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What Evidence is Needed for the ePortfolio Field?

Posted By Walden Teagan, Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

May 9th, 2012

This blog is meant less as a statement than a question, as indicated by the title.

As I hear from many quarters, it is now time for our field to start defining a research agenda. It is now time to start providing evidence for our claims. It is even time to re-think our claims and perhaps re-shape them as we learn more about our emerging field. The International Journal of ePortfolio published its first issue only 10 months ago -- other research projects centered on eportfolio use have been underway for a decade or more. AAEEBL is 3 years old this month. ePIC is in its 10th year, ePortfolios Australia will hold it's 3rd conference next fall. ePortfolio as a field, a technology, a set of practices and a community is coming into its own. AAC&U continues to offer its own annual ePortfolio Forum that continues to grow each year. ePortfolio California, EPAC and AAEEBL held a year-long series of Webinars that drew substantial attendees.

But, at the center, what are we about?

Even before we can begin to consider the research questions and the evidence appropriate to our field, we should agree on a vision of our field.

We've identified ourselves with a technology, which is both essential and perhaps inevitable, but still fraught with potential issues. What if, for example, the technology itself evolves to the point where the name "eportfolio" disappears? That's one danger of identifying our field with a technology. A more obvious danger is the possible perception that our field is a technology field and not a learning field. But, for the moment, that is our terminology.

AAEEBL was intentionally not named "the eportfolio association" to focus on learning and not on a technology. Helen Chen adopted the term "folio thinking" as an alternative. In the case of AAEEBL, we then faced the initial challenge that people searching on the Web for eportfolio information would not find AAEEBL. Fortunately, that is no longer true as the terms "AAEEBL" and "eportfolio" are now associated in the "mind" of the Web.

But the term "eportfolio" [however spelled] is itself used loosely within our community. We often personify "eportfolio" as an actor in learning as in "eportfolio helps students learn to reflect." Or, "eportfolio has had a big impact on how we design our courses."

Or, recently, we have heard that "eportfolio is a high-impact practice" as if eportfolios are always used in a certain way. We in the field understand these loose usages of the term. To always qualify the term "eportfolio" would make our discourse cumbersome. Yet, this loose usage does not, in fact, have a well-defined reference.

If, as the saying goes, eportfolio is everything, then it is nothing.

It would seem to me that before we can define a research agenda, we need to define what our reference is. A research agenda for what? Are we studying the adoption of innovation? Doesn't seem so. A certain kind of learning design or process? Perhaps. A new kind of assessment? A new process of identity creation? And if any of these are close to what we believe we are doing, what research methodology is most appropriate?

It may be, of course, the eportfolio studies is really multiple sub-fields -- one sub-field that's can be understood by applying learning theory and research, another that can be understood through the lens of assessment theory, another through the lens of educational theory, or anthropology, social science, cognitive science, rhetoric and composition, linguistics . . . It would seem that our field could adopt a number of research methodologies to study the changes in process associated with eportfolios.

Reading reports from projects such as The Inter/national Coalition for ePortfolio Resarch and LaGuardia's Connect to Learning Project, we find questions about the impact of eportfolio. Very important to ask these questions and provide evidence. But, we have not built a taxonomy of eportfolio designs that we can easily refer to so we know that such and such a result stems from a very particular eportfolio learning design. I'm commenting on the current state of our field, and don't intend any criticism of these two important projects.

And what is "eportfolio"? Ah, at the heart of the matter we have a tradition from composition studies that evokes a certain use of eportfolios and envisions them as a genre. Fair enough. But does describing eportfolios as a genre lead to a broad set of research questions and to a broad application of research methodologies?

Just to throw out an idea: what if we thought of "eportfolio" as a kind of learning? And what if we called that kind of learning "recursive learning"? Integrative thinking, reflection, showcasing, curating and so many activities associated with eportfolio really involve recursion of one kind or another. Here's an example of recursion:

"Writing is a recursive process in that the writer can return to a previous stage of the writing process while working on a later stage. In other words, while you are revising a manuscript, you may find yourself thinking of new ideas that could be included in the text. So you can also be planning or brainstorming while revising."
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"Social recursive learning" adds another layer to this concept.

The process of managing or curating one's eportfolio is itself recursive because, as you cull evidence, or select evidence, you may see new connections and therefore be employing recursive learning.

If this concept cannot be all inclusive or fails in some other way, fine, no problem, but there is no doubt we need a conceptual core, a center.

Only with a core concept in our field can we develop essential research questions and therefore begin to build a coherent body of evidence.

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