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Deep Learning, ePortfolios and AAEEBL

Posted By Administration, Saturday, June 2, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

June 2nd, 2012

In the past six months, I've been researching "deep learning" and using a focus on deep learning to present about eportfolios. Deep learning, a 40-year old research thread, has produced models for learning that could have been produced by an eportfolio researcher.

As I read scholarly articles about learning, I keep thinking that we have had these ideas, models, and research results about the best ways to learn for a century, yet they have had minimal impact in higher education up until very recently.

Could it be that creating a new learning design is difficult to do as long as teachers and students were in a physical classroom? And could it be that as long as college graduates were succeeding in the world, there was little motivation to change?

Now, the classroom no longer holds us captive and college graduates are less successful at finding their way after college. Therefore, we have both an opportunity and a problem.

The opportunity is to break out of the classroom ritual of rule-bound behavior that has been associated not with deep learning but with surface learning. Surface learning -- hearing-memorizing-testing -- is based on fear of failure according to a number of commentators on deep learning. Deep learning, instead, is based on a spirit of inquiry and is motivated not by fear of failure but by interest in learning.

When we in the eportfolio field speak of learning values supported, catalyzed, and extended by eportfolios, we mention reflection, integrative thinking, experiential learning, active learning, authentic assessment (assessment for learning), and other values. We also talk about high-impact practices (HIPs) based on the desire to help students engage in these varieties of meta-cognition. The HIPs, when used in conjunction with an eportfolio, extend opportunities for learning and make the HIPs potentially more successful.

The variety of ways of talking about learning in our field does get us to recognize the subtle but significant differences in the kinds of learning associated with eportfolios. Still, it would be helpful to us and to others unfamiliar with eportfolios to have a term such as "deep learning" that encompasses all the varieties of learning and practices just listed.

The major contrast between what worked in education before and what is needed today is the contrast between surface learning and deep learning.

An analogy: when I travel to England, I don't need to engage in deep learning to help me with travel logistics: I speak the language (sort of), I can read the signs, and the culture is only moderately different from my home culture. When we traveled to Istanbul a few years ago, however, I had to engage in deep learning: I didn't know the language, nor the customs, didn't know the currency, and the culture in Turkey is significantly different from my home culture.

Going to England for me is like a college graduate's experience 15 years ago: going out into the world was relatively easy because knowledge was not yet into super-warp change mode. The world welcomed college graduates as it had for a century or more. One could prosper with just surface learning as preparation.

Going to Turkey for me is like a college graduate's experience today: going out into the world is hard, the nature of work has changed, job changes occur frequently, and college grads are expected to produce immediately when being hired. The world has become less familiar (or more distant from expectations) for college graduates than it once was. One now needs deep learning skills and habits as preparation for the world as it has become.

ePortfolio practitioners hope to make the move from teaching to learning and thereby increase the engagement of students in their own learning. Those who support high-impact educational practices -- first-year seminars, writing intensive courses, undergraduate research, common intellectual problems and so on -- also aim to get students more engaged in their own learning (and to better understand the social nature of learning).

In each case, I believe, everyone involved is seeking "deep learning" experiences for their students/learners.

AAEEBL primarily focuses on learning: how can and should learning be designed given the transformed landscape of knowledge-making? And, how can and should we use technology to enable these new designs? AAEEBL emerged from the eportfolio community and is identified with eportfolio technology as the most promising technology now to promote improvement in learning.

And, to me at least, "deep learning" seems a good term, a solid term, a well-researched term to identify with eportfolios. I'd be very interested to hear what other think of this idea:

At AAEEBL2012 in Boston in two weeks, I have a session on Thursday morning the 19th about Deep Learning and ePortfolios. I'd welcome a good discussion at this session as well.

Best to all

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