Thursday, April 22, 2004

David Tosh at LIFIA E-Portfolio Conference

The LIFIA e-portfolio conference in Vancouver had my head spinning on the weekend. There are so many potential applications and permutations of e-portfolios that my pages of notes look like a swimming-pool-sized bowl of tangled spaghetti. At some point I hope to pull a few of those most important strands together into some sort of coherent summary. For now, I'm happy that the conference organizers have posted all of the presentations, mostly as PDFs converted from the presenters' PowerPoint slides.

Much of the conference was a lesson in terminology. Although we heard "e-portfolios" so many times that I started getting sick of the term, they were also described as personal archives, glorified resume/CVs, personal development plans, educational development plans, and others. I was most interested in definitions and phrases that included a planning component or future focus. Most of the applications discussed were focused on keeping a record of past process and present products (artifacts, presentations), without much reference to the value of using past and present experience in envisioning the potential of future paths (careers, learning, lifestyles, relationships).

David Tosh is writing his PhD at the University of Edinburgh on e-portfolios and the effect they have on students' perception of their learning. He's a smart, classy guy with a realistic view of the practical challenges of implementing e-portfolios -- his presentation even included screenshots of the e-portfolio application he's been working on. I was struck by the parallels between his work and some of the interaction I've been working on in the last few weeks. His presentation is available in PDF and PowerPoint.

I think David was the only presenter to talk about parallels and cross-pollination between blogs and e-portfolios, although some of the initiatives covered briefly do use blogging platforms (UBC and Institut St. Joseph) for e-portfolio development. He used the example of Dan Saffer's course blogging to outline some of the main benefits of this kind of reflective learning. I've found the same in using this site as a sort of e-portfolio while I'm taking courses, although you probably wouldn't be able to tell when it's formal learning (while I'm in a course) versus the informal learning I'm doing all the time.

When people at the conference described the benefits of e-portfolios, they're thinking about those top-notch examples from highly motivated students. Nobody would question the value of the learning experiences reflected in those portfolios, but I still feel like it's a real stretch to assume that most students in a class will get the same benefits as the keeners who really engage in the process. Even at the adult level, I had to be skeptical of the high-minded rhetoric implying that all or most people should and will have e-portfolios in the next decade.

My best instructor assigned e-portfolios for our class of motivated graduate-level educators last year and the results were largely disappointing. Even though she gave us full creative freedom (choose your tools, layouts, formats, artifacts, type of reflection), most students did the bare minimum, as "defined" by the very loose constructivist rubric. It was common for students to simply copy and paste a few of their comments from the discussion forum as evidence of reflection. A few really engaged in the process of designing their site but didn't bother with decent content, and even fewer really embraced the whole process and produced excellent portfolios. I suspect this ratio would hold true in most classes, which doesn't mean that e-portfolios shouldn't be assigned, but it seems misleading to assume that everyone will enjoy the same benefits by participating.

The e-portfolio project that David has been working on is focused on adult learners, particularly in reference to EUCEBS, which is a process of basic-skills certification related to prior-learning assessments (PLA). Several of the presentations focused on workplace competencies and basic skills, using e-portfolios to document and recognize prior learning. David's program lets users choose whether they want to use the more regimented prescribed testing or e-portfolios. He described the confidence-building process of portfolios that helps people get over the sense that they don't know much.

The interaction of the portfolio system David showed was clean and smart. Students set privacy levels, submit work and artifacts for assessment and approval, and the infrastructure supports easy searching for employers or administrators. This last point came up in other presentations as well -- the primary objection is that employers won't embrace e-portfolios because they're even more dense and complex than the resumes they're already overwhelmed by. It was acknowledged that if they're structured properly and include the ability to search on multiple facets, it could actually make recruitment and hiring much easier. This would require a paradigm shift for current HR departments, but it wouldn't be difficult to illustrate the benefits of a smart system.

One of the practical concerns that David brought up was the issue of buy-in from faculty and facilitators, particularly the perception that e-portfolios are a nightmare to assess. There was the suggestion that at some point students may demand this type of authentic assessment, but that's probably wishful thinking. More likely, new instructors will have to be converted by hearing the positive experiences of their peers. This tied into one thread of discussion that emerged several times: should e-portfolios be used as a form of (or platform for) high-stakes, standards-driven testing?

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