This ain’t yo mama’s e-portfolio, part 1

It’s been over a year now since my full-fledged burn, baby, burn conversation with Gardner Campbell about WordPress Multi-User, ELS Blogs, the Digital Five Ring Binder, and the underpinnings of re-imagining an online distributed space for teaching and learning that both encompasses and moves beyond e-portfolios, capturing a whole range of activities both for class and beyond.

Image of a hydra

This is a conversation that hasn’t happened in a vacuum, see Cole Camplese’s post about using the blog as an e-portfolio back in May, 2006 (and several subsequent iterations on that idea). Or Mike Caulfield’s posts here and here on the topic of e-portfolios. Or Helen Barrett’s ongoing discussion of all things e-portfolio. Or Gardner’s vision of the feedbook back in the day. Or Stephen Downes on the subject of the space of RSS, aggregation, and distributed student and course content way, way back in the day. The conversation has been one that has unfurled over time for a long while and I enter it very late and only capture a snippet of its history. It’s by no means new, in fact it has held a pretty steady space in the imagination of educational technology for well over a decade, if not longer. In fact, many have moved away from the idea of an e-portfolio altogether, re-framing it as a Personal Learning Environment that can take into account the dynamic, distributed personalized spaces wherein we network, interact, create, commune and by extension learn.

All this said, I want to return to one simple and very unrevelatory idea, how might we imagine a campus cyber-infrastructure for managing a cheap, flexible, and dynamic e-portfolio system? And with that, I’m off…

Barbara Ganley’s 21st century proverb, “Twitter to connect, the blog to reflect,” will lay the groundwork of how we might think about the blog as e-portfolio and much more (I’ll ask many of you to forgive the limitations of my terminology as we get started). This blog/e-portfolio creature might be better understood as a digital frame for experiences or a personal archive of one’s thinking over time (an idea laid out nicely here by Martin Weller as he articulates our collective wondering whether the blogosphere is moribund). I like the idea of understanding a student blog/portfolio as an archive of their throught over the course of their time as a member of an academic community. A space that they can share, interact in, take with them, and build upon as they move onwards and upwards with their lives.

But a portfolio isn’t an archive, right? Well, yes, you’re right smart guy, but we need to spend a bit more time here to move to the idea of featuring and presenting one’s best work as a portfolio so often connotes. An archive becomes the raw material of thought that can be categorized, tagged, fed out, and re-worked in whole series of different and exciting ways. I have said it before, and I’ll say it a gain. With a blogging platform like WordPress and Drupal† you can feed off of categories or tags, which makes the work students file under a particular tag or category easily syndicated to an aggregated course blog –I talk at length about this here, here, here, and here and see Andre Malan’s frighteningly lucid post on the subject of different kinds of course blogs). And by extension, students can use categories and tags to filter specific work for a course blog, a group blog, or even a separate portfolio blog that they feed in only the things they want to feature (keep in mind that students, faculty and staff can have as many blogs as they want, wither on the campus system or elsewhere–more on this soon).

Cole Camplese had brought up the point of using the PSU network drive, or storage space, as a private repository for files that students wanted to keep separate from the blog. I think this is a great feature, and given that PSU has the infrastructure to integrate it with their blogging system it is a bonus. Fore those who don’t have it, I’m not sure you would require a locally supported infrastructure for the job. Might this be better provided by services like divShare, Google Docs,, YouTube, Flickr, and so on. The more I think about it, the shear simplicity of integrating selected Google Docs, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, divShare files, etc. into a blog often makes these services easier to work with then a centralized campus storage/file sharing network. The small pieces loosely joined approach guarantees that everyone takes ownership of their work, takes responsibility for the services they choose, and defines their own digital management plan which isn’t premised on the outdated notion of a central network/storage backbone provided by colleges and universities. Universities can make recommendations, and IT departments and/or libraries might make recommendations, but the choice rests with the individual. Jon Udell outlines the logic of a syndication oriented infrastructure which makes far more sense for universities and colleges than the current practices of continually trying to maintain and host everything locally. As Brian Lamb put it (and I shamefully keep quoting this, sorry Brian!):

Schools should be in the business of managing data flows rather than in supporting an end to end user experience. We can only dream what might result if the energy going into the campus-wide LMS’s would go into creating flexible and easy to use “syndication buses” or to addressing pragmatic instructor challenges to using the “small pieces” approach — things like student management tools, gradebooks etc. And what about providing the service of institutional archiving and data backups to mitigate the risks of using third party tools?

In my mind, the key to such syndication driven architecture has everything to do with tweaking a few tools (like Andre Malan’s Add BDP RSS and Add User widgets) and perhaps a hack or two to make this work so that the the campus community is sharing their work with one another in a way that is visible and open, while at the same time as simple as a tool like Facebook (which qualifies under Ganley’s notion of connect), but unlike Facebook this system would be open and students, faculty, and staff would control their data (see Justin Ball’s post here).

This is the key, we cannot build a monolithic system that will represent the new breed of “Learning Management Systems” on campus, rather we need to provide possibilities for a community to come into conversation with itself and the rest of the world by making it easy for everyone to share their feeds, filter their work to appropriate spaces, and become part of larger community that is not dictated by an overarching logic of management, control, and isolation–those are the tools of nefarious capital 🙂 D’Arcy Norman and Bill Fitzgerald have come up with an excellent prototype of such a system for Drupal both here and here, respectively.

So, with that, I’ll end the overview, albeit a brief and idiosyncratic context, and move into some specific examples and how blogs (and in my case WPMu specifically) might be used for e-portfolios. I just wanted to stop here and pace myself a bit because my posts are becoming ever-longer, and Jerry reminded me I should break this stuff up so that someone will actually read it.

Part deux out at 3 am tomorrow morning 🙂

† I imagine applications like Movable Type and Blogger can do something like this with tag/category feeds, I’m just not familiar enough with them, so I haven’t been able to find such features on blogs that are using these applications.

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14 Responses to This ain’t yo mama’s e-portfolio, part 1

  1. droople fanboy. inexcusable.

  2. Chris Lott says:

    This elaborates acutely on an idea that I share, and that I constantly return to every time the idea of “the portfolio” is brought up (which is essentially: put it up and tag it, there’s your portfolio).

    Sequencing is the one issues that seems to present some challenges, both in the clunkiness of resequencing dates in feed items and the poor ability of aggregators to deal with those kinds of changes. That’s one small wrinkle, greatly influenced by various ideas of what a portfolio looks like… I see it as a collection of one’s best work, but ideally overlaid so that it is akin to an installation, where the user/artist controls at least the initial presentation.

    I look forward to seeing how these things are worked out in your system (so that I can copy it).

  3. I wrote a bit about eportfolios as “live documents” via blogging etc… Might come in handy for the Plan for World Domination 🙂

  4. hell, I’ve got a whole tag full of ramblings on the topic 🙂

  5. phaedral says:

    I’m not sure my thoughts fully embrace the context of the conversation, especially since that conversation has been going on a while. But one thing that came to mind as I read was the idea that sometimes we want to present things _out_ of context, or, put differently, we want to shape and contour some of the immediate layers of context in which our work is to be seen/enjoyed/evaluated. That strikes me as an important difference between “put it up there and tag it” and some other, as