Blog Post

What's All the Fuss About ePortfolios Anyway?

We're very sorry that a big event we were planning in early September, for the entire HASTAC network, around a talk by Lani Guinier to be delivered and livestreamed from Duke University, around her remarkable book The Tyranny of Meritocracy, sadly, had to canceled by Prof. Guinier.  It's a great book and, even though we won't be able to hosting an event, you should read the book anyway.   Instead, we're going to devote the month of March to the topic "Credentials or Learning?  Measuring What Counts."  We will look at the full array of debates on standardized testing, alternative credentialing systems, formative versus summative feedback, ePortfolios, and digital badges for lifelong learning. 

[And here's a secret ....ssssssh.  A sneak preview of the upcoming year at HASTAC:  we're going to be launching a really amazing year-long series of events tying student-centered, engaged pedagogical practices to institutional change, equality, anti-racist practices, and other issues of social justice.  We'll be announcing the details soon.  Promise.  As a sneak preview, to those of you still reading academic blogs even in the middle of summer:  it's called "The University Worth Fighting For."  We will be in touch soon and sending out an open call for anyone and everyone to join in with any events you are doing that might fit until this stirring topic.  Higher education is under attack on many fronts—and yet it also needs massive transformation. This series looks in both directions at once, renewing support for education a civic good while also advocating educational reform.   As I've said, stay tuned!]

Right now, though, I'd like to say a few words about ePortfolios.  Former HASTAC Scholar Jade E. Davis, now DR. JADE E. DAVIS, who recently defended her dissertation at the University of North Carolina, has taken a fabulous position at LaGuardia Community College as Associate Director of Digital Learning Projects under the direction of Howard Wach, Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs. Anyone who has been semi-awake these days knows that community college is "hot" these days.  And anyone paying attention knows that LAGCC is the hottest of the hot. I am full of admiration, and delighted that a long-time HASTAC Scholar and team member (Jade worked as one of HASTAC's administrators last year, while finishing her dissertation) is now working there. Congratulations, Jade, on defending your dissertation and joining the great faculty, administrators, and students at LAGCC!

Yesterday, she met with the Futures Initiative colleagues Katina Rogers, Lauren Melendez, and I and we had such conversation. Among our topics was LAGuardia's ePortfolio project, started byLAGCC's  Associate Dean Bret Eynon in 2000, a topic Jade and I then continued on line.  It was so productive that Jade urged me to blog about some of our ideas so here are some insights. You can find information about LaGuardia's eportfolio initiative at: http://eportfolio.lagcc.cuny.edu/

The reasons I'm so intrigued by ePortfolios is (1) all they allow students to do that normal transcripts obscure; and (2) all the ways that they help students to see pathways that the traditional "check the box" requirements through a curriculum of a traditional two- or four-year college do not.  In other words, ePortfolios are about "making visible":  and they make skills, talents, accomplishments, knowledge, and attainments visible both to those outside the college (employers, four-year college admissions offiers, graduate school admissions officers, etc) but also, and equally important, to the students themselves.

A few weeks ago I wrote about a young entrepreneur I met who had figured out his own pathway through the curriculum at Kingsborough Community College via American history, ethnic literature, Spanish, and other courses that, as an immigrant, he felt were survival skills on his way to success as an entrepreneur in this new country:  https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2015/07/14/humanities-survival-skill  

He wasn't interested in a credential and he was confident enough to pick and choose his way.  But for someone else, a portfolio might have made visible a pathway to entrepreneurship that this young man already saw.   A mentor might have seen such a pathway, made more visible by all the content assembled in a portfolio too.  A porftolio is an organizational aid, in other words--not just of academe, but of life, putting together all the relevant aspects in one place, and finding the threads that unite them.

