Thursday, April 17, 2008

ePortfolio - Mash-up or Proprietary System?

Whistle Stops: Those who have been following my research know that I have deliberately focused on ePortfolio systems, eschewing any consideration of fully decentralized approaches such as Helen Barrett's Google mash-up and similar solutions having no central portal for cohesion.

Barrett has been a champion of the "learner as central character" in all aspects of portfolio learning and in that respect and in the great work she has done to help focus institutions on strategic approaches (that start with understanding the purpose of portfolio before implementing technology) she'll find only admiration from me. Barrett's ideas are driven by a dedication to digital story-telling and to the notions of writers like Thomas Friedman (The World is Flat) - "small pieces loosely joined". Again, I'm a fan of both of those directions. My opposition to the decentralized approach parallels the fundamental argument between applied research and theoretic research - and perhaps between the community college and the university - that puts such idealistic approaches in isolation of the reality of learner motivation and institutional accountability. In other words, in theory mash-ups sound like the perfect portfolio technology. In practice, they may simply de-rail the opportunity for ePortfolio to plug into the semantic web to bring critical value to the learner, institutions and society generally.

Academic ePortfolio research is often (and necessarily) conducted hypothetically. Ms. Barrett has certainly been more "hands-on" than many - having populated dozens of Portfolio tools to present experiential evidence of their efficacy. It is in the fact that most learners have no interest in populating numerous portfolios, that my first argument is grounded: collecting and populating ePortfolios is hard work if done comprehensively. ePortfolio systems - backed by industry standards - promise the opportunity to transport robust, complex portfolio data from application to application without having to ask learners to re-submit and validate entire repositories of evidence of - and reflection on - learning.

Secondly, academics do not usually concern themselves with issues like the total cost of ePortfolio implementation and the level of accountability Senates and Boards of Governors require to rationalize such investment. Open, uncoordinated systems leave no aggregate data to track accountability and therefore may be unattractive, if not unsustainable, to governance bodies. In the long-term, open decentralized approaches may be able to stitch together disparate data to create portable portfolios but in the short run, the successful business model to grow ePortfolio will require that standardized, aggregate systems return consistently comparable results from institutional investment in ePortfolio.

So how does one support digital storytelling theory and decentralized web 2.0 applications while arguing for institutionally hosted, centralized ePortfolios? As a technologist, I don't assume that they are mutually exclusive. Barrett's ePortfolios 1.o vs 2.0 argument in 2006 presents an apparent dichotomy of the monolithic ePortfolio (1.0) and the decentralized one (2.0). However, it suggests that parameters like competencies and standards can't accommodate learner creativity; that "authority figures" are outside the community of learners; that blogs and wikis are unstructured (unlike forms); that accountability somehow is not about learning; and that proprietary systems cannot leverage open architectures. Trent Batson's recent Campus Technology article outlines a more pragmatic notion: to maintain artifacts wherever learners choose (MySpace, YouTube, Google Apps, Facebook, etc.) while the centralized ePortfolio portal provides cohesive tracking for assessment and evaluation.

Reflections: The digital divide for eportfolio will not be between the technology have and have-nots but may be found in strategic gaps in solutions designed rather than inspired by idealists. If we are to follow the best practices of eBusiness consulting in defining ePortfolio, we should let the academics provide the vision and functional specification and then get them out of the way as technologists work to make it so.

Start Spreading the News...

Whistle Stops:
Yup - just back from New York, as you might guess from this post's title. The conference on ePortfolios for Integrative Learning and Assessment was even more than it promised. The heavy hitters of the ePortfolio world were all there (Helen Barrett, Darren Cambridge, Trent Batson, etc.) in fine form. LaGuardia Community College anticipated between 100-200 people but drew over 500 before they had to close registration. Why the interest? This is taken up by Trent Batson in his followup article on Campus Technology. My take is that we are finally beginning to see academics and institutions realizing that ePortfolio is more than the electronic page-turner that many e-Learning programs have become. As an integrative educational support it accompanies experiential, discovery, and learner-centred education while embracing the participative web 2.0 opportunities as no Learning Management System has yet to do. The conference also demonstrated that ePortfolio is a great deal more than just one more modality of the portfolio learning pedagogy. It can be used as a virtual learning environment, for the assessment of and for learning, to evaluate institutional effectiveness and to connect learners with 21st century literacies in a powerful way. If not there already, the conference proceedings (including an amazing fishbowl debate on Thursday night) should soon be available at

