25 Years of EdTech: 2008 – eportfolios

B is for Buzzcocks

[Continuing the 25 Years of Ed Tech series]

Like learning objects, e-portfolios were backed by a sound idea. The e-portfolio was a place to store all the evidence a learner gathered to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, in order to support lifelong learning and career development. It is an idea that has significant impact for education – instead of recognising education at the level of qualification, ie that it is a degree in Chemistry, say, it allows a more granular recognition of specific skills, linked to evidence.

But like learning objects — and despite academic interest and a lot of investment in technology and standards — e-portfolios did not become the standard form of assessment as proposed, although in some areas their uptake has gained significance. Many of their problems were similar to those that beleaguered learning objects, including overcomplicated software, an institutional rather than a user focus, and a lack of accompanying pedagogical change. I went on a rant about them in 2011, and I think these issues still remain:

Over-complication – because we are developing software to suit a range of stakeholders, feature creep becomes inevitable. The question of ‘how simple can we make it’ is not one that is usually asked. So for eportfolios we find we need new standards to export and move between institutions, ways of locking down items so they can be verified, means of providing different views for different audiences, etc. In a blog the answers to these problems are already in place.

Institutional, not user focus – a related point is that we end up developing solutions that are sold or selected by institutions (see also VLEs). An institution has a very different set of requirements to an individual. However, if you want eportfolios to work, then it’s individuals that need to like them and be motivated to use them. This emanates from an institutional tic, which is the need to own and control systems and data.

Focus on the tool, not the skills – having developed our overly complex, institutionally focused tool, it now requires a good deal of training for students to use it, since it isn’t very intuitive, and they didn’t know they wanted it anyway. So it becomes a tool that is focused around a particular course, often with credit attached to it. In short it becomes a tool used inside education only. There is little focus on the more general skills which are actually the main benefits: sharing content, gathering and annotating resources as you go, becoming part of a network, reflecting on work, commenting on others, etc. In short, the sort of skills that make for a good blogger.

Lack of social element – the eportfolio often becomes institutionally branded and focused, and because it is has been designed by educational technologists who are probably a bit sniffy about all this social software business, doesn’t allow for much of the easy social elements found elsewhere. This can be functional (eg is embedding easy), but more often it is cultural – the culture of blogging is one of openness and reciprocity, whereas eportfolios are tied into a more academic culture of individualism, plagiarism and copyright. In this environment the social element does not flourish.

Educational arrogance – maybe arrogance is too strong a term, but eportfolios demonstrate a common mistake (in my view) in educational technology, which goes something like “Here’s some interesting software/tool/service which does most of what we want. But it’s not quite good enough for higher education, let’s develop our own version with features X and Y”. In adding features X and Y though they lose what was good about the initial tool, and take a long time. Blogs are good enough for eportfolios, if what you want from an eportfolio is for people to actually, you know, use them.

Although e-portfolio tools remain pertinent for many subjects, particularly vocational ones, for many students owning their own domain and blog remains a better route to establishing a lifelong digital identity. It is perhaps telling that although many practitioners in higher education maintain blogs, asking to see a colleague’s e-portfolio is likely to be met with a blank response, whereas we can all find colleagues with active blogs. But if we consider eportfolios as an instantiation of a more general approach of rethinking assessment and recognition, and then reimagining courses and pedagogy to take utilise this, then they are more interesting.

[If you want a different 2008 take, Jim Groom offers up edupunk for that year].

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