Those who talk about eportfolios often note how many different uses eportfolios are put to. Some say, in reaction, “if everything is an eportfolio, then nothing is an eportfolio.” And, most also say “it is not the technology, but how the technology is used.” We seem to most often talk about eportfolio uses as if that is all we need to say.
If we look just at how eportfolios are instrumented (i.e., used), we can indeed become quickly confused. Are these uses about learning? Or assessment? Or identity? Or recognition of prior learning? Or? At the recent AAEEBL conference, the planning committee found it a challenge to limit the number of tracks to a workable number because eportfolios can add value to the educational experience in so many ways, from institution-centered to learning-centered or career-centered.
Not How? but Why?
But, in light of the sometimes baffling profusion of uses eporfolio users have developed, maybe we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “how are eportfolios used?,” we should be asking “why are eportfolios used?” Maybe that question would lead us to a common thread, an underlying goal, in all eportfolio uses.
Any one of the uses referred to above might be sufficient for educators to explore eportfolios. Each use has value in and of itself. But, what really drives this community? What inchoate notion drives people to put so much energy, time and risk into advocating for or supporting eportfolios?
An ePortfolio Hope
The source of my own hope about eportfolios is my experience using computers to teach writing in 1985. The first instances of local area networks (LANs) had been released. At the same time, some creative people wrote code for what was called, variously, cb (for citizen’s band radio, popular with not only truck drivers in the early 1980s but with all drivers), xxyyzz, and one or two other variations on what we now call “chat.” When I and my collaborators installed a LAN in a computer lab and programmed it with cb (reportedly written by an IBMer on a weekend and offered for free), we then launched the first network-based classroom for teaching writing, a project called ENFI (English Natural Form Instruction).
The Project went on to get major funding from the Annenberg CPB Foundations and won an EDUCOM (predecessor to EUCAUSE) award for best application for basic writers. A company was formed to market a product that supported the ENFI idea and we published a book with Cambridge University Press about network-based classrooms.
Why did ENFI catch on? Because the “natural form” referenced in the project title was about learning to write as humans learn to speak: through conversation. Linguists and philosophers had recognized the power of dialog for learning years before 1985, but the LAN made it possible to finally apply dialog learning in a writing class with 20 to 30 students. We saw the irony of technology allowing the writing classroom to apply natural forms of learning – a dialogic approach – to the learning enterprise. Machines restoring natural forms of learning??
A Way to Understand the Cultural Phenomenon of ePortfolios
And the irony continues. Behind all the talk of reflective thinking, of metacognition, of integrative thinking, folio thinking, assessment for learning, social pedagogies, digital story-telling, and even career success; behind all of the excitement about eportfolios to the point where more than half of all U. S. higher education students use eportfolios at some point in their college career; behind the growth of the eportfolio industry, the establishment of the Inter/National Center for ePortfolio Research, the Making Connections Center at LaGuardia Community College, EIfEL (now ePIC), the Centre for Recording Achievement, AAEEBL, The Generative Knowledge Project, ePortfolios Australia, the International Journal of ePortfolio, the AAC&U annual eportfolio forum, and all the other conferences and funded projects and eportfolio campus efforts, is a tangible sense that something important is happening around eportfolios, something monumental, a watershed phenomenon.
It is this tangible sense that drives me and probably drives others in the eportfolio community as well.
This sense of eportfolio demarcating a watershed moment in the history of education, I believe, is an awareness that we are slowly moving away from an educational structure created not based on how humans learn but how an institution could practically educate thousands of learners within a sustainable business model. We are slowly moving away from that monolithic structure that requires big words to rationalize it and to a simpler but multi-faceted educational structure that requires only everyday words to explain: learners need to be active; they need to learn in a real-world context; they learn by cooperating with others. Or, even simpler: they learn best by engaging in learning as humans have for thousands of years. They learn best by using natural forms of learning.
How do eportfolios support natural learning forms?
The term “natural learning” has some currency among K-12 educators and leaders but those who use the term seem to see it as “unschooling.” This is not at all the sense of the phrase I’m using in this blog. “Natural learning forms,” to me, means using those activities and interactions that people choose to use. Build on what people already do. People are already curious, already want to explore, already social, already interested in collecting artifacts (souvenirs, photos) from experiences, already interested in stories, and on and on.
An educational structure built on what young people already want to do and are good at is building on natural forms of learning. Montessori schools use some natural forms of learning. The cluster of high-impact educational practices George Kuh identified and analyzed in a 2008 publication in many cases are compatible with “natural forms of learning” as I am using the term:
1. First-year seminars and experiences: small groups.
2. Common intellectual experiences: learning communities focusing on a few key ideas.
3. Learning communities: students in the community take courses together over time.
4. Writing-intensive courses: writing within a disciplinary context for a purpose in multiple “content” courses.
5. Collaborative assignments and projects: cooperating and learning from peers.
6. Undergraduate research: real-life research on openly contested problems.
7. Diversity/global learning: sometimes, experiential learning on site; understand yourself and your culture better by understanding others.
8. Service learning; community-based learning: getting connected to a community; addressing real-life problems.
9. Internships: authentic, real-world learning.
10. Capstone courses and projects: revisiting your own experiences and publishing your discoveries.
These ten practices emphasize learning in teams or groups and real-life learning experiences. Each, therefore, aims to use a natural form of learning – social learning and experiential learning.
An eleventh high-impact practice, informally recognized by the eporfolio community, is the meta-high impact practice of using eportfolios in any of the ten HIPs list above. ePortfolios add a personal and longitudinal dimension to each of the ten.
Change in Higher Education is Underway
Educators have recognized for decades that the educational enterprise needs a fundamental restructuring, a re-thinking of basic assumptions, and a move-away from the business-mandated course/curriculum/grades/degree structure. The HIPs and many other initiatives such as competency-based learning or self-paced learning and so on, are underway. However, for many, change seems far too slow given the challenges of adjusting not only to a new economy and work culture, but also to constant rapid change. Does the current educational experience align with the new economy and work culture?
ePortfolios facilitate change. This is their power. Fundamental to that power is a very simple phenomenon: the learner, in his or her eportfolio, has a private space that they own and that stays with them. Learners rarely, if ever, believe they “own” the classroom or the knowledge in a field. But, they can and do believe they own their own learning documented in their eportfolio. Not only do they usually control permissions in the eportfolio, but the eportfolio stays with them after the course and often for the course of their college career and sometimes beyond.
A course, a course of study, a college or a university can use eportfolios to change the fundamental dynamics now employed. Once educators understand the why of eportfolios, they might see more clearly how to transform a course or a campus.
What’s in Store?
It would be possible to attend a number of colleges and universities in the U. S. and internationally and see no differences between now and 50 years ago. Or, what differences you see are scattered and scarce. Despite rapid change almost everywhere in our culture, higher education is, in general, changing by tweaking the legacy educational enterprise. What was a Rube Goldberg “machine” to begin with has become ever more so.
ePortfolios are in use throughout U. S. higher education but only in scattered courses or programs on most campuses. If more educators understood how eportfolios promote and support natural forms of learning, eportfolios might seem more attractive. But, it is hard for educators to understand eportfolios by hearing or reading about the multiple uses of eportfolios.
Perhaps if we in the community communicate more about the “why” of eportfolio – moving education away from a structure that is showing wear and tear to a structure closer to what we now know are human ways of learning – more of our colleagues would grasp the eportfolio value proposition.