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Portfolio Evidence-Based Learning (PEBL)

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, June 15, 2015

Portfolio Evidence-Based Learning (PEBL)

I’ve written a number of blogs related to the ongoing AAEEBL/EPAC/AAC&U/IJep webinars to define the eportfolio idea.  In these blogs, I have been struggling, as we all have for years, to best describe what we do, what we believe, and what we are.  A number of people are beginning to think the term “eportfolio” itself may be the problem.  In this blog, I found myself agreeing. 

Straining to Define “ePortfolio” 

The effort to define “eportfolio” as a model of learning is impaired by naming a learning idea after a technology.  Within the group of people who understand “eportfolio” to be a learning idea, we can succeed in defining “the eportfolio idea.”  It is a bit of a strain and a stretch, but we have learned to live with a concept of “eportfolio” that at least we in the field can understand. 

General Misunderstanding of “ePortfolio”

But, to the mass of educators around the world, the term “eportfolio” evokes a technology. Perhaps worse is that the term may also evoke centralized tracking of student progress and not the positive aspects of personal learning eportfolio our field holds dear. Our whole movement may be hurting itself by staying with a term that is not well understood, and more likely misunderstood, outside of our group. 

Secondly, it is very hard to define a learning theory implied by “eportfolio.”  The term itself does not describe a theory or scholarship but a thing.  We wouldn’t call agronomy “shovel.”  Nor does a set of practices made possible by “eportfolio” become a coherent learning theory.  And, if “eportfolio” is a genre, then, still, it is a thing and not a theory.  And, as attractive as it sounds to call “eportfolio” a “high impact educational practice,” it is not that either, as eportfolio is used in a wide variety of learning designs and so therefore is not just one practice.  The term in widest use that is closest to a workable term for theory building is “folio thinking.” 

Evidence-Based Learning

Some AAEEBL members are suggesting we use the term “evidence-based learning” instead of “eportfolio.”  It was the term I thought best described our field when we started AAEEBL, but “eportfolio” was still a term of interest in 2009 and 2010 and so AAEEBL is described as a “professional association for the eportfolio community” and the scholarly journal in our field is called The International Journal of ePortfolio and AAC&U’s annual event is called The ePortfolio Forum and so on around the world. 

But, as we consider our nomenclature, we probably don’t want to eliminate “eportfolio.”  Using only “evidence-based learning” as our actual academic and research field, would cut away our eportfolio roots and make us seem just one more of dozens of x-based learning movements.  Our community, and AAEEBL, are unusual – maybe unique – in championing both an approach to learning and the technology that enables it.  This is why I think we might want to consider “Portfolio- Evidence-Based Learning (PEBL).”

Constructivist Learning Theories

As a community identified as evidence-based learning, many threads of learning theories that have lasted over a century, and others that have arisen more recently, lead to and are encompassed within PEBL.  As the eportfolio field, we are an oddity, but as PEBL, we are a new and appropriate hybrid field, re-fashioning proven approaches to learning with the affordances of the digital age.  We can, instead of being an oddity, place ourselves within a rich tradition of constructivist learning varieties.

The Centrality of “Evidence.”

PEBL, this proposed term, has “evidence” as its central and most compelling term.  Our field is first about students having a palpable and significant stake in their own learning, an idea that has grounding in learning theory stretching back over a century.  But missing from this century-long experience of employing constructivist approaches in learning designs is the whole collecting of authentic and broad-scale evidence of student work to incorporate into student-centered learning designs.

The “evidence” part of our theory is what our field brings to the tradition of constructivist approaches:  the evidence completes the circle of teacher-student-teacher.  The teacher starts the cycle by helping students frame a problem or project or assignment, the students work in teams or individually and gather evidence of their un-monitored work, and then bring that evidence to the teacher to help the students to connect their evidence with disciplinary concepts.  Evidence then provides a fourth step (teacher-student-teacher-student) that was hard to do without digital portfolios:  reflection on the evidence as it relates or integrates with prior work over months or years.

The collection of evidence therefore adds two dimensions to traditional constructivist approaches:  first, a much fuller, more detailed, multi-modal set of evidence of unmonitored work to link to disciplinary concepts, and, second, access to a personal collection of such evidence gathered over time to integrate.  Making connections to previous ideas and discoveries is at the core of learning.

Portfolio Evidence-Based Learning (PEBL) is therefore both a continuation of such learning trends as problem- or project-based learning, of experiential learning, service learning, co-op learning, internship learning, inquiry-based learning, self-paced learning and on an on and the building out of these trends into their twenty-first century realizations. 

The term “PEBL” allows us to both embed our work into the most promising of learning trends and transform those threads into models for this century.  PEBL is a theory itself – evidence used on behalf of developing the metacognitive aspects of reflection and integration – that also adds enormous dimensionality to existing learning theories and practices. 

Important Note

This blog is not an announcement.  It’s not an AAEEBL policy statement; instead these are my thoughts as a scholar at this moment.  The webinar series to define the eportfolio idea is into its third month and, for me at least, I am seeing very clearly the problems with the term “eportfolio.”  It seems we might be at a watershed moment.

Tags:  ePortfolio  evidence-based learning 

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