As usual, key aspects of the conference will be posted on my research site at including a great Saturday morning interview I had with Darren Cambridge (George Mason U.) and Tracy Penny-Light (U. Waterloo). Video to follow.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Deus eP Machina

Whistle stops: In an earlier post, I presented a discussion referring to Neil Postman's Deus Machina and my concerns about education's institutional technophobia. This has led to some side tracks; not particularly productive but interesting diversions all the same. The ePortfolio in the National Calibre College website has certainly been fleshed out with much more material, research and recommendations this past couple of weeks. One area I concentrated on is my theories of Hype vs Adoption which can be found in the Alignment (Technical Aspects) part of the site. Basically, I suggest that the tech/innovation profile of an institution may be evident in the speed by which they adopt new innovations (genius, hey?). Mapping Gartner's Hype Cycle against Everett Rogers' Tech adoption curve, I propose a hypothesis that suggests some realtionship between hype/visibility and innovative culture. It doesn't help to get institutions off their (uh, hands) but it helps to see where the problem lies, and suggests ways to measure it in your institution.

I also suggested in that earlier blog post that in order to overcome the inertia and resistance to tech change I will need to make a convincing argument of why ePortfolio is any better than regular (low fat, high fibre) portfolio. Under ePortfolio, Benefits and Features, I present some arguments that include the inclusion of necessary new literacies in its completion, better metacognitive outcomes, agility of the data, and benefits for the institution that are just not available in an overloaded scrapbook that walks out the door (with the student) on graduation.

This past few weeks I have really focused on analysis and writing to get the most cogent stuff from the literature review into the site. Along the way I have been conducting videotaped interviews and, oh boy! have they given me some great stuff. I'll be editing those videos and putting content on the site very soon.

Next Stops: Look for vid clips as early as next week. I am booked to go to LaGuardia Community College Apr. 10-13 for their "Making Connections" Conference and exposition of student ePortfolios. Next blog post will be on the imperative of institutionally hosted eP systems.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Week IV: Land Survey

I seem to be picking up momentum and this week I was delighted to find out that learning resources specialist Debbie Costelo of NSCC Library Services can provide secondary literature research support - and boy has that paid off already! It's like having a personal research assistant, and the quality of references she has sent along already is exceptional. Some of this will be finding its way on the site shortly, it's just up to me to catch up on the reading. For anyone considering this kind of research (that begins with a broad literature review) I'd highly recommend you connect with a Library at the outset. I could have made a lot of progress if I had made this connection in week one and these folks are eager and eminently qualified to add this support. In any event, I have started to develop a bit of a framework for the eP landscape, although obviously lots of work to do yet.

Whistle stops: Had a bit of a head-to-head with our formal research folks this week, who wanted me to put my interview processes and release forms through the Research Ethics Board stating that any research done on humans needs to be vetted by the REB. Luckily I was able to connect with Sue Drapeau (NSCC Manager for Institutional Research), who advised me that if the research output is predominantly for the college and is an extension of program or delivery development, then it should be considered institutional research and not subject to REB review - whew, I really thought I'd be coming off the rails this time!

Our Second Life Special Interest Group has confirmed we will be able to buy an island in SL and we have started to develop user stories - I have suggested we consider what an ePortfolio might look like in a virtual environment.

Reflections: I have been blessed to have made the company of a very generous group of colleagues in the college and beyond who demonstrate great intelligence, verisimilitude, and diplomacy in supporting my work. One of my favorites in our Google group suggested I consider Twitter, and I appreciate the advice. Twain, wasn't it, who said "If I'd have had more time, I would have written less"? I'll try to bring bigger value in smaller posts for the future - thanks! Next week, I'll have some early considerations/ recommendations from the research and the first of the interviews will be posted - exciting progress!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Week III: Binge & Purge

Immersion is fine, but the tricky part is determining what to keep and what to disregard. Focus...that's the trick. The model I developed still seems valid - dividing the body of eportfolio literature into "e" (educational technology) and "portfolio" (the pedagogy and methodology), and to divide the consultative aspect into alignment (institutional culture, vision and values) and implementation (technical and logistical impact). But in a 4-month research project, the literature review will only scan the field for future researchers. This week's work has been about paring down to essential and relevant material. But what stays, and what goes?

The focus must be on developing a set of recommendations for implementation of ePortfolio at NSCC. The literature review must support those decisions, but therein lies the rub. A scan that does not dive deeply enough to uncover critical influence may result in a compromised result. I am always conscious of the potential for what Bruce Tawse (NSCC Dean, School of Applied Arts & New Media) calls "decision-based evidence-making". My experience in following ePortfolio for the past 6+ years has led me to believe that it is a tremendously beneficial educational technology. But I need to be sure that in my haste I do not bring forward recommendations that are based on my bias for technology and ePortfolio, and rather are about the alignment of this technology with the values, priorities, and culture at NSCC.

