The ePortfolio as Archetypal Literate Form
After finishing my Ph.D., I became interested in linguistics and enrolled in enough graduate courses in linguistics for a post-doc. Part of that study was in discourse analysis while I was serving as a visiting faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University. At the same time, discourse analysis became important to me for the grant-funded work I did with network-based classrooms: teaching writing through writing in a networked classroom. I worked with a scholar from The Center for Applied Linguistics over a period of 8 years using discourse analysis on the transcripts we collected from my network-based classroom. Discourse analysis enabled us to study and understand the complex discourse in a lengthy group chat session.
With that background in mind, I began this summer considering eportfolios from the perspective of discourse analysis. Because discourse – a dialogue with few or many – can be open-ended and extends over time, I began seeing how framing eportfolios as discourse could be a very useful way to understand the phenomenon of eportfolios.
Also, I thought, “discourse” seems to fit the times: digital interaction has become a constant in the lives of many. We are living among ongoing conversations.
Discourse, like genres of literature, can take on many forms. Some forms are predictable and brief such as a greeting in passing on the campus but others are more complex and not as precisely predictable (“rule- bound”), such as an email thread about a topic that extends over a number of days.
As I thought more about eportfolios as discourse forms, the more it made sense to see them that way. What follows is the result of my thoughts over the past month regarding eportfolios and discourse analysis.
What is an ePortfolio?
The AAEEBL community started discussing “what is an eportfolio?” in April 2015 via a series of webinars. This inquiry continues in the Field Guide to ePortfolio Project that will continue over the next year but also in the continuation of the webinar series this year. We have gone beyond the technology definition of “eportfolio” and have begun to identify the meanings of eportfolio, what people use eportfolios for, and what the importance is of this technology and its attendant set of practices at this point in time.
It is of course enough that eportfolios improve learning (and therefore extend the value of using eportfolios for assessment and employability), but there is something else about the eportfolio movement that is important to notice: by developing well-constructed eportfolios that are maintained over time, learners are gaining skills working in the archetypal literate form of our time. They are engaging in the literacy practices of this age, and these practices are far different from the literacy practices of the previous millennium. This is an important value of eportfolios that has not been mentioned enough, I think.
What is a Literate Form and What is the New Literacy?
Literacy is generally recognized as the ability to decipher, use and understand the secondary code of a language – that is, writing and reading. The term “digital literacy” has become a catchall referring to skills with digital applications. But actual literacy in this digital era is more than just being able to use digital applications. Reading and writing has been linear up until recently. But, now, with links and multi-modal presentation of information, literacy skills are more varied and challenging, both in interpretation and in creation.
A “form” is a literacy element such as a genre of literature or a research report or a resume or a political speech or even spoken interaction with an infant. Each form has predictable elements and also a semi-predictable structure. An eportfolio is also a form that is often understood as a website. Yet, as rich as websites can be with links and layers, the eportfolio form is more than a one-off website. A personal eportfolio is perhaps best understood as a discourse form – a dialogue between the eportfolio owner and the multiple audiences over time for whom the eportfolio is intended. A discourse form is tied together not so much by structure (as is a genre of literature) as by cohesion elements.
Cohesion elements are created by repetition of key phrases or words, a consistent viewpoint or tone, a guiding concept or other means of referring to an ongoing purpose. Since eportfolios are never done (finished), but are open-ended, they can reasonably be seen as a dialog or conversation. Seeing eportfolios as discourse is closer to what they actually are and seeing them this way avoids the mistaken belief that one website is an eportfolio. (An eportfolio can have many genres within it, but it itself is probably best understood as a discourse form).
A personal eportfolio does not have a beginning, middle and end. It has a purpose but does not have a single conclusion but instead many “conclusions” or presentations over time. It is a living thing, constantly curated over time.
One cohesion element in an eportfolio is links to artifacts in the eportfolio, an act of integrative thinking. In the fluid digital world in which we now work and learn, we can perhaps better understand our literacy forms as discourse forms rather than as static forms.
Why is it Productive to Think of ePortfolios as Discourse?
The eportfolio understood as a discourse form reveals more of its true nature and is more easily communicated to others: it is not a website but an ongoing dialogue accessed through a website.
The personal eportfolio is an archetypal form of this age. Seeing eportfolios in this way frames the work we do in AAEEBL. ePortfolios are important precisely because they are a new archetypal form. Creating an eportfolio requires many of the same skills as creating any website: deciding what to feature, what is important, who is the audience, what is your purpose; but it also requires longitudinal curating toward the end of achieving goals.
When we are asked “what is an eportfolio?” we might best answer this question by saying it is a new discourse form that is appropriate and important to every variety of learning. It is a way for learners to become adept in the new demands of literacy in this era.