ePortfolios: Competing Concepts

I talked to some VCU people about ePortofolios1. It’s a conversation I’ve had any number of times over the years. I think that experience is leading to a better understanding of what’s going on structurally and the space we have to navigate competing interests. I’m also in a better position to show how certain technologies might help people find a middle way. However, I’m still trying to be honest about the complexities involved in an environment with shrinking resources and expanding expectations. That’s a rough line to sell when vendors have no compunction about pitching simple answers that aren’t exposed until after contracts are signed. For the record, I didn’t start with this peppy intro when I spoke.

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Portfolio Strategy

There seem to be two major philosophies when thinking through portfolio content.

Trophy Case

The “trophy case” is showing the best of what the student has done. This is the pattern in many traditional portfolios. The student puts up assignment A. It’s as good as it’s going to get and it represents learning outcomes 1, 3, and 7. The alignment between the assignment and the evidence it presents of skills/knowledge is preordained and there’s little evidence of how or what led to that result. There is little or no consideration whether the display of this evidence plays to the strengths of the student as an individual. To extend the metaphor a bit further, the student could be a great sprinter but would also have to put up the participation award they got for barely finishing a marathon. It’s also difficult in programs to say that the work turned in during the first year is a good representation of the skills and abilities the student has towards the end of the program.

Progress/Reflective

The progress based portfolio tends to orient more around reflective journaling with an expressed focus on metacognition. These reflections are assignments where you reflect on your assignments so it’s additional work. That’s often difficult to justify in many scenarios. People also get nervous about putting out work in progress. People don’t usually see this kind of work as being as useful in pursuing employment. You might end up with some trophy examples in there but the focus is on process over product.

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Audience

There is the audience that is stated and there is the audience that is actually served.

External

Portfolios are often pitched as a way to get students jobs. The audience is people who will hire these students. To make that work well, we would need to know who is hiring our students and what they see as evidence that students have the skills and knowledge that they need. Have the assignments been built with this in mind? Have we thought through the workflow there? How do we help our students stand out? How close to demonstrable proof can we get?

Portfolios are almost always integrated into existing curriculum with existing assignments. If those assignments aren’t reconsidered in light of this new audience/intent then you’re almost certainly creating academic content for people who are unlikely to want academic content. Furthermore, if these are the disposable assignments your faculty don’t want to read then consider how unlikely they are to be read by an external audience. The idea of providing the most proof in the least amount of time and in the most engaging format is not where academia has lived. It’ll require a lot of consideration.

Internal

I tend to consider accreditation process and other like things as internal. Maybe I just mean an academic audience. In this scenario it’s mostly about aligning assignments to program competencies and then sprinkling them throughout the curriculum. The portfolio is mainly for the convenience of the program. It moves the student content from just visible to the faculty member teaching the course up a level so that administrators and others can see it and use that information in various ways. Students rarely get much direct benefit from this. One frequent symptom is the question “Why am I turning this in twice?”

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Ownership

Audience is entwined with this but ownership goes a bit deeper.

Institution

In this scenario the student has very little choice or larger understanding of what’s going on or why it’s happening. The content of the portfolios is serving the institution and consistency is the friend of scale. The goal here would be to minimize any extra effort from the student. If it’s not for them, can we make it transparent? When students don’t have ownership it’s pretty apparent.

Student

A student-focused portfolio requires energy and time. That time is often meant to be built in to various courses and then tightened up in a 1 hr capstone but that’s rarely how it plays out. This makes the reflective process or any attempts at using the portfolio to reinforce connections between classes much more difficult.

It also requires that you realize with student choice comes a loss of control. Students may make things that you find unattractive or include content that you think reflects poorly on them or possibly the program. That’s scary on all the levels.

Really thinking through the skills that students need to make a quality portfolio where they have choice is also intimidating. The skills the students need are often outside the discipline and are often not skills faculty have. Knowing which button to click on a particular tool is the lowest bar here. In many ways the portfolio is driven by the same skills that drive the “public science” or “public <>.” That might provide additional room for the consideration and acquisition of these diverse skills in the future.

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Spectrum

I painted fairly polar positions above. Certainly standardization, internal audience, and traditional assignments require the least effort to institute (and even that can be considerable). There are ways that we can navigate between these poles and work towards tools and workflows that do a better job serving both the student and the institution.

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Ram Pages

I’m now going to get into how Ram Pages might serve the needs described above. I’ll also breakdown some of the rationale behind using WordPress as the tool on a student and institutional level.

