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The Historical Significance of ePortfolios: Realizing the Move to Personalization

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, September 29, 2014

Batson Blog 9-26-14

 

The Historical Significance of ePortfolios:  Realizing the Move to Personalization

ePortfolios may serve as the bridge from the industrial era of “one-size-fits-all” education to the knowledge era of personalized learning.  Historians may look back decades hence and describe this era of educational transformation as a move from undifferentiated teaching to personalized learning.  And the major enabler for this transformation may be eportfolios and those who understand eportfolio learning. 

Definition of ePortfolio?

Many have offered definitions of “eportfolio.”  It is hard to get agreement as to which definition is the definition.  Is it a genre?  A learning space?  A resume? A collaborative space? An owned space?  A record?  A repository?  A website? 

And what is its purpose?  To advance reflective and integrative thinking?  To support the authentic and experiential high-impact practices as described by George Kuh?  To get a job?  Fulfill learning outcomes? Support competency-based learning?  Or self-paced learning?  Or adaptive learning?  Or workforce development?

Are we too close to the trees to see the forest?  Perhaps we need a larger context to better understand the essence of eportfolio. 

A Larger Context to Better Understand ePortfolios

In the first two decades of this millennium, there has been a coalescence of many trends to improve learning based on studies in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, education and other fields:  active, real world learning results in personal experiences that can be reflected upon is one way to describe this coalescence.  This learning approach seems to result in engaged and deep learning.  As we learn, collectively, more about learning, at the same time, the demand to learn throughout life has intensified.  As knowledge changes more quickly, it is hard to keep up. 

Culturally and economically, we humans have had to face more challenging economic times that seem permanent:  “work” has permanently changed and will continue to change as we tap the unlimited potential of the digital age.  In a breath-taking short decade or so, we became the knowledge economy and the “social” culture while we also became a predominantly urban nation. 

At the same time, in almost all ways in our culture, we have moved from the “mass” of the industrial age to the “individual” of the digital age.  According to some scientists, we are now in the “anthropocene” geological era where humans are the predominant force of global natural change.  How does one take all this in and adapt to such deep changes?

Personalization

In all of education, K-16 and throughout life, we are moving gradually from “one-size-fits-all” to personalization.  The concept of personalization helps us understand the historical meaning of the eportfolio phenomenon.  “Personalization” as a disciplinary term refers to learning experiences that are or can be tailored to the individual needs of the learner:  either an algorithm adapts content to fit the learning needs of the individual or the learner herself or himself discovers, over a semester or more, information that is used to create disciplinary content (that is, complete an assignment).  Personalization is either done for you or you do your own personalizing in a system that allows and supports an individual personalizing initiative.

The Role of ePortfolios in the Cultural Shift to Personalization

I think ePortfolios will be seen, historically, as the platform that instantiates and makes permanent the move to personalization, not only in educational institutions, but in all of life.  We may be able to look back decades in the future and see that the move to personalization was realized through the universal adoption of eportfolios.   This is because if learners are finding their own paths to learning outcomes, they need to show evidence that they have reached the outcomes.  ePortfolios are essential in the move to personalization.

Most references to “personalized learning” assume a technology that replaces a teacher or a tutor – adaptive learning applications, for example, such as The Khan Academy provides.  This machine-based approach continues the decades-old quest for automated teaching and assessment.  Intelligent tutors caught our attention in the mid-1980s only to quickly fade away.  Those being offered now are far superior and actually have a place in the mix of learning opportunities today.  But only in the mix. 

Curricular Design to Incorporate Personalized Learning

“Personalized learning” has also become the basis for entire colleges or universities to organize learning experiences for their campus, not offered by technology alone but as an over-arching understanding of how humans learn best.  

Sometimes “personalized learning” is named competency-based or self-paced or outcomes-based learning but they are all varying names for the over-all cultural move to personalization in learning and in many cultural and economic areas as well – you can build your own car these days, including the options you wish to have, for example – what we might call a personalized car.

How to Best Understand ePortfolios

Perhaps the best way to describe eportfolios is as the historical enabler for the move to personalization in education. Understood this way, the conflict between assessment management (learning outcomes eportfolio systems) and student learning eportfolios disappears:  you need learning outcomes to free eportfolios to become the primary work done in all learning contexts.  Using an assessment management system within a learning-outcomes framework can then enable the personal eportfolio to move to the center of the educational enterprise.   This might be called a personalized learning environment – a slight but important variation on a “personal learning environment.”  We might say the personal learning environment (the platform) is at the center of a personalized learning enterprise. 

The learning outcomes that serve to organize the personalized learning enterprise need to be pointed toward the thinking skills, attitudes and experiences needed in the knowledge economy.  Then, learning and employability as eportfolio functions are also unified since the outcomes are complimentary.  Framing the eportfolio phenomenon as a move to personalization encompasses all the various definitions I mentioned at the start of this blog.  It is a unifying concept and can help all of us better explain and understand what it is we are doing. 

The concept of the personal learning environment has been with us all along but has been limited to describing a technology platform.  Personalized learning, as a distinct term, has come forward in currency along with “adaptive learning” in the past few years.   If we can think of “personalized learning” as a whole new context for learning inside and outside the academy, both automated and learner-initiated, then the purpose and significance of eportfolios becomes clearer.  ePortfolios support and make possible the move to personalized learning. 

Tags:  Adaptive Learning  ePortfolio  Personalization 

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