This is a bit kicking a man when he's down as most people have turned away from eportfolio software now, but it still persists. It's also old hat – Jim was telling us this ain't your eportfolio mama, three years ago. But maybe now is a good time to reflect. I would like to one day do a series of posts about collective fantasies that grip educational technology, and why they don't turn out the way we envisage (learning objects anyone?).
This post was set in motion by an email from a colleague asking whether I thought blogs were better means of achieving portfolios than specific eportfolio systems. I answered yes, but it set me thinking as to why I've always had an aversion to eportfolios. They can be seen as a case study of how educational technology gets it wrong, for the reasons below.
A key characteristic of these ed tech mass hysterias is that they're based on a good idea – an eportfolio sounds great. It will be a place to store all the evidence you gather to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, it supports lifelong learning, career development, etc. Who wouldn't want one of those? Unfortunately, the idea is too seductive and all encompassing, it becomes a panacea for many ills. Which leads to the first main problem.
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: RSS; is it important?; and tags respectively.
Institutional, not user focus – a related point is that we end up developing solutions that are sold or selected by institutions (see also LMSs). 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.