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Transfer

WordPress is a tool that’s likely to be used outside the institution. Since WordPress runs 30% of the Internet and holds 60% of the marketshare for CMS tools it’s a tool students are likely to run into. Additionally WordPress has been dominate for long enough that the design patterns are replicated in a variety of other systems. So even if you don’t end up using WordPress it’s likely that your knowledge will be applicable in other tools. We want students to gain marketable skills. This is a potential avenue for that.

WordPress is also available for free or very low cost outside of the institution. WordPress.com and other free services exist and provide a place where students can move their content and continue to expand it. Students can also run their own installation of WordPress for very little cost since the software itself is open source. WordPress’s dominance has also led many systems to support WordPress as an import source so students have additional options in terms of tools down the road.

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Flexibility

For student and institutional needs WordPress can bend in just about any way you want. It can be completely standardized with little choice for students and highly structured authoring structures. It can be wide open. Content can flow to other sites in any number of ways and metadata gives you a wealth of options for grouping or splitting content.

I also like the way we can improve things iteratively. This is system we can continue to improve as we better understand what we need to do. With many things, and no matter how much you try to plan ahead, you don’t know what you need until you start doing it. This kind of change needs to happen fairly rapidly. Yearly updates are likely to be too slow.

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Privacy

Ownership and control of data has become increasingly important. In our system we have a great degree of choice and control exercised by the student. This level of detail may be a bit tedious. Essentially, you can be an alias, you can protect your entire site in a variety of ways, you can protect the pieces (posts/pages) in a variety of ways.

Your Account Name

Your first choice is your account name. You have the choice here to create a pseudonym or use a name more affiliated with your real name or VCU email address. Keep in mind that choice is a public one.

Once you’ve created an account you can change your display name as often as you’d like but your account name is permanent. We encourage students to start with pseudonym. You can always change your display name to your real name later if you want to be publicly associated with the content you’ve created.

Your Site URL and Name

The URL for your site is a fixed choice and a public one (even if it’s password protected). If you name it after your VCU email address that information is part of a public URL.

Your site name is also public but you can change that as often as you’d like.

Password Protect a Post/Page

This is nice way to deal with a particular post that a student may not be comfortable sharing publicly, while maintaining the site as a whole as a publicly viewable one.

Positives

  • RSS feeds (the technology that copies a post from a student site to the course site) still work. The post will show up if you’re aggregating, you’ll just need to enter the password.

Negatives

  • The student has to share the password and the audience will have to remember/use it. If this is mainly to deal with privacy from non-class viewers, you (the professor) can define a common password for all students to use when they’re uncomfortable sharing something with people outside the class.
  • Passwords like this can be shared with others who were not intended to see them.
  • The process can be a little cumbersome.

Macro Security

Set security for the entire site (all pages, all posts) in one fell swoop. Details on how to choose the options below are available here.

Discourage search engines from indexing this site

Essentially, this option is like putting up a no trespassing sign for the Google robots (and those of other common search engines) that scan and index the internet. And if search engines can’t find your site, there’s a very low probability that anyone will.

Positives

  • Anyone with the link can still get to the content. No passwords to remember. No site membership needed.

Negatives

  • Anyone with the link can still get to the content.
  • A link can be shared with others who were not intended to see it

Visible only to registered users of the network

Positives

  • Anyone who is a rampages member (the “registered users”) can still get to the content.

Negatives

  • RSS feeds no longer work; you can aggregate student content to a course site
  • You can’t easily share content with outside viewers.
  • Users must be logged into their rampages account and this occasionally causes some confusion.

Visible only to registered users of this site

This is the most restrictive setting.

Positives

  • Access to the site is completely controlled by the site owner. They have to add the individual as a user of their site manually.

Negatives

  • RSS feeds no longer work
  • Adding users this way is a manual process for the individual site owner and can be a chore.

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Examples

Now we’re finally going to get down to what this looks like in practice. These examples will move along a continuum from highly structured to less structured. We’ll also move from portfolios as isolated elements to portfolios as part of communities. Additional focus will be on standardized views of non-standardized data and tools and workflows that I think will do good things for people.

Highly Structured

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Pictured above is a previous incarnation of the GLOBE program’s portfolio. It was highly structured. Each portfolio was created with the same content (pages, posts, categories), same theme, and same plugins activated. The pages and posts had default content which contained instructions on what content to enter. In scenarios like this it may be worth considering whether students really need an individual portfolio. It might be more economical to make them users of a single central site and create ways to display content by author in the desired patterns.

