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Comments on Randy Bass' "Reality Check" in Peer Review Issue on ePortfolios

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Thursday, May 01, 2014


Comments on Randy Bass’s “Reality Check” in
AAC&U’s Peer Review article.


AAEEBL is, right now, responding to questions from the IRS about AAEEBL’s 501c3 application.  We are finding how hard it is to explain “eportfolio” to those who know little about technology or about the sweeping changes in higher education and the knowledge economy.  In the eportfolio community, we know that “eportfolio” is a heavily packed term.  We know it has layers of meaning that are only unlayered or unpacked in the context. 


Randy Bass, about the most eloquent person I know, wrote “The Next Whole Thing in Higher Education,” published in Peer Review from AAC&U this week (Winter 2014, Vol. 16, No. 1:  His comments about eportfolios are spot on. 


“Eportfolios are decidedly not the hottest thing in higher education.”  This opening declaration gets our attention and I had difficulty deciding what my own reaction is:  it is good in some ways not to be the hottest thing because of burnout; but then, what is the current state of eportfolio? 


We are reassured of Bass’ belief in the eportfolio movement, however, as soon as he points out that, after all, the eportfolio movement is not about the technology but about “a set of pedagogies and practices that link learners to learning, curriculum to the co-curriculum, and courses and programs to institutional outcomes.”  Bass is making it clear that when members of the eportfolio community use the word “eportfolio,” they are thinking primarily, or exclusively, not about the actual technology but about a whole approach to learning and development.


Bass does make the case that despite not being “hot,” eportfolios “are change agents; they belong to an emergent learning paradigm and, as we argue in the Connect to Learning Project, have the capacity to catalyze change toward that paradigm.” 


In other words, eportfolios are now in that phase of technology infusion in our culture that features steady growth, quiet but deep change, when the technology becomes simply part of the landscape, and therefore is steadily growing in influence. 


Susan Kahn of IUPUI, in the lead article in the Peer Review issue cited above, says:


According to the 2013 survey from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR), use of e-portfolios has increased sharply since 2010, when the survey first asked about them: 57 percent of US postsecondary institutions say they have made some use of e-portfolios in the past year, and 53 percent of responding students report engaging with e-portfolios in at least one course in the past year (Dahlstrom, Walker, and Dziuban 2013) (Peer Review).


The comments in the ECAR survey, taken as a whole, however, offer some qualifiers to Kahn’s initial rosy comments, as she later points out.  While eportfolios are widespread in U. S. higher education, adoption on most campuses is “sparse.”  In fact, only 7% of students reported using eportfolios in more than one course.   Sounds tiny until we remember that last year total enrollment in U. S. colleges and universities was over 17 million.  The seven percent, therefore, represents 1,190,000 students.  We can estimate that over a million students are using eportfolios in at least two courses.  That’s not really reassuring to us in the eportfolio community who understand that eportfolios succeed best when entire programs adopt eportfolios. 


The industry and movement started its quick growth phase around 2003-2004, and in the IT adoption world, eportfolios have been around long enough that we should expect higher adoption rates.  Learning management systems, only 5 or 6 years older that eportfolios, enjoy a 100% adoption rate. 


Will eportfolios ever enjoy a similar adoption rate?  As Bass might say, only if faculty adopt new practices.  We therefore cannot expect eportfolios to become as ubiquitous as LMS’s, based on that disclaimer.  Now, should employers require an eportfolio in the hiring process, that would change everything.


What do we know about eportfolios?  We can now say, confidently, that using eportfolios as a central element in learning designs does in fact improve student learning by almost any measure.  LaGuardia Community College research over the years, LaGuardia’s Making Connections project, and the Connect to Learning FIPSE project as reported in the Peer Review issue, taken together, and in line with research reported in The International Journal of ePortfolio, allows us to unequivocally claim that using eportfolios improves learning.  The qualifier, as always, is that eportfolios must be used intelligently. 


Learning management systems cannot make that same claim. 


But, are eportfolios always used for learning purposes?  And, is there a danger of eportfolios actually going tech?  No and yes.


In fact, eportfolios are mostly sold in the U. S. to help institutions track student learning progress toward learning goals.  This is using eportfolios rather indirectly to improve learning:  an imposed coherence in the curriculum is just more institutional coherence building (“scaffolding”), but there is learning value if students can better see how everything fits together and what the goals are. 


But, another use of the eportfolio concept presents us all with a new challenge:  “eportfolio is only a website (or a domain).”  We know that a number of institutions have adopted web authoring tools as part of an eportfolio initiative. The eportfolio community has understood that eportfolio practices can be carried out without the whole process occurring within an eportfolio system.  But, if a company is interested in entering the eportfolio market and all the examples that company sees on the web are in fact just websites, how can we not pardon them for believing eportfolios are only websites?  This is not hypothetical.  AAEEBL deals with this issue regularly. 


Only a minority of eportfolio users use eportfolios directly for learning.  The industry depends on other uses to generate revenue.  ePortfolios for career advancement, eportfolios used in the corporate sector for employee review, eportfolios for institutional assessment in higher education, eportfolios for workforce development supported by governments and other non-pedagogical uses far outnumber eportfolios for learning from a global perspective. 


Yet, there is no question that if eportfolios were not ideal for learning, none of these other derivative uses would have as much value.  The eportfolio community is cohesive because it does understand the essential metacognitive power of eportfolios.  This recognition goes back to paper portfolio research and practice. 


Institutions are established to preserve something.  They cannot change very fast.  But institutions no longer enjoy a monopoly on knowledge.  They do still enjoy a monopoly on the prestige of the credential.  But, once eportfolios, micro-credentialing and other means of authentically crediting learning that are recognized by employers get established, even that monopoly will dissipate.  (Still, the college experience itself will always provide a life passage without comparison for value throughout life). 


As credentialing learning begins to move outside of educational institutional purview, all is possible, even likely.  Or, institutions will reach out to preserve their monopoly by creating systems to authenticate badges or other forms of micro-credentialing.  Either way, eportfolios could become the new learning management systems in a disbursed learning world.


When the EDUCAUSE annual survey surveys not just undergraduate students enrolled in colleges and universities but encompasses all learners, we may find a much higher percentage of eportfolio users using eportfolios for all the work they do.  The LMS will persist as a management and delivery instrument but as learning becomes much more disbursed, the eportfolio model – learners owning the instrument of their own learning record – becomes much more vital.

Tags:  AAEEBL  eportfolios 

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