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Toward "The Field Guide to ePortfolio"

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Provisioning Learners to be Stewards of Their Own Learning


What is an ePortfolio?  What is the ePortfolio Idea? 

What is the Meaning of the ePortfolio Movement?

Toward “The Field Guide to ePortfolio”


Technology acts as the hand directs; intentionality directs the hand.  Both the hand and the intention hide behind the technology.  This way, the intention can be realized.  We forgive technology. 

The hand’s acts and the intention driving the acts (practice and theory) are the important considerations for the whole learning enterprise.  The technology must follow both. 

Information technology has two faces:  centralizing control (the machine face) and distributed openness (the human face).  The control face is essential to modern society to organize and manage the complex structure of our society.  It is not bad; it is a continuation of the long process of human co-evolution with technology starting with simple tools and ending with the ultimate tool, information technology (because it controls other technologies).  The other face, the openness face – offering options and opportunities for creativity and imagination -- is also essential as the vital balance to the control face. This face is an amplifier to valuable human energies released by technology, and is therefore of special interest to educators.

The eportfolio community is energized by awareness of the human face of technology and also by the machine face that allows more complex learning designs than ever. Both faces are necessary.  The challenge is to imagine using the affordances of information technology to create new systems around the multitude of human interactions for learning now possible.  The eportfolio community actively works to create these systems, these new learning designs, and this is the special nature of this community. 

This Exquisite Moment

Of all the astounding possibilities that information technology offers to learners now, perhaps the most important is the chance to be stewards of their own learning.  ePortfolio technology, and all its ancillary technologies, provide a learning space separate from the institutionally-owned digital spaces – the LMS as one example.  The eportfolio space is “separate” because learners own the intellectual property within their eportfolio space, because they set permissions as to who can see their intellectual property (their work), and because the eportfolio space stays with the learner from course to course, on and off campus, and after graduation. 

As the transcript and the diploma lose credibility with employers, the eportfolio gains credibility.  It is a fuller and more palpable picture of what learners can do. 

Seizing this Moment

Higher education colleagues:  please recognize this possibility, this chance to engage students more fully because they can be stewards of their own learning.  Let’s seize this moment.  Let’s not use information technology to only extend institutional control into network space but also to enable students to be freer to find their own way.  Let’s not continue LMS thinking (course-, institution- and faculty-centered) but instead get behind eportfolio thinking (learner-centered):  this thinking recognizes the difference between the teacher doing the learning work FOR the learner and the learner doing the learning work for themselves.  ePortfolio thinking is a recognition that the balance between teacher hegemony and student hegemony can be moved more toward the student.

We have that choice now – higher education in the U. S. and around the world – we can accept the fact that knowledge and information are no longer rare but digital and distributed and everywhere and that therefore we have to continue to re-think how we educate.  Otherwise, we will most likely veer too far toward the control face of information technology – doing what we’ve always done but more efficiently.    

We educators don’t own the knowledge garden anymore.  We live instead in a field of infinite learning possibilities.  Knowledge is all around us.  The whole world is the educational space.  And this is good.  We need to learn to operate in this new learning reality.  We need to give up the instinct to control and instead embrace the wondrous abundance of learning sources around us and the chance for learners to grow faster and more fully than ever in history.

Use the ability of new technologies to manage more variable ways of learning. Support constructivist approaches to learning.  Emphasize creativity and exploration as much as the rage for order. 

How Can the ePortfolio Community Convey the Significance of ePortfolios?

As the quote at the beginning of this blog says, the technology does nothing – it is “the hand “ and the intention behind the hand that does the doing.  The significance of eportfolios, therefore, is that a large number of people around the world all understand that eportfolios provide ways for learners to create their own learning paths – beyond the prescribed, beyond the beaten path, beyond the assembly line.

Not all traditional colleage-age learners can create their own learning paths, of course, but a growing number of learners – as the term “learner” now applies to people of all ages -- must create their own learning paths throughout life as life-long learning is increasingly common and necessary.  And, moving more toward personalized and self-paced learning designs may well more fully engage all learners.  The eportfolio community is part of the movement toward a new ecology of learning.

But, the challenge to the eportfolio community is that many if not most people do not understand that “eportfolio” is more than just a technology.  It is not unusual to hear at a conference that “the eportfolio is no longer important; its hype cycle is over.”  This is true, but the inference that eportfolios are passé – because they did not revolutionize education overnight as the hype suggested – is wrong.  Surveys of higher education show a steady and strong growth in the use of eportfolios in higher education. 

How to convey what we know of eportfolio potential?  The key, I believe, is for the community to find consensus on what we all see as the essence of our movement.  We must have a “field guide to eportfolio,” a community framework of knowledge about eportfolios, about the eportfolio idea, and about the meaning of our community.  A shared document that can be referred to by all will help glue together our global community and also help to shed the eportfolio scales from the eyes of educators.  

How We Will Create our “Field Guide to ePortfolio”?

Over the next year, AAEEBL, EPAC, AAC&U and IJeP are conducting webinars each month to gather the thoughts of eportfolio leaders and technology providers working toward a recorded set of comments that will provide one source for a planned publication from AAC&U to answer the questions posed in the title of this blog:  what is an eportfolio?  What is the eportfolio idea? And what is the meaning of the eportfolio movement?

