Wednesday, October 18, 2006

E-Portfolios -- What's the Point?

It's not very original of me to keep playing off of someone else's blog, but Will Richardson's post, No Child Left Without a Portfolio, inspired me to write on something that I've been thinking about quite a bit over the last couple years.

I recently took part in a technology roundtable discussion with members of my institution's faculty and staff (and a couple of students) about the future of our technology proficiency requirement for our undergraduate students. A couple of colleagues from our graduate campus noted that they were beginning to use electronic portfolios to assess computing proficiency, as well as present pedagogical skills. I commented that I thought most undergraduate students already had a default portfolio of projects (papers, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, and other electronic materials), but it was sitting on their computers, unorganized and unused since the assignments for which they were created. Certainly those materials might be collectively used to demonstrate the array of technological proficiencies that our students learn.

Still, that use of electronic portfolios seems rather limited. What is the point of electronic portfolios, why would we want to use them, and why has there been such resistance to the idea of them on many campuses? I think the answers to these questions are connected.

Reasons for an electronic portfolio (in no particular order)
  • Demonstrate competence in some skills
    • This gets at what my colleagues from CGPS and I were discussing before.
    • Many teaching programs require paper or e-versions of these now.
  • Gather and reflect on one's work
    • This might be one way of encouraging a kind of self-reflective (or self-repairing) learning. "Here's all of the papers you've written for your classes in the history department. Reflect on what worked, what didn't, what you learned about yourself, your researching, and your writing."
    • In the ideal form, such e-portfolios might even come to serve as a central theme to the liberal arts experiences, a kind of connective tissue between individual classes and between courses and the larger collegiate experience. "Why am I taking all these classes? What's the point of this array of courses, within my major and outside it and how do they relate to each other?"
  • Serve as long-term online storage for student work (and faculty comments?) that could be used by both the student (for reference, as part of a job or graduate school application) and the school (evidence of student learning, data source for assessing outcomes, examples of projects for future students)
    • Due to privacy the latter uses would depend on selective approvals by students.
Broadly speaking, I think the variety of uses of e-portfolios actually hinders their acceptance. They mean too many different things to too many different people (and/or disciplines). Some see them as demonstrations of competencies (often of very specific skills or ideas); others see them as reflective tools to discuss progress and learning (a reflection which some people see as not relevant to their discipline).

Then there are the practical issues about online portfolios. What responsibility does the school have for keeping these portfolios? How long is long-term? Ten years? Twenty? Permanently? Sure, hard disk space is cheap, but servers and personnel to maintain them aren't. Given the numerous problems with privacy and data thefts lately, how much responsibility would schools have in safeguarding access to this material?

None of this is to reject the idea of e-portfolios--I'm especially attracted to the notion of reflective/self-correcting consumers of information and I think they can serve practical goals in demonstrating competencies--only to note that if a school is to take on such a project it would need an extremely clear set of goals (and a long-term plan) to deal with the practical issues.


Steve said...

We don't need to wait until all these questions are sorted out. Why not provide students the tool and let them and their teachers decide how they want to use them. In my view, the self-reflective function is most important, but I don't think we should wait until the end of one's college career to reflect. Why not start earlier to try to make courses more meaningful as they are taken? That doesn't preclude reflection at the end of an undergraduate's program too.

Jerry said...

Sometimes I feel like if we must answer all the questions you raise to everyone's satisfaction (faculty, students, administrators) we might never see an e-portfolio. I think that might be because we look at this as a large package that must be provided by the university. What if we think smaller? or Blogger blogs could be an e-portfolio as well. The advantage of a service like this is that the students own and maintain it. Ownership is important in this sort of exercise. Plus, it lets the students answer the questions about what is kept out there, and for how long after graduation.