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E-portfolios – taking learning out of the shoebox: a reply to Donald Clark

April 1st, 2011 by Graham Attwell

The ever provocative Donald Clarke has posted an interesting article – E-Portfolios – 7 reasons why I don’t want my life in a shoebox. It has sparked off a lively debate with Simon Grant wading in to defend E-Portfolios.

Clarke makes two key points in his argument. The first regards lifelong learning:

People do not see themselves as ‘learners’, let alone ‘lifelong learners’. It’s a conceit, as only educators see people as learners. Imagine asking an employer – how many learners do you have? People are individuals, fathers, mothers, employees, lawyers, bus drivers, whatever….but certainly not learners. That’s why an e-portfolio, tainted with ‘schooling’ will not catch on. By and large, most adults see school as something they leave behind and do not drag along with them into adulthood.

Of course he is right, but there are two ways to look at the idea of lifelong learning. And I do not think this new paradigm of the lifelong learner is a conceit of educators but rather is a policy directive. In a fast changing economy and a period of rapid changes in technology and working practices the drive of such policies is to say that we should all be involved in learning for all of our lifetimes to ensure we are employable and have up to date skills and knowledge etc. etc. This is part of a longer term debate over who pays for education and whose responsibility is it for maintaining our ability to find jobs. In this scenario, unemployed people only have themselves to blame for having no job. If they had maintained their skills they would now be able to find employment. It is indeed a conceit – or rather a deceit – but one which is ideological in intent. But of course educators are being coerced to make this happen.

But there is a second way to look at the idea of lifelong learning. We all learn to a greater or lesser extent every day. Not from the schooling system but through work and play, through informal learning. Of course we do not recognise that as learning and often would not identify ourselves as learners. And then the issue is how that learning can be recognised societally. Not through ‘my life in a shoebox’ but precisely my life outside the shoebox of formal certification and records of achievement.

And coming back to Donald’s shoebox – is this anything new? Prior to e-Portfolios, we all kept bundles of certificates and formal qualifications – indeed often in a shoebox. e-Portfolios have the potential to free us from such restrictions and such narrow ways of looking at learning.

But I agree with Donald when he says:

Media are linked on the web and cannot be easily stored in a single entity or within a single entity, so the boundaries of a real e-portfolio are difficult to define, and will change. An e-portfolio would have to cope with my social networks but they are proprietary. Information wants to be free fiscally and ontologically. We want to be part of all sorts of expansive and variously porous networks, not boxed in.

E-portfolio systems – as they have been conceived – have often been proprietary – despite Simon Grant’s and others’ best efforts to promote interoperability standards. Even that is not the main problem. The main issue is that our digital identity and thus the story of  our personal achievement is scattered across the web. E-portfolios have firstly tended to overly value (and prescribe) formal learning and achievement and secondly have failed to allow us to present our digital presence and life stories in any meaningful way.

Then arises the issue of whether all the effort (and money) expended on e-portfolios has been wasted. On the whole I think not. e-Portfolios is merely a term which was used to encompass the research and development of new forms of technology beyond the VLE – what we now often call Personal Learning Networks or Personal Learning Environments. Perhaps the term e-portfolio is no longer relevant. But that work maintains its coherence and validity. That we have moved on from earlier developments is unsurprising. The use of computers in business and entertainment and for all kinds of other uses is hardly a slow moving field. We cannot expect the use of technology for learning to be any different.

There is one part of Donald’s article with which I would disagree. He talks of a ‘recruitment myth’ saying:

I spent a lot of time recruiting people and what I needed wasn’t huge, overflowing e-portfolios, but succinct descriptions and proof of competences. If by e-portfolio you mean and expanded CV with links to your blog and whatever else you have online, fine. But life is too short to consider the portfolios of hundreds of applicants. Less is more.

In my experience employers are precisely wanting to move away form formal competences to learn what people can do. One Romanian CEO in an advertising company told me he would not employ anyone who did not have an active web presence. Many employers – especially in small enterprises – just Google someone to find out more about them. So yes, I do think we need an application which allows us easily to create an expanded (digital) CV with links to whatever we have online. We do not really have such an application at the moment. If this is to be called an e-portfolio or something else does not matter.

Finally I think Donald disproves his own point when he says:

I can see their use in limited domains, such as courses and apprenticeships, but not in general use, like identity cards.

It seems to me Donald’s “limited domains” are pretty broad. Of course the use of any software, educational or otherwise, is contextual. Contextual in place and time and contextual in terms of why and how we use it. And those are some of the main issues for those wishing to explore the future of e-portfolios or whatever else we call them!

6 Responses to “E-portfolios – taking learning out of the shoebox: a reply to Donald Clark”

  1. Gemma (@gemturfer) says:

    Thank you so much for this comment as it is very helpful to understand the pros and cons of such interesting topic.

    And I would like to comment this sentence too:

    In another sense, people sometimes want change, and don’t want their baggage dragged along behind them.

    I feel that the “baggage” would be “dragged along them” when not having an eportfolio that shows changes as a learning journey, something, in fact, for the learner to be proud of. Therefore, unjustified changes are the ones that could become the “baggage dragged along” but not the well-reasoned ones on eportfolios.

    What do you think about that? Would you agree with this contention?

    Again, thanks a lot for your help!

  2. It seems to me that you should be able to get every stated benefit from the eportfolio concept from web software designed for a wider range of use cases. From reflection, to privacy, to institutional feedback and portability, these are all things that the wider web is working on, and it makes no sense at all for the elearning sector to be tackling them on their own – except for the worst kind of closed business motivations.

    I definitely agree with Donald that they won’t work on an institutional or governmental level. Who wants a mandated ID anyway, these days? But there’s certainly a place for these processes in education, in our personal lives, in business and everywhere in between.

    When Elgg stopped being purely educational, I was shocked at how similar the use cases in (for example) investment banks were. When I moved away from Elgg, I was shocked at how similar the use cases for other kinds of platforms and interactions were. Everyone needs to stop assuming that their domain is completely unique and look at how general their needs really are.

  3. Graham Attwell says:

    Hi Ben. Yes I largely agree with you. I can see a particular focus and need for research in the use of technology for education but I am unconvinced that we need specific educational technology. Educational technology came about because of the wish to develop web spaces and applications based on traditional face to face models of education or more particularly educational institutions. Thus we ended up with the online university, the e-Classroom etc. and of course to create walled gardens which i would argue is exactly the ‘closed business motivation.’

    I also agree that ePortfolios do not really work where they are imposed. Instead we need to look at how we can motivate learners to themselves develop online spaces for learning and for presentation of their work – as part of a more general digital identity.

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