Whistle Stops: Good news - the website is launched, currently only as an IP address ( since I have not decided whether to maintain this as a public resource or to pull it into the Institutional Intranet at NSCC. The content is still sparse, but the site is there and every day I load more documents, discussions, references and lists to the site - so this is an exciting bit of progress.

I spoke with Darren Cambridge this week after an Elluminate presentation he did on ePortfolio, Integrative Learning for the Network Self and the Symphonic Self. The work presents a duality of purpose and presence that is noted in the process of ePortfolio development, one outward facing based on the learners intentional making of connections, and one inward facing based on bringing those things into a cohesive concept of self. There is some very good work being done on integrative learning (over time, across courses, and between academic, personal, and community life) in various places and one that stands out is the Carnegie Foundation's Integrative Learning Project. It seems that many, like Darren, believe that eP can be a substantial tool for integrative learning and so this will certainly be an area of focus for me as I begin to present recommendations. Darren has consented to an interview during the LeGuardia ePortfolio conference in April. It will be good to see him again and catch up on his work with The Inter/National Coaliton for Electronic Portfolio Research (I/NCEPR).

I have identified three of the four institutions that I will visit - that present opportunities to see good eP implementations in progress: LeGuardia College in New York City is being cited for some very good innovation and implementation of eP. They will be hosting a major national conference - Making Connections:ePortfolios, Integrative Learning & Assessment - in April and I will be there to look at what they have achieved and to meet with some key players in the American eP moevement.

Virginia Tech caught my eye some time ago when I noted they were recruiting for several ePortfolio-based positions at the college. Clearly, they have seen the value in investing in the technology and the pedagogy and I'd like to hear from them how those decisions were made and how the Open Source Portfolio is working out there. I don't have a contact yet, but have a colleague in D.C. with connections to VT who I'll ask for an introduction.

Tracy Penny-Light at U. Waterloo is someone who came to my attention a couple of times - in part because of her activities with I/NCEPR and also from presentations she made at LIfIA conferences in Vancouver and Montreal. I understand they have had some great success at UW and I have sent a note to ask her if she'd be willing to discuss this and demonstrate the impact at her institution.

I am still thinking about one more site visit - I am inclined to consider Simon Fraser or UBC on the West Coast, but also considering a discussion with Renate Krakauer at Michener Institute to see if they have anything to report.

I've also set up a few internal meetings and will post up some video as they are captured. I hope I won't have to purge my own site before I get finished taking stock!

Reflection: Quite a week of deep focus this week and I do realize I tend to take on big projects with insane timelines. I actually sense that when pressed for time I make some of my best work happen. Reflection is something I do after the fact, though and I know that I will make mistakes if I don't take time to plan. Learning does mean that you have to take time to reflect, but it also needs room and the courage to make mistakes. If are not willing to make them, there will be little opportunity to learn.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Week II: Immersion

OK - this is way too fast...I have to read quicker or slow down the clock. Right, then - faster reading it is! :-o

Log: This second week was intended to give me some space to re-immerse myself in the contemporary literature affecting this project - both in terms of ePortfolio and the environment into which I am bringing this research. As usual I got a little sidelined, but also got some support (and some potential opposition) from unexpected directions.

The first two articles I wanted to re-visit were NSCC's Strategic Plan and the original vision document for Portfolio College written by (NSCC's previous president) Ray Ivany, (NSCC's former Director for Portfolio College) Dave White, and (PLA Centre Director) Douglas Myers. I also began to read several articles from vendors and presenters at the Pan-American ePortfolio conferences hosted by Kathryn Chang-Barker's Learning Innovations Forum (LIfIA). I had made a number of important observations (see whistle stops below), before I got de-railed (big surprise) by two events that have me thinking about how I can use my skills as an IT Consultant and as an Educator to best frame my work and its output for the benefit of the college.

The first was a meeting in which I was reminded there are those with a change-resistant mindset that may oppose any new technological solution in our learning environment - whether because of change fatigue, philosophical conflict, institutional inertia, or simply a Luddite view of technology. [At the 2005 LIfIA conference, a presenter started his presentation saying that he asked a colleague how many college professors it would take to change a lightbulb. His colleague's only response was "ch-ch-change?" I thought it was funny at the time.]

