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.