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ePortfolio is actually about the pedagogy and the technology

Posted By Christopher Sheehan, Friday, March 4, 2016

Hello everyone,

For some time I have been struggling with my perception of how the ePortfolio community brushes off the importance of the technology used in the conversation of ePortfolio. I am at a point now that I nearly cringe when I hear, “an ePortfolio is never about the technology, it is always about the pedagogy.” At the last AAC&U National conference I heard this phrase eight different times from members of our ePortfolio community. This makes me realize that we have no real technology voices in the community of ePortfolio. A person who says “an ePortfolio is never about the technology, it is always about the pedagogy,” in my opinion is providing a disservice to the ePortfolio community. I have recently sent some notes to some visionaries and thought leaders in the world of ePortfolio and today I contribute this blog entry in the hope that I can successfully argue to our community that today, the actual statement should be stated as “ePortfolios are a blend of the correct technology and the correct pedagogy”.

Ask any technology director or decision maker at a University about ePortfolio today in 2016 and he/she will respond with questions about integration (to the university environment, to the LMS, to 3rd party tools), single sign on (SSO), course enrollment, scalability, accessibility, analytics, privacy, FERPA, and 45 other things. You will notice that none of these concepts fit nicely into the pedagogical definition of an ePortfolio. Have a conversation with any vendor (which is how this conversation originally began) and you will see that it is absolutely one of the most important and ongoing discussions which takes place with all ePortfolio vendors. With all of this said, why it is that our community never talks about it? I believe that  one contributing reason is limited participation of people trained in researching, evaluating and piloting technology at the university level in our ePortfolio community. In my opinion, a population of technologists and instructional designers is clearly lacking in our ePortfolio community and I believe this must change. To me the point should always be that the conditions for success are a technology application that does what you need to do and a clear understanding of the purpose of that need.  A combination of a capable technology and a clear purpose is necessary. This is achieved in partnership with your technology design team at your school or university. For some who do not have a technology team, the task is to seek out good quality information but to more importantly realize that you need quality advice and resources to help you identify the correct tool and to understand its true potential. There is a process to the deployment of academic technology at an enterprise level. We absolutely must be talking about this process in our ePortfolio community. If we want ePortfolio to be a university tool instead of a tool used in some classrooms, we must be talking about this.

I can easily make the argument that functionality and the level of integration of the tool selected will impact significantly the pedagogy that will be used. For example, it is pretty easy to make some simple but glaring observations between using something like a Wiki as an ePortfolio and using one of the current “off the rack” ePortfolio technologies. In my mind at least, the promise and power of an ePortfolio is very much tied to the technology and more importantly the innovation of ePortfolio technology that we see in the current off the rack products. What the end user and the institution can accomplish with current ePortfolio technologies is significantly different from what was accomplished with the first technologies used as ePortfolio. Comparing old ePortfolio technology and new ePortfolio technology is not like comparing apples to apples, today it is like comparing apples to oranges.

I also believe that if we are going to move mountains with ePortfolio, we need to be much more clear about the vast canyon size differences between all the technology that is either being called or are self-identifying as ePortfolio in 2016. The important point should be the massive innovation in the space of ePortfolio technology. I have recently made the point to some of our ePortfolio thought leaders that I believe that the slow enterprise adoption (campus wide) of ePortfolio on Universities across the United States is a direct result of the lack of clarity of what this technology is actually capable of today. When a person suggests a wiki is an ePortfolio, do you think this person has a clear understanding of ePortfolio? On the flip side of this conversation do you find it interesting that just a few years ago many of the companies that today call themselves ePortfolio companies called themselves “assessment management companies” or other names but clearly never even used the word ePortfolio in their company branding? Today we have self labeled ePortfolio companies which do not even have a public facing web space for the end user. In my mind there are some very clear minimum expectations for any technology to be identified as an ePortfolio technology. I would like to propose that we need more voices to contribute to this idea of a minimum technology functionality. Should there be a minimum expectation that a technology tool provides for that tool to be labeled an ePortfolio in 2016 and beyond? To be clear, today we do not have any “ePortfolio police” so the community is helpless when new technology begins to call themselves an ePortfolio regardless of the features the technology provides. Also, and in my opinion, we are equally as helpless when we continue to think of technology such as a Wiki as an ePortfolio instead of just thinking about a Wiki as just a Wiki.

Last year, my mentor and friend Helen Chen (fantastic human) and I brought an ongoing dialogue to Trent Batson about what an ePortfolio is. This dialogue lead to the AAEEBL webinar series (of which I was a presenter) and ultimately to the Field Guide that is being built right now. As I look through the Field Guide sections I am hoping that the importance of technology is made very clear. Why is it that all Universities are not currently in line and ready to deploy ePortfolios on every campus. I believe one reason is our ePortfolio professional organizations are not really providing clarity about ePortfolio technology and its capabilities. We must do better, we must make it easier to understand ePortfolio technology, especially for schools that do not have dedicated teams that support that process. With that said, I am very happy to see that the ePortfolio community is now working on a definition of what an ePortfolio actually is, with the goal of using our new shared definition moving forward but to be clear we have much more work to accomplish.

In closing I share my belief that there is significant importance in the selection and type of technology that will be used for ePortfolio. It is my hope that this concept is actually woven through the field guide in a partnership with pedagogy. At Arizona State University we have done very well with ePortfolio and I believe one reason we have been so successful is that we see the technology and the pedagogy as equal participants in the creation of a quality ePortfolio experience.

Thanks for listening,

Christopher Sheehan

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