The second "disruption" came when I proposed a question about technophobia to a Google group I am part of which has an interest in Educational Technology, particularly Second Life as an Educational resource. I was kindly encouraged to consider the reason for such institutional conflict - often resulting from fear and/or anger - and the need to identify its sources. Of course that sent me off to revisit Neil Postman (Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death), who (as a Master's candidate) I had ridiculed as a mad Luddite - an evaluation that Postman would have endorsed heartily.

In Deus Machina, Postman identifies an important argument common to many who oppose the "intrusion of technology" into a perfectly healthy traditional system of instruction:

"What all of this means for education is fairly obvious (at least to me). The most important point is that our devotion to technology blinds us to the issue of what education is for. In America, we improve the education of our youth by improving what are called "learning technologies... To the question, "Why should we do this?" the answer is: "To make learning more efficient and more interesting." Such an answer is considered entirely adequate, since, to the technological fundamentalists, efficiency and interest need no justification. It is, therefore, usually not noticed that this answer does not address the question, "What is learning for?" "

I disagree with Postman on some of this - in particular because I think educational efficiency can lead to opportunities for learning effectiveness, and that student engagement is more important than ever because of the very conditions he eschews in Amusing Ourselves to Death - the mind numbing of our youth through television and other controlled media. However, he makes a good point that reminds me that to overcome technophobia, I will need to show that the challenge of technological change addresses other, more sensitive, "pain points" that result in a relatively valuable return on investment.

This is not to presume that NSCC will resist advances in educational technology for fear of corruption of educational mission; it may well be that resistance at NSCC will be the result of a resource management conflict, or maybe driven by the practice of full and substantial consultation on educational initiatives. I did hear of an argument that proposes that full engagement in such a technology could further marginalize those who are uncomfortable with information technology. That doesn't resonate with me: in part because this seems to suggest that the way to bridge the digital divide is to not engage in digital technology (which might suggest that the way to bridge the knowledge divide is to not engage in education); and second, because the knowledge economy counts on us promoting the new literacies, including computer usage and lifelong learning - ePortfolio proposes a system that may allow us to promote both in a much more engaging way than the discrete "Introduction to Computers" approach that has been favored by myopic program designers over the past few years.

Whistle Stops: I have made some progress identifying a number of key informants, both internally and externally. On the Educational Technology side, the internal contacts I hope to reach include Mike Kidney and Carolyn Campbell at NSCC Online Learning, and Ian MacLeod and Dave Jellicoe (Academic Chair and instructor at NSCC) while external contacts will include Remcoe Ploeg (Winvision), Simon Gheoghan (Microsoft), and Stephen Downes (NRC). Internal references for Portfolio as an Educational Pedagogy may include Dave White, Ray Ivany, Doug Myers (noted above), and my colleague, mentor and friend Mark Cameron (an instructor in Human Services who has employed unique approaches to portfolio learning).

In researching implementation approaches I hope to begin with internal discussions with Doug Langille and Wilson Verge at NSCC Tech Services, and with Colin MacLean (VP, People and Planning), as well as external experts in those institutions that have implemented ePortfolio and learning-centred systems, including Dr. Renate Krakauer at the Michener Institute and Darren Cambridge at George Mason University. To connect to the alignment debate I am hoping to interview NSCC's current president Joan McArthur-Blair, Bruce Tawse (my boss and author of the NSCC Academic Plan), Associate VP Academic Mike Hill and the college's Registrar, Patrick Donahoe while Jim Angel from Sir Sandford Fleming College (who conducted some earlier research on NSCC and portfolio) may be among those who can provide a valuable external focus.

As for ePortfolio, there are not many internal resources I can identify, but Sue Boutilier at NSCC Online Learning has some useful experience as may Rita Stevens who is on the Educational Technologies Committee. The list of external resources I have available is substantial and too long to list here, but likely will include Kathryn Chang-Barker, Helen Barrett, Phil Abrami (Concordia), and Darren Cambridge.

Reflection: I have given a great deal of thought to how I will format this work and I have come to realize that while the categorization of research topics are probably useful for schematic purposes, my search for answers may need to look between the lines to find the relationship between ePortfolio and national calibre standards, the scholarship of teaching and learning, constructivism and discovery learning, the new literacies, and engagement with the digital native. I have centred on a new aspect that I think encompasses efficiency and engagement, but also addresses a much broader thematic sphere: agility - which I relate to the ability of an educational institution to meet its own challenges in spite of resource scarcity and academic inertia. More on that in a later post.

