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ePortfolios: Managing Complexity to Catalyze Deep Learning

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

September 4th, 2012

ePortfolio technology is pervasive and is becoming well known. Yet, not even eportfolio leaders have an easy time talking about eportfolios. People ask these leaders "what is an eportfolio?” and they get widely varying answers. Attend ePIC in London during July and you may understand that eportfolios are about developing a digital identity (and many other capabilities) or attend a Centre for Recording Achievement residential seminar and think eportfolios are about demonstrating achievement or attend an ePortfolios Australia Conference and you might then understand eportfolios to be about assessing prior learning or workforce development. Attend an AAEEBL conference and you might then wonder if eportfolios are instead about learning, assessment and accountability.

The problem is that people define eportfolios by their uses of the technology. None of the above definitions is wrong, yet each is derivative of the core value of eportfolios: eportfolios manage the actual complexity of learning far better than we have ever been able to do and, because they manage this complexity, they are able to "catalyze” (quoting Randy Bass in a conversation) deep learning.

Thus the essence of eportfolios is that they catalyze deep learning. This is not to dismiss the other uses we mentioned earlier. However, we can say that none of the derivative uses would be meaningful or important if eportfolios didn’t enable deep learning. The deep learning (by whatever name – active learning, social learning, authentic learning, transformational learning, situated learning, and so on) is the sine qua non: without deep learning, eportfolios would not have those other uses. If digital story telling didn’t result in deep learning, why do it? If using eportfolios for workforce development didn’t result in deep learning for better employment, why use them? If using eportfolios for accountability didn’t lead to deep learning, why use them (and, indeed, this is a germaine question)?

The term "complexity” is in contrast to the simplistic system of classes, lectures, credits and grading; of listening, memorizing and testing. One size does not fit all, one pace does not fit all, and mostly listening may not fit almost anyone.

How can we imagine a system that allows for more complex learning?

Using eportfolio evidence as both the means of learning and the means of assessment allows us to see more of the truly complex nature of learning:

  • Evidence of learning is captured all the time, since learning is going on all the time.
  • Evidence of learning is continuous, not segmented as in courses.
  • Evidence of learning is captured regardless of enrollment in an educational institution
  • Evidence of learning is mobile, as is the learner.
  • The evidence is manageable and can be used to make the case for a grade, a badge, a certificate, a degree, a job, a promotion, another job and so on.
  • The learner owns the evidence, greatly increasing the stake the learner has in making it useful, which in itself is a cognitive challenge.
  • The evidence helps the learner to make connections among learning experiences and to thereby reflect as all learners do.

The list can go on, of course. However, the point is that learning has always been complex but educational institutions tended to be blind to the complexity and wanted to define it and control it. The actual complexity of learning could not be captured or understood so educational institutions instead became about content.

It is not that eportfolios create the complexity of learning, it is that eportfolios can work with the complexity and help the learner. ePortfolios don’t shy from "messy” learning. ePortfolios do not start at 9 am and end at 9:50 am – they are always open. ePortfolios don’t have to assign credits to your interesting thought as you walk to school, instead they allow you to create a voice memo about that thought and upload the voice memo to your eportfolio. And then you and others can see for themselves the value of that thought. ePortfolios don’t assign you to see something in a tree, instead when you do see that something, you can take a photo and put that into your eportoflio.

Learning is going on all the time; it is complex, social, fluid and impossible to capture since it is social and complex and fluid. But it is possible to capture evidence of learning.

With eportfolios as the guiding enabler to think about learning, educators can start with the learner and learning groups. And then see how the complex learning that is already in process can be guided toward learning goals. We no longer need to simplify everything to work with learning. The magic of eportfolios is allowing learners and educators to navigate complexity; the complexity was there all along and now it can become more visible.

But, what is the deep learning that managing complexity can lead to? The tradition since the mid-1970s has been to contrast "surface learning” and "deep learning.” Surface learning is traditional school learning: memorizing enough to get by on the test, whereas deep learning is working with ideas and being able to apply those ideas in new situations.

Deep learning starts with experience and is followed by developing perceptions of that experience through reflection – how was it different? What was notable? Do I understand what happened? Looking back, do I see that experience differently than when I was having that experience? And so on: these reflections lead to developing perceptions about the experience. It is then, through working with others who have expertise in the field, that the learner can develop scholarly conceptions.

Say the experience was an interview on the campus with other students as part of a project in anthropology. The students would have had informational background sufficient for them to know how to structure the interview and how to capture it. But what to make of the responses they received? How to interpret them? Were they important? Were they even relevant?

Once the students completed their round of interviews and began reviewing and coding the video or audio recordings, they would themselves notice patterns. But it would be only when they seek to make meaning of what they’ve collected and coded that they encounter disciplinary ways of knowing. What claims can they make? How do they construct a disciplinary argument from their evidence? Now they are at the conceptual level and fully into deep learning.

I remember when the boundaries of "chaos” were pushed back: no, that was not chaos after all, we just needed computers to help us see the predictable patterns. We learned about fractals and the amazing patterns in our world we had not seen before. The complexity was there, but we just called it chaos and had to pretend it didn’t exist.

Physicists talk about "dark matter” and "dark energy,” other terms for that which we collectively just can’t figure out yet.

The chaos and dark energy of natural complex learning is no longer beyond us. Just as digital technology allowed us to understand a bit more about the complexity of "chaos,” so does it allow educators and learners to use the complex learning that is already in process in every learner. Don’t try to circumscribe it and pretend that learning outside of formal learning is irrelevant – that isn’t necessary any longer. We don’t have to live in an unnecessarily simplified world of learning any longer.

In the end, eportfolios help us manage the complexity of natural learning so as to catalyze deep learning. This is the essence of the value of eportfolios in our world today. They support variable learning designs. They allow learning to be learner-initiated and to be as much about discovery as guidance.

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