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.