Eyes Beyond the Classroom

Learners can be stewards of their learning because technology gives educators eyes beyond the classroom:  learners are the stewards but they are also collecting mementos and evidence of what they do beyond the classroom for assessment after the fact – eportfolios allow them to do this. 

ePortfolio is not a technology only, nor only the field and community of practice centered around the use of eportfolios. Instead, eportfolio is – essentially – a key part of the move away from centralizing education in the institution toward a more distributed educational structure.  ePortfolios are a key part because they provision learners to be stewards of their own learning.

A Bonus

I include an article in its entirety from the Chronicle of Higher Education, with permission from the author and the Chronicle.  It was published on May 19, 2015.  The article is related to this blog.  Thanks to Kentaro Toyama for his gracious permission to re-post his article. 

Why Technology Will Never Fix Education

In 2004, I moved to India to help found a new research lab for Microsoft. Based in Bangalore, it quickly became a hub for cutting-edge computer science. My own focus shifted with the move, and I began to explore applications of digital technologies for the socioeconomic growth of poor communities. India struggles to educate its billion-plus population, so during the five years that I was there, my team considered how computers, mobile phones, and other devices could aid learning.

Sadly, what we found was that even when technology tested well in experiments, the attempt to scale up its impact was limited by the availability of strong leadership, good teachers, and involved parents — all elements that are unfortunately in short supply in India’s vast but woefully underfunded government school system. In other words, the technology’s value was in direct proportion to the instructor’s capability.

Over time, I came to think of this as technology’s Law of Amplification: While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm.

When I returned to the United States and took an academic post, I saw that the idea applies as much to higher education in America as it does to general education in India. This past semester, I taught an undergraduate course called "IT and Global Society." The students read about high-profile projects like One Laptop Per Child and the TED-Prize-winning Hole-in-the-Wall program. Proponents argue that students can overcome educational hurdles with low-cost digital devices, but rigorous research fails to show much educational impact of technology in and of itself, even when offered free.

My students — all undergrads and digital natives — were at first surprised that technology did so little for education. They had a deep sense that they benefited from digital tools. And they were right to have that feeling. As relatively well-off students enrolled at a good university, they were all but guaranteed a solid education; being able to download articles online and exchange emails with their professors amplified the fundamentals.

But their personal intuition didn’t always transfer to other contexts. In fact, even in their own lives, it was easy to show that technology by itself didn’t necessarily cause more learning. To drive this point home, I asked them a series of questions about their own experience:

"How many of you have ever tried to take a free course on the Internet?" Over half the class raised their hands.

"And how many completed it?" All the hands went down.

"Why didn’t you continue?" Most students said they didn’t get past two or three online lectures. Someone mentioned lack of peer pressure to continue. Another suggested it wasn’t worth it without the credits. One student said simply, "I’m lazy. Even in a regular class, I probably wouldn’t do my homework unless I felt the disapproval of the professor."

In effect, the students demonstrated an informal grasp of exactly what studies about educational technologies often find. So, if my tech-immersed undergraduates could intuit the limits of educational technology, why do educators, policy makers, and entrepreneurs keep falling for its false promise?

One problem is a widespread impression that Silicon Valley innovations are necessarily good for society. We confuse business success with social value, though the two often differ. Just for example, how is it that during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.

The Law of Amplification provides one such framework: At heart, it affirms that technology is a tool, which means that any positive effects depend on well-intentioned, capable people. But this also means that good outcomes are never guaranteed. What amplification predicts is that technological effects follow underlying social currents.

MOOCs offer a convenient example. Proponents cite the potential for MOOCs to lower the costs of education, based on the assumption that low-cost content is what is needed. Of course, the Internet offers dirt-cheap replicability, and it undeniably amplifies content producers’ ability to reach a mass audience. But if free content were all that was needed for an education, everyone with broadband connectivity would be an Ivy League Ph.D.

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.

Arizona State University’s recent partnership with edX to offer MOOCs is an attempt to do this, but if its student assessments fall short (or aren’t tied to verified identities), other universities and employers won’t accept them. And if the program doesn’t establish genuine rapport with students, then it won’t have the standing to issue credible nudges. (Automated text-message reminders to study will quickly become so much spam.) For technological amplification to lower the costs of higher education, it has to build on student motivation, and that motivation is tied not to content availability but to credentialing and social encouragement.

The Law of Amplification’s least appreciated consequence, however, is that technology on its own amplifies underlying socioeconomic inequalities. To begin with, the rich will always be able to afford more technology, and low-cost technology in no way solves that. There is no digital keeping up with the Joneses.

But even an equitable distribution of technology aggravates inequality. Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby. And these things are even more true online than offline. Sure, educational technologies can lower costs for everyone, but it’s those with existing advantages who are best positioned to capitalize on them.

In fact, studies confirm exactly this: Well-educated men with office jobs disproportionately complete MOOC courses, while lower-income young adults barely enroll. The primary effect of free online courses is to further educate an already well-educated group who will pull away from less-educated others. The educational rich just get richer.

So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no technological fix, and that is perhaps the hardest lesson of amplification. More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.

Kentaro Toyama is an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and the author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology, published this month by PublicAffairs.


Tags:  eportfolio AAEEBL 

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