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What Transformation, Exactly, Do We Seek in the ePortfolio Field?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 4, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

July 4th, 2012

After eleven years of full immersion in eportfolios, I am still pondering what transformation we, the eportfolio global community, are aiming at. What do we want? Has that changed in the last 15 years? And are we making progress toward whatever goal we have in mind?

Personally, I started at the course level. I used a portfolio approach in the 1990s to teach and experienced the dramatic uptick in student engagement first hand that many of you probably experienced.

When I then, a few years later, assumed responsibility for finding and rolling out a campus-wide electronic portfolio system in 2001, I still had in mind the course portfolio model. Even when I was chair of the board of the Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI), funded by the Mellon Foundation, a couple of years later, I retained a learning orientation and a course portfolio mental model.

I imagined eportfolios being used in numerous courses to change the nature of those courses from a teaching focus to a learning focus. The sudden capture of the eportfolio field by institutional assessment offices and their compatriots in accrediting agencies across the country left me stunned. But, out of necessity, I came to learn about rubrics and learning outcomes, and an institutional perspective on eportfolio deployment.

Was the focus on learning outcomes a distraction or the camino real?

In 2008, Bret Eynon at LaGuardia Community College, asked me to consult about hosting an eportfolio conference at LaGuardia in April of 2008. Having seen how many people were attending OSPI conferences around that time, I advised Bret that we might need to plan for significant numbers of attendees. When, in fact, the LaGuardia conference drew over 500 people hungry to meet other eportfolio advocates and practitioners, I realized the U.S. needed an annual eportfolio conference. That summer, at Park City, Utah, Helen Chen, Tracy Penny-Light and Darren Cambridge encouraged me to start an eportfolio association.

I saw the association – what is now AAEEBL – as a way to return the eportfolio industry and the eportfolio academic establishment to a focus on learning. In May, 2009, AAEEBL was launched.

In the ongoing conversation among eportfolio advocates, practitioners and leaders, the words "reflection” and "integrative learning” dominate. A Wordle would have those two words in big caps and in bold.

Are these two words (reflection and integration), and the scholarly examination of reflection as a mental habit of the learned, sufficient to understand the transformation we seek? Having my own doubts about the power of a focus on just reflection, I began to survey learning research over the past 30 years. Were there models of learning we could merge with eportfolio theory, or with "folio thinking” (Helen Chen)? Could we discover our roots through a better understanding of a broad theoretical and research-based set of ideas and models? Could eportfolio have a broader foundation?

The short answer is, of course, yes. Reading books and articles about learning published over the past 30 years, anyone in our field would find a treasure trove of discoveries about learning that invites eporfolio implementation. It is as if all research regarding learning for 30 years was written in anticipation of information technology and eportfolios.

During the short life of the eportfolio community and market, the entire connected world has been shaken to its foundations by information technology. People point to "globalization” as a factor in the change, but would globalization be possible without information technology? Or, people point to a foundational shift from manufacturing to service – 80 percent of our GDP comes from the service sector. But would this shift have occurred without information technology?

The world as it is now, after the foundational change, begs for learners who will continue to learn for life. ePortfolios facilitate the development of learners appropriate for the world as it is. ePortfolios facilitate institutional change so that learning institutions (i.e., K-12, colleges and universities) can help create learners fit for the world.

Given this new world, what is our goal as a field and a market sector?

In the learning literature, we find dozens of intriguing ways to visualize and organize learning. In learning institutions, we see emergent practices – the high-impact educational practices (HIPs) identified by George Kuh in his seminal AAC&U publication in 2008. Randy Bass at Georgetown University alerted AAEEBL attendees in Boston in 2010 at the inaugural AAEEBL conference of the obvious connections (to him) between high-impact practices (first-year seminars, undergraduate research, learning communities, common intellectual problems, writing intensive course and so on) and eportfolios.

High impact becomes mega impact if you add eportfolio to HIPs.

Another way to view our goal is through the lens of "deep learning.” All models, all current learning designs, all eportfolio practices, in one way or another, aim for deep learning. Deep learning is contrasted with "surface learning” (listen, memorize, test). Surface learning engages learners through a fear of failure (getting an F). Deep learning practices must be designed for intellectual engagement: prompting an innate desire to learn.

For this moment in time, I find the deep learning literature and the concept itself helpful. The term itself contrasts the past and the present. The tide is turning toward a focus on deep learning and away from surface learning. "In a time of stable knowledge, teach; in a time of rapidly-changing knowledge, learn.” (Carl Rogers).

But the tide, turning or not, is slowed by current thinking about institutional success. As colleges and universities become businesses, albeit non-profit businesses, expert in marketing, building "customer relations,” deeply involved in the business of sport, in the business of branding (all good in many ways), a mindset has pervaded the academic enterprise: "retention” and "graduation rate.”

Having been a faculty member for decades, I was always aware of the tacit emphasis on retention. I saw the resultant grade inflation, realized that if I was known among students as a hard grader, my classes would shrink, and found it hard to actually fail a student.

But, at the same time, I thought "I am depriving my students of the opportunity to fail.” And I was.

Depriving a learner of the opportunity to fail is depriving the learner a chance to learn.

In the learning literature, researchers speak of "how adults learn best.” Do our colleges and universities – in general – treat students as adults?

By scaffolding so heavily – "here is the knowledge on a plate, just remember it” – and by preventing our students from failing (alas, many succeed in failing anyway) because we need to "retain” them, we are not allowing our students to be adults.

What do adults face in the world? A problem to solve with little or no help. Infinite chances to fail. The challenge to create their own value in an organization. Keeping a constant eye on the next job they will seek. A demand to keep learning and to learn rapidly. The need to work in a team. They need to be "deep learners.”

Many colleges and universities do recognize the new realities and are making appropriate changes. But college graduates are not doing as well in the world as they did before 2008. The pace of change should probably accelerate. MOOCs and badges are not the only challenges; an emerging reluctance among students to take on student loans is a bigger one.

Finally, then, is our goal to help accelerate the pace of institutional change through eportfolios toward developing deep learners who can succeed in life?

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