Our Portfolio Could be Your Life

Let me start by saying Bologna is a fine city to hold a conference.

Bologna’s significant university student population makes in one of the grooviest cities in Italy.

It’s famous for its radical left politics, and it’s home to Italy’s film archive Cineteca Bologna-just the other night I saw a gorgeous version of Night of the Hunter that they restored.

And in a country famous for its food-it may be one of the best culinary cities in the land. Not to mention it’s an Italian city, so it is all kinds of gorgeous between the towers and the porticoes you really can’t go wrong. I don’t believe I’ve ever eaten so well at a conference, nor presented in such a fabulously ornate venue as this one at Pallazzo Gnudi.

And that’s just during the day, it takes on an entirely different character
in the evening.

So just to summarize, Bologna comes highly recommended as a host city for your next conference. Just make sure you scope out the wireless situation, as Poison so profoundly pointed out, “every rose has its thorn.”

And kudos to the organizers of  ePIC 2016 for making it happen. In particular thanks to Don Presant and Serge Ravat for inviting me to speak. Don is hard not to like, he reminds me of Philip Seymour Hoffman in all the best possible ways, and he is a connective force in the world of open badges (more on those shortly). I also really dug Serge, he may have the best French accent ever when speaking English, and his presentation “Beyond Open Badges and ePortfolios” was a philosophical and poetic rumination on the relational vision of badges framing a richer, deeper holographic identity:

In fact, as it turns out, I had heard about this conference over the years, and it seems it has morphed from an event focused primarily on e-portfolios to one focused primarily on badges. I’m not sure of the precise lineage of this metamorphosis (or if this is a broader shift in the e-portfolio field), but while there were a few presentations dealing with portfolios days 2 and 3 (I particularly enjoyed TRU’s Tracy Penny Light’s on the topic), by-and-large the focus and energy at this conference was on badges, with a healthy dose of the blockchain thrown in. Portfolios and blockchain are not necessarily my forté, but I am not above exploiting the ambiguity of the former as a Trojan Horse to get folks to explore Domain of One’s Own. As for the latter, I admittedly remain relatively clueless.

I was quite skeptical of the push for badges four or five years ago, and remember being dismayed MacArthur had decided to channel just about all of its funding into this approach.  It dried up one of the few funding channels for experimental ed-tech in higher ed, and I just couldn’t understand how boiling down the seemingly endless possibilities of expression on the web to a predefined symbol of what you had accomplished was of any value. And to put that in some historical perspective, while MacArther and Mozilla were announcing they were all-in on badges as icons of achievement in 2011, we were prototyping the idea of thinking through what it means to take control of one’s own domains with ds106. The smaller, more modest vision there was to build on an existing movement of the open web to encourage narrating your learning publicly. Not all that revolutionary given how long blogs had been around, but given the sorry state of institutional adoption of anything resembling innovative ed-tech for more than a decade it still seemed radical. 

In terms of where Badges are now, I couldn’t say with any authority. They do seem to be heavily focused on vocational, corporate, and workplace training. Very little talk of any meaningful badge work within undergraduate universities. In that space, it seems Badges have moved on from any definitive idea of a portfolio, at least from what I could make out, and are exploring the implications of digital records and/or transcripts. Phil Long‘s keynote highlighted the work they’re doing at UT Austin experimenting with the blockchain to provide new ways of sharing and managing a data-rich transcript. What data and how this will be shared between institutions seems very much nebulous still, but giving students more control over their digital records seems to be the push. It was interesting how the idea of badges and academic records are converging (conflating?) in at least one part of the field that will focus on student ownership of data. This is something I really appreciate, but it seems far removed from teaching and learning. What’s more, there was little to no talk about open APIs, which you think would go hand-in-hand with such an approach.

In fact, much of the language used around Badges and Blockchain at the conference seemed more appropriate to a banking conference. Issues of transactions, earners, endorsement, and the like just made me wilt. I understand Blockchain technology is relatively new and our best example of it in action is BitCoin, but the lack of attention to how directly these terms frame this platform as the apotheosis of the Freirian learning transaction was alienating. I still remain as unconvinced about the value of badges as I was in 2011, and while I am moderately interested in the Blockchain I am resisting that urge at the moment. But for those who are, I’d recommend thinking through the vocabulary and asking yourselves if this new approach to banking through technology might have real limits—beyond the obvious linguistic ones— when grafted onto teaching and learning.

Anyway, I presented a shorter, 20 minute talk riffing on the idea of domains as portfolios, and again with nods to Grant Potter and the Minutemen, reworked the title of a previous talk to fit portfolios: “Our Portfolio could be Your Life.” The talk was pretty new, I introduced some really fun slides and elements about Noodling, Catfishing, and more. I was inspired by Alec Couros‘s on-going issues with identity theft and Catfishing on Facebook (which were unfolding on Twitter while I was preparing the talk) so I played off it it with Noodling (a way of catching catfish with your hand popular in the Southern US states introduced to me by Tom Woodward). Anyway, how could that fail? 🙂 I stole a piece of Mike Caulfield awesome keynote that celebrates of Anth101, which provided a quite compelling update to the vision behind ds106. I also relied on the recent writings of both Martha Burtis and Audrey Watters to make the argument of why taking control of one’s digital presence and being critical consumers is so crucial.

On a personal note this may have been one of the funnest presentations I’ve given in a while. I really liked the shorter presentation time limit of 20 minutes, and I used that to experiment with making it a kinda of stand-up gig. Im the end I wasn’t that funny,  but it was fun for me. I knew I was feeling it when I started the presentation by poking fun at my bad Italian, and from there the energy was just right. Maybe it was the gorgeous room? Maybe it was the home team advantage? I don’t know, but it was a good note to end my presentations for 2016. And it was not yet clouded by our current crisis.
The good old days.

Update: Here’s the video.

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