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e-Portfolios – WTF

September 4th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Last year’s F-Alt fun was kicked off by a strange tweet by Scott Wilson from Warrington Station, if I remember rightly. Pondering, he said on e-Portfolios, WTF. WTF, we asked him, what are your ideas? And so the debate was born.

A year on, it seems apposite to think again about e-Portfolios. Over the past few years, I have worked on a series of e-Portfolio projects, including the European MOSEP project and a series of projects seeking to develop e-Portfolios for both advisers and students for careers advice, guidance and counselling.

We have used a variety of applications including Mahara and Freefolio (based on WordPress) with varying success. The projects have generated a fair bit of enthusiasm (and certainly have attracted much effort from teachers, researchers and other learning professionals). Yet I cannot really say any have been an unreserved success, nor are they really sustainable. Hence the return to Scott’s question.

The problem as I see it, is that however designed and configured, e-Portfolios are only a container for student work. At worse the recording and reporting of such achievement is constrained by course objectives or outcomes, at best learners are encouraged to report on wider learning from outside institutional courses. But the limitation remains.

There are four key functions an e-Portfolio could fulfil to help learners.

The first is in developing their digital identity – as a learner – though a dynamically generated profile.

The second is in reflecting on learning.

The third is in reporting on that learning – flexibly and creatively.

The fourth is developing and sustaining a personal learning network

The problem is that e-portfolios are remarkably poor at doing any of these. A profile is something you fill in when you set up your e-Portfolio and all to often little happens to it after it is set up. Reflection is something everyone says is important but then passes on quickly to the next issue. reporting is still horribly static and usually amounts to little more than the ability to develop a slideshow or to write about a collection of artefacts. And as for social networking, most e-portfolios still assume learning and achievement is something that either takes place through classroom or assignment groups or as an individual activity.

However, I think we can develop Technology Enhanced Learning applications to support all of these activities – if we break away from the idea of e-portfolios as a container. I am working with a group of Careers Personal Advisers in the UK on a project. Instead of trying to implement an e-portfolio application, we are working on developing loosely coupled web tools to support instances of reflection and learning., The enthusiasm and creativity of the Personal advisers is truly awesome. Freed up from the constraints of the e-portfolio, they are developing ideas which they see as promoting effective learning. many of those ideas are focused on helping learners to explore their own identities as learners – and in the process ot develop their identity. Instead of a constraint, they see the use of multi media as a medium for exploring, for bringing the activities to life. And as developers, instead of explaining what an application can do, we are using our expertise to try to implement their ideas.

I understand the concerns of e-Portfolio enthusiasts to ensure that young people have a personal electronic record of their achievement. But, with disk space so cheap, and with the increasing skill of young people in using computers, I do not think we need yet another institutionally approved container for that purpose. It is much the same argument as that over whether we need VLEs. Lets retain all that was good about the idea of e-portfolios but stop trying to manage and contain learning. Lets try to release the natural creativity – not just of learners but of teachers as well.

4 Responses to “e-Portfolios – WTF”

  1. I do agree with you Graham!

    Do you remember our e-portefolio approach for SAPO Campus project?

    Within SAPO Campus we’ve an e-Portefolio tool but it only makes sense when connected with the other tools provides by the platform. SAPO Campus provides a large range of Web 2.0 open to the community and all members are able to use it for formal or informal contexts and build a PLE. The SAPO Campus e-Portefolio tool provides an easy way to build public pages with user selected content/reflections available within SAPO Campus or even at external services.

    e-Porfolios should be useful for users to collect and organize their information for specific aims but I do not believe that teachers should center the learning activities on that specific tool. Maybe we should add a discussion tool to the e-Portefolios content and make it more useful… and add some fun 🙂

  2. Ray Tolley says:

    Hi, Graham,
    As much as I very much respect your knowledge and expertise on the subject of e-Portfolios, I feel that you have left out several points which do not sit comfortably with your suggestions. Firstly, and most importantly, the e-Portfolio only becomes of any real value if it is recognised as Lifelong. In otherwords, it should remain intact despite several if not many transitions. It therefore requires that the e-Portfolio must be externally hosted. (Unless you really believe that ‘perfect interoperability’ will soon become available?)

    Secondly, the e-Portfolio tool must be capable of continuous transmogrification. I argue that a young teenager, for instance, will change their loyalties towards pop-groups, football teams or film-stars almost weekly and that, therefore, the colour-scheme, graphical images and fonts etc should be capable of reflecting the new self-representation of the owner.

    Thirdly, is the issue of being ‘Lifewide’. I understand this to be in relation to every individual’s abilities or disabilities. The e-Portfolio needs to be capable of even the simplest of functions, without difficulty for instance for a young less able Primary school child and yet, the same tool should be equally responsive to the needs of the PhD graduate.

    Fourthly, is the issue of Web2.0. I suspect that far too many teachers and technicians cannot face the complexities of introducing Web2.0 into the classroom. Here, within the e-Portfolio, is the perfect place to house all the preferred tools with which the learner is comfortable, as and when they need them.

    Above all, to keep this short, my final point is that we should not be looking primarily to the technical specifications but to the needs of teachers and learners. Perhaps if we looked more closely at what I call ‘liberated pedagogy’ we would begin to realise that the e-Portfolio tool is the perfect solution to all our desires to develop collaboration, peer-review, polls, surveys and questionnaires etc.

    You can see more of these ideas on my website/blog.

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