking all these classes? What’s the point of this array of courses, within my major and outside it and how do they relate to each other?”
  • Serve as long-term online storage for student work (and faculty comments?) that could be used by both the student (for reference, as part of a job or graduate school application) and the school (evidence of student learning, data source for assessing outcomes, examples of projects for future students)
    • Due to privacy the latter uses would depend on selective approvals by students.

Broadly speaking, I think the variety of uses of e-portfolios actually hinders their acceptance. They mean too many different things to too many different people (and/or disciplines). Some see them as demonstrations of competencies (often of very specific skills or ideas); others see them as reflective tools to discuss progress and learning (a reflection which some people see as not relevant to their discipline).

Then there are the practical issues about online portfolios. What responsibility does the school have for keeping these portfolios? How long is long-term? Ten years? Twenty? Permanently? Sure, hard disk space is cheap, but servers and personnel to maintain them aren’t. Given the numerous problems with privacy and data thefts lately, how much responsibility would schools have in safeguarding access to this material?

None of this is to reject the idea of e-portfolios–I’m especially attracted to the notion of reflective/self-correcting consumers of information and I think they can serve practical goals in demonstrating competencies–only to note that if a school is to take on such a project it would need an extremely clear set of goals (and a long-term plan) to deal with the practical issues.

Digital Literacy in Higher Education

As part of the ongoing reexamination of our curriculum and approaches, my department has been working on the goals for our major, on what we hope students will have learned by the time they graduate.

We discussed writing and speaking skills, knowledge acquisition and critical thinking, familiarity with a diverse set of methodologies, times, and places, and a perspective on the place of the self in the larger society. Although not always expressed in such ways before by us, these are fairly common sentiments in history departments. What was unusual was the addition of a section on what we’re calling “digital literacy.” Here’s what we came up with:

  • As the amount of information available online increases at near-exponential levels, the need for students’ digital literacy grows as well.
    • The ability to find reliable, scholarly, information on a topic
      • Within gated, subscription databases and in the larger, disorganized online world
      • Finding and searching the collections of online archives, museums and institutions of higher education
    • The ability to assess and evaluate the reliability of online sources
      • This is a new facet of the approach historians and history students have long employed, that of judicious skepticism.
    • The ability to produce creative, yet scholarly materials for the digital world
      • These require the same level of rigor applied to traditional papers and presentations.

What have we left out? Probably something about encouraging active participation in an online world (hat-tip to Jerry on this), though I’m still working on ways to write that section. Other suggestions?

We decided the following was what we wanted for our students:

Students who become fluent in all these areas will be adaptable, reflective consumers and producers of information, critical thinkers able to take on any number of occupations, aware of the diversity of thought and opinion in the study of the past, and ready to move forward into the larger world as responsible, productive citizens of local and global communities.

None of this is finished yet (and we still are in the midst of curricular discussions), but I can’t help but be excited about the direction the department and the institution is taking. We are looking to the future in useful ways, for us as teachers/mentors/learners and for our students as learners/mentees/teachers.

The implications of an on-demand future

Almost every morning when I get into the car to take my 3-year old daughter to day care she asks me to play “Puff the Magic Dragon” for her on my MP3 player. [I do have thousands of other songs, but she never seems to want to hear Son Volt or U2.]

This repetitious request by children for the same song over and over is the bane of many a parent’s existence (and perhaps the jackhammer between sanity and insanity). That is, the repetition of children’s songs is not a new experience.

However, it’s begun a thought that’s been rattling in my brain (along with the chorus to Puff) about the delivery of media today and its effect on society, children in particular.

My daughter also always has children’s shows to watch because my wife and I have Tivo’ed a number of them and can play them on demand (well, not literally, since we try to limit her TV watching time, but you get my point).

Sure, other parents have played Puff on CD or cassette tape (or probably 8-track), and they’ve got VHS or DVD versions of their kids’ favorite shows and movies, but it seems to me there is
a fundamental psychological difference to children between getting a tape or cassette or DVD out to put in and play, and just using a couple of button presses on a screen or click-wheel to start exactly what she wants. Will this raise her expectations? Will she demand information and entertainment to just appear with a few clicks? Yes, of course she will.

And so will our students.

“Quit, Complain, or Innovate”?

This title come from a post on the reliable Will Richardson’s Weblogg-ed. Though most of the post is positive and forward-looking, the title clearly reflects a sense among many people about the choices surrounding the implications and impact of new technology in education.

Yet as my institution grapples with the implications of a new president who has asked the faculty to be forward-thinking, creative, and innovative, I wonder if this same sentiment is an appropriate description of our curricular and institutional choices (and I think some of my colleagues fear it’s our future).

Now, to be honest, among faculty, quitting is rarely an option, at least in the form of leaving one’s job, since the market is so tight right now, especially if one has roots of family and friends in a particularly geographic region. However, there’s quitting and then there’s quitting.

Complaining is always an option of faculty. [Some might say it’s an area that we’ve claimed and reclaimed over and over.] Still, despite succumbing to this myself at times, it’s hard for me to see this as the only option. [Does this have to be a single choice? Can’t I do both? Well, why not!? — See how easy it is for complaining to start? And how quickly it turns into whining, which is even worse.]

So that leaves us with innovate. To me this is exciting, exhausting, invigorating, and downright scary. What we do with this is left to us (though likely with significant leadership from our administration). We have to live with it. But we also have to live with ourselves, our students and our institution if we don’t change things now, if we don’t adapt, if we don’t look towards the future of higher education and learning in general….