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Ontology of "ePortfolio"

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Thursday, April 9, 2015


Register for the next webinar in the AAEEBL Webinar Series on "What is an ePortfolio," co-sponsored by EPAC, April 15, 2 pm to 3:15 pm US EDT.  Helen Chen and Chris Sheehan. Those who register will receive the URL to login on the 15th.  All webinars are recorded and can be viewed later. 

Ontology of “ePortfolio”

AAEEBL is undertaking the task of defining the term “eportfolio.”  Is it a genre, or a set of practices, or a showcase, or a technology?  Or all four and other descriptions?  What we see most commonly is a definition of the technology affordances that, as I have argued in a previous blog, tend to be minimalist and therefore misleading. 

Definitions do tend to be minimalist so that all can agree, at least, on the definition as a starting point.  But, a starting point is not sufficient to convey the cultural and historical significance of “eportfolio.” 

At this point, we need to work toward not just a definition but an ontology, a way to specify the entire concept of “eportfolio.”  For example, the term “eportfolio” is often used within our field to describe an entire initiative, as in “eportfolio has changed how we organize learning.”  When we hear or read a statement like that, those who are informed about eportfolios do not think the technology itself has acted but that humans have acted using the affordances of eportfolios. 

Within the discourse in our field, “eportfolio” is used in ways that imply our field shares a deep concept of what "eportfolio" is.  It is this deep concept that makes us a field and drives the interest in using eportfolios.  It is not common for a field of inquiry and practice to grow from a technology in the way our field has developed, so there must be something special about “eportfolio” that drives us.  

But to get to the ontology of “eportfolio,” we need to start with what that deep concept is.  If we continue to postpone coming to consensus in our field, not only will our field suffer from lack of focus but the commercial market for eportfolios will itself fork into eportfolio wannabees that use the term but do not support expression of that deep concept we share. 

The AAEEBL Webinar this calendar year is intended to help us all arrive at the definition behind the definition, or, the ontology of “eportfolio.”  A taxonomy, instead, might just cloud the picture even more because it would be identifying all the uses of eportfolio without getting at the deep concept that is at the center of “eportfolio” in our minds. 

What do we associate with “eportfolio”?  Deep learning, engaged learning, integrative learning, reflective thinking, metacognition and other cognitive attributes.  But also we associate “eportfolio” with identity and personal development.  Personal development can apply to learning while enrolled in a program of formal study, or it can apply to personal development in a career.  We also associate “eportfolio” with life-long coherence, a record; and with life-wide application, multiple websites created for different purposes. 

And more deeply, we associate eportfolio with transformation to forms more appropriate in a technology culture, forms of learning and assessment and self-expression. 

We also associate “eportfolio” with various values in learning, such as the power of having one’s own digital space, of owning our own learning, the mobility of that digital space and its persistence.  In that space, we must be able to find things and re-arrange them and show them.  Just like a physical space, we need to be comfortable in our digital space.

We live in a new ecology of abundance of knowledge that is transient.  To adapt to this ecology, we humans need our own digital spaces, just as in a physical ecology, we need our houses and cars and other interior spaces.  We need an eportfolio.

If our definition does not start with the deep concept we have of “eportfolio,” the definition will not serve us well.  Information technology can be used for control – something we recognize as important but also fear – or it can be used for liberation and creativity.  While institutions may favor the control aspects of eportfolios as assessment management systems that help institutions know how students are progressing toward learning outcomes, most likely the real driving force behind the eportfolio field is not grounded in this control side of eportfolios, but in the personal side of eportfolios.  

An ontology of “eportfolio” can capture the deep meanings (“concept”) we share about “eportfolio,” and should therefore be a big part of our drive this year toward a shared explicit description of “eportfolio.”


The webinar series, plus a series of blogs, are meant to spur on the conversation within our field. 







Tags:  ePortfolio AAEEBL 

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Bruno Kappes, University of Alaska Anchorage says...
Posted Thursday, April 9, 2015
I wholeheartedly accept and agree with your views on this meaningful definition of eportfolio. You have defined for me what I appreciate as the role and goals of an "academic portfolio". I am sure others not so academically minded would minimize these values in favor of "vocational showcasing".
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Stephen Parsons says...
Posted Friday, April 10, 2015
Getting the scope right and defining the basis for classification may be as important as the definition arrived at. I am no philosopher, but some of this discussion seems to resonate with the software developer in me, particularly paralleled by the notion of Object-Oriented software development. In that realm, the abstraction of an object or entity is very important - it allows the development of a "Class" definition from which objects can be developed and a hierarchy created (inheriting base properties from those parent objects and classes). That initial class must have the minimum characteristics that all subsequent "child" objects will have, although child objects may have additional characteristics (polymorphism). Perhaps this is what an ontology is (ontology is also used in software development language)?

Meanwhile, too broad a definition - or encompassing characteristics of other "related" entities - seems a potential danger as well. When you discuss deep learning, engaged learning," reflection, etc. I see that as a definition of "portfolio learning", which is a wonderful pedagaogy, but which does not require "e" to be successfully deployed. That "e" is an important distinction and one we need to determine in terms of scope. I, for on, am not one who might agree with your guest yesterday who (perhaps like Helen Barrett et al) believe that any "digital portfolio" is (or can be) an "eportfolio". But if the community supports that as a base definition, then I'll get behind it. Because anybody these days can create a personal website and call it an eportfolio, there is a very real possibility that much of the richness (and the supporting elements) you mention would not be well supported if we adopt such a loose classification.

Thanks for your continuing work on this, Trent - the webinar yesterday was very insightful and I look forward to the ones coming up.
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