Think about how impoverished a transcript is compared to an ePortfolio!  A transcript isn't a story; it is a simple record of the courses you took, when you took them, and the graade you earned. . Someone else determines much of that path.  You take the courses required for your major, required for graduation, when they are available and when you can slot them into your busy schedule.  With a portfolio, those courses are part of the story but they are not all of it.  You are able to rearrange everything according to a path you might well define, and you can include not just the courses and what they mean to that path but your life experiences, volunteer experience, internships, full and part time jobs, home experiences, skills you learned on your own, online courses you took for credit or non-credit, skills you learned on the job, talents you have, military or other experiences, past careers, passions, interests, goals, and so forth.  In this way, you make your formal education--your courses, your major--part of your larger "lesson plan" on the way to success.

A portfolio helps you to arrange all you are learning in school not only as part of the important goal of attaining a degree but also in part of the even more important goal of using that degree to achieve a productive life beyond school.   Anyone looking at your portfolio sees not only a good student but a good student who has a purpose in life and who sees how education fits into that purpose.

You are growing, you are striving, you are using everything around you to achieve your dream.  The best part about visualizing that in a portfolio is sometimes it helps you to see what you have achieved in a new way.  It can make you proud--and also make you aware of what you still need to do to achieve your goals.   As anyone who has ever cleared an actual path knows, the more you clear away the brush, the more you see there is still something else--some twig or stone, some weed or root--that can still be cleared to make the pathway even better.

 

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A year ago, I gave a talk at SUNY Fredonia and a faculty member there gave a talk on a survey she had conducted with alums in which she asked them to rank the most important skills that contributed to their success in life.  She then asked them to note where in college they had learned those skills.  She found about half of the skills had been mastered in the classroom (everything from knowledge-based skills to ability to focus and study or write a paper to a deadline and to specifications) and about half of the skills had been learned in extra-curricular activities (everything from events management to collaboration to interpersonal relationships).

The key here is that both are important.  In an ePortfolio, you could not only chart and account for both sets of skills but you, as a student, could help to indicate what and where you had learned them and could tell the story of your acquisitions and how they would contribute to your success.

We know that storytelling is hugely important in attaining a goal. How you tell your story helps you create your story. To my mind, the most important aspect of an ePortfolio should be what it displays but the thoughtfulness of creating such a display. All the energy that you, as a student, put into putting a portfolio together helps you to think about the kind of life you want to put together and what about your college can help you to attain that life--in the classroom, and outside it.

Of course an ePortfolio (whether a proprietary system or an open source system) is not going to solve all of your life problems.  In fact, like any tool, any ePortfolio you use is likely to come with limitations or what are known as "affordances" (i.e. things built into the code and the architecture that allow it to do certain things but not others).  I think that these affordances are another important part of ePortfolios.  They teach you how to come up with workarounds. No tool is perfect. Learning how to present the best work you can with the best tool at your disposal is a great digital literacy skill--maybe the single best one.   The tools will change; learning how to be flexible, how to understand the affordances and not aim above or below them, is an important life skill in an era of constantly changing technology. 

This is one reason why creating an ePortfolio often works best with a partner. You can ask each other questions that allow you to explore both your own talents and the limits and possibilities of the system you are working with (yes, Think-Pair-Share is a great exercise with which to start: https://www.hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/04/08/single-best-way-transform-classrooms-any-size  

It also works to go over a rough draft with a mentor, ideally a peer mentor first. [ LaGuardia has multiple Peer (mentoring) Programs started by Dean Wach as well as a Student Success Mentoring Program] .  After it's been reviewed by a peer mentor, it's great to have a professional mentor look it over too.  You learn from peers, you learn different things from experts. In other words, like all great learning, the process is as important as the product.  

And, of course, like all great learning, the ideal end of the process should not be your own beautiful new ePortfolio --but helping someone else to create their ePortfolio. Mentoring is best when it works both ways. 
 

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Here's a book I recommended to a friend this morning that I've found very useful on ePortfolios:  Darren Cambridge,  Eportfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment.

 

Another great resource that a friend recommended to me, after reading this post:  Catalyst for Learning: ePortfolio Resources & Researchhttp://c2l.mcnrc.org/  This is a FIPSE study based on a 4-year conversation among some two dozen successful ePortfolio campuses, ranging from Boston University and Virginia Tech to Salt Lake Community College and San Francisco State.  LaGuardia Community Colleges was one of the leads on this project.
 

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