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In the two examples (example one, example two) above we move a bit further into student choice. You may be able to see that the content (pages in this case) is the same but the students have been allowed to chose different themes. That’s not a huge step but it’s part of allowing for individuality.

The look of sites can vary in all kinds of ways. Here are a few examples from a variety of programs.
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Next Level

Now we’ll shift into more adventurous territory. We can do more than isolated student portfolios. We can do far more than just have different themes for them.

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Bring it Together

We can bring content together. We can do it in all sorts of ways. We could do it by site, by category, by tag, by combination of category/ies and tag/s. Those pieces can map to courses, to topics, to cohorts etc. We can make those elements happen only when the author chooses them or we can set them to happen automatically at certain times. We could have posts auto-tag themselves if they had more than two images and contained 16 verbs. We could categorize posts using sentiment analysis or by the predominant color used in the images in the post. The options for metadata are endless and quite possibly fascinating.

The content at the page above is published on individual portfolios and brought into one place. It’s one thing to do that technically but it’s another thing entirely to make it matter. Why are we doing this? Is this a space for building community? Do students have either a reason or an interest (hopefully both) in reading or commenting (hopefully both) on the content created by other students? Forcing people to make 3 comments probably isn’t the path to the kind of community you want but expecting community auto-generate is a recipe for sadness as well. Suppose you do want community are you asking for the kind of work that generates conversation? Do students link to other student work? Do faculty? Would faculty ever look at or comment on work from outside their own classes? What do meaningful comments look like? Are we looking at how conversations happen in these spaces? We can visualize it. We can think about it. It takes time and interest.

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Here is an early example of mapping content from portfolios to topics– in this case sociological theorists. It blends a graduate and undergraduate class. Conceptually it could really shift how student interact. There is lots of potential but I don’t think the conversations happened.

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I’ve broken down the possibility of tiered syndication (portfolio to course(s) to program) a number of times before. It remains interesting to me. It would take time and effort but would show you what kind of work is being done in a program and across courses in a way that few other patterns would. That content would be a powerful way to get people to join a program if the work was interesting, engaging, and well done. The opposite is also true. I have opted not to pursue many programs after skimming lackluster portfolios.

Standardizing Freedom

When I talk about navigating the competing interests, I don’t know if I ever succeed in explaining how you can have a really high degree of freedom on the student side while still providing for programatic and other standardization needs on the institutional side of things. This just isn’t the way people think about content. The idea of metadata isn’t clarified by calling it tags or categories. The other concept that doesn’t fit well within current ideas about information is that it might be in multiple “places” at once while still being only one item. You further complicate that by saying that the same “chunk” of information can look different in different places and still be the same data. People aren’t really used to data being like water.

We’ve built our two example standard views of non-standard portfolios. The first being the “counter” which counts stuff in the posts and graphs some things. Those things are fairly random but focused on a rough idea that links and images might be an aspect of digital fluency that evolves over time. The sky is the limit here.
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This other view is simply Timeline JS with the oldest posts showing up first so that you might see how the writing occurs over time and how that writing evolves over time. It may be useless but it’s just another example of how flexible the visual expression of content like this can be.

We could build really interesting dashboards for student reflection and larger views of the program that analyze the content created by students in just about any way I can conceive of. There are so many gradations of choice that would enable students to have control of their content and how it’s displayed while still providing for consistent data and consistent views for the institution. I am afraid that because it can be just about anything it overwhelms people. It could also be I get excited and do a poor job making sense.2 The far end of the spectrum here would be having students participate in a layer of annotation across any platform they choose. They’d be self-identifying proof of their learning no matter the platform, no matter the course.

Anyway, I could take most of this stuff a mile deeper but I’m getting to the point where I know I’m overdoing it.


1 Yes, we still need the e. Just be glad it’s not an i.

2 I always worry if I start smiling in a presentation. If I find it interesting and fairly uncharted then it’s going to be unlikely to appeal to mass audiences. I found myself smiling when talking about the Prelinger archives and the Russian Experiments in the Revival of Organisms film the other day.

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  1. Plenty of Portfolio Pitfalls – JR Blogwall said on November 16, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    […] to write about. Well, thankfully Tom Woodward has inspired me yet again as I just read his post ePortfolios: Competing Concepts. I recommend you take a read through. The way Tom positioned the competing concepts really struck […]

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