Thursday, May 5, 2011

ePortfolios and Networks

In our roles as coordinators of Albany State's writing across the curriculum program, Tom and I have been talking about adding student ePortfolios to the program. We see ePortfolios as great tools for organizing student writing in any given class, resulting in enhanced learning in that class and an enhanced presence on the Web for the student. This seems promising. Then a few weeks ago, when we were discussing what to do this coming academic year with our next cohort of WAC faculty, I got the idea that we might have each faculty member create their own ePortfolio. I want to think through that idea a little more in this post, and I want to feed off an essay by Chris M. Anson called Portfolios for Teachers: Writing Our Way to Reflective Practice. The essay was originally published in Laurel Black's 1994 collection New Directions in Portfolio Asessment, but I found it in T. R. Johnson's Teaching Compositions: Background Readings (2005).

Anson seems to view teaching portfolios as a form of story-telling. He says that "teaching portfolios invite teachers to tell the story of their work and in doing so to become more reflective of their own practice" (3).  Thus, a teaching portfolio is more than just a collection of artifacts, or "a container for storing and displaying evidence of a teacher's knowledge and skills" (4); rather, a teaching portfolio is, first "something programmatic or anchored in a community, [and not] a 'file' stored away in a department cabinet" (5). Given my conception of writing as a function of networks, this notion of ePortfolios "anchored in a community" seems promising, but as I read his essay, I came to realize that Anson was writing in 1994, the Dark Ages of the Web, long before Web 2.0, and so I found the promise more latent than realized. The shift from print-based portfolios to ePortfolios is much more than the addition of a letter – it's a shift from an ossuary to a lively street corner. By the way, I don't think Anson v. 2011 would necessarily disagree with what I say in this post – it's just that Anson v. 1994 couldn't see Web 2.0 coming down the pike.

A traditional portfolio is a collection of artifacts that demonstrates one's roles, knowledge, and experiences. It defines one in some public, professional manner, as Anson's own, now web-based portfolio demonstrates. Even though Anson has moved his own teaching portfolio to the Web, it is still recognizable as a traditional portfolio: a collection of lists and artifacts. It has not become the living hub of Anson's own PLN, or professional/personal learning network, nor his Net brand, and this is what I think an ePortfolio can be. It's what I want to teach our teachers and what I want them to teach their students. In short, I want our teachers to use the ePortfolio to define themselves on the Web from the center outward (to follow Morin's dictum) in a dynamic document that orchestrates the shifting connections in their PLN, or community of practice. Unlike the portfolio, the ePortfolio is not a series of still shots; rather, it is a window into an unfolding drama.

An ePortfolio does all that a portfolio does. It keeps all the artifacts that Anson lists:
  • syllabi & course overviews
  • assignments & exams
  • study guides & other classroom materials
  • student papers with teacher's comments
  • student evaluations
  • teacher reflections on peer-observations & course evaluations
  • self-evaluations
  • narrative accounts of problem-solving
  • responses to case studies
  • journals documenting thoughtfulness about instructional issues
  • goal statements & philosophies
  • letters of assessments from others
But it does more. So much more. First, an ePortfolio is a nerve center that orchestrates and tweaks the connections that make up who and what the owner knows and can do. An ePortfolio is very much like Sporns' concept of the brain: an intensely rich neurological hub, an electronic substrate, that has the tools and connective tissue to self-organize into meaningful patterns and that has the resources to interact with its environment to augment and to extend its patterns of meaning.

But that is a bit abstract. What does such an ePortfolio actually look like, and how does it work? Let me  envision the ePortfolio that I want to create for myself and then help my faculty to create for themselves.

I might start with one of the public wiki services such as Google Sites. Wikis are a most flexible tool that can accommodate much of what might be created in an ePortfolio. For instance, a wiki can house all those different kinds of documents listed above. Thus, I am not overlooking or denigrating the repository function of an ePortfolio. My ePortfolio will house work that best exemplifies my professional skills and expertise, including Word-style documents, PDFs, and web documents, but because all this is on the Web, I can link to documents rather than physically house them all in the same space. Moreover, I can link to Google Docs which will update automatically as I continue to work with them and edit them. Of course, I can also create static, archive copies. The point is that I can display static and dynamic documents depending on what suits my purpose.

Then, my ePortfolio should have a blog component that captures my current thinking and my reflection on my work and professional learning network. My blog – this blog that you are reading just now – is often the incubator for ideas that turn into professional presentations and publications, and it helps me figure out what I mean. It helps me reflect on my thinking over the past few years as I uncover trends and patterns in my posts. Most traditional portfolios don't have this reflective, creative component – certainly not one that is as dynamic as a blog can be.

But my blog captures more than just my thoughts – it also captures my interaction with people who read the blog and make comments. Now we are adding a feature that the traditional portfolio simply cannot do as well as an ePortfolio: connectivity. A lively blog shows both those who read me and me myself the kinds of professional connections and conversations that I am cultivating. As most professionals know, my network of connections and conversations can say as much about my professionalism as anything I might say about myself.

Then my ePortfolio should have a reading component, links to my RSS feeds and social bookmarks and any other publicly available Web documents that mean something to me. Do you want to know what's really been on my mind for the past couple of years? Then look at my Diigo bookmarks. I should display those on or link to them from my ePortfolio.

My ePortfolio should display or link to my slideshows, podcasts, instructional videos, and whatever other multimedia documents I have hosted on the Web. It should display or link to online classes and webinars that I have participated in. Of course, it should also list, or better yet, link to any classes that I have taken or taught.

Well, this is already a rather involved list of things that my ePortfolio should do. Those of you familiar  with building personal learning networks will immediately seen how indebted this idea of ePortfolios really is. Some might argue that a portfolio should remain a static snapshot created solely for the purpose of demonstrating ones professional expertise to very specific people for very specific reasons. Obviously,  my idea of a dynamic ePortfolio doesn't agree. I should start building my ePortfolio soon, and I'll link it back to this post when I have something to show (if I remember). By then, I'm sure I will think of more things that the ePortfolio can do. and it would be great if some of you would drop some suggestions in the Comment box.

And thanks to Chris Anson for kicking off this exploration about teaching ePortfolios.
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