Next week will be even more focused on secondary research (including O'Banion, Krakauer and Bloom) and source identification and hopefully the start of the internal interviews...assuming I don't go off the rails again. ;-) The site will be up this week - waiting on graphics. Oh hey! How many Luddites does it take to change a light bulb? Think about it! Answers in the next post.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Week 1: Brush Clearing

Log: It has been an exciting week in spite of the requirement to clear obstacles and diversions from the work I am leaving to start laying down track, framing up and clarifying the project, and surveying the landscape to ensure the paths I am taking will provide appropriate value. I am really "pumped" about this opportunity and about the Nova Scotia Community College, who offer the chance to any of its employees to take up to a year to pursue professional development. This being a short-term leave of four months, I am also very aware of how fast time goes by - this first week having whizzed by at an amazing pace. Of course I am even more surprised that more of my colleagues don't take this opportunity!

Whistle stops: Between transitional tasks, I have had two valuable meetings: one with my colleague/mentor, Maria DesJardins -coordinator for PLAR and Portfolio at NSCC; the other with Colin MacLean, VP -People & Planning at NSCC. With their help I have validated the outcomes and developed some new ideas about how to get there. With a four-month window and a lot of secondary research to cover in the early going, it is important to maintain tight focus on the goals (not my strong suit - see reflection below). The key activities haven't changed much either: creation of a new ePortfolio website on my SharePoint mySite to house the library and reference repository; interviews; site visits; surveys; and analysis/reporting. What has changed somewhat is the scope of the research and the format of the output.

Scope - I had been intending a visit to the Netherlands' college system to see Digital Portfolio in some of the best implementation in the world, but I was cautioned that the relevance to NSCC may be difficult to promote when the EU has those well-developed National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) allowing for strongly referenced competencies across countries and institutions, unlike the situation in North America. I have been advised to stay closer to home and to deal with the realities of our National policy (or lack thereof) when considering the potential at NSCC. Meanwhile, at NSCC we are developing our own Competency-Based Curriculum Database that may act as an internal set of Vocational Requirements providing the same context, albeit at an institutional- rather than national level. We also have many sector-based occupational profiles that can provide competency systems comparable to Europe's NVQs. So I will have to give some further thought to visiting Europe and may have to hold that plan pending progress at the mid-point.

Format - I have also begun to structure the key sections of my research presentation itself and have proposed that ePortfolio could break down laterally into "e" (Educational Technology) and "portfolio" (Educational Pedagogy). Mapping this against a vertical matrix to identify alignment on one end of the map, and implementation logistics on the other, I think I may have a good visual of the work. Colin MacLean provided some useful input regarding connecting ePortfolio with established Educational Theory, and also presenting a visual so that audiences will get the "place" ePortfolio holds in contemporary Educational practice. He proposed that it would be valuable to develop a good map similar to the Learning Landscape presented at a recent symposium in Halifax by the Adult Learning Knowledge Centre. I'll post a visual or two shortly to help frame the work.

Reflection: I have spent some time in the past taking photographs in rail yards. I always think that the rail beds through the yards, with their myriad switches and sidetracks create an intriguing view. I may be challenged to resist exploring all the alternate pathways in this journey as is my wont, but I have an improving grasp on the destination for this project so far. Perhaps, as Frost suggested in his poem The Road Not Taken, I'll have the chance to explore alternate paths in the future:

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The Tube

The notion of a "train of thought" (who came up with that saying anyway?) as an analogy for my work was solidified with my recent visit to London where we used "the Tube" to do a tremendous amount of travelling in the City of Dragons. I promise not to bore you with the many side-tracks the parallel could take when associated with "thoughts" (although it might be nice to hear the connections others make with the analogy). The most cogent of the analogical themes lie in the idea that thoughts- like trains - are powerful things that can transport people from one place to another.

Briefly, the Educational Leave proposal is a four-month leave to study Digital Portfolio, building off of and accumulating the work and research I have done in this area for the past five years. The proposal suggests 3 key outcomes; first, a repository of current literature, links, and references to digital portfolio that would be useful to those who like me have a keen interest and who are seeking to rationalize the potential investment in this growing educational technology; second, a collection of best practices (systems and processes) in the adoption and implementation of ePortfolio; and finally a presentation which will identify potential for implementation of ePortfolio at NSCC and other institutions, and for future applied research in this area.

This blog will track my progress, allow me to ramble through a few ideas (hopefully with some direction from others) and also provide a place where I can provide references to those who prefer this mode to the more formal body of work. So, all aboard fellow travelers - I think this could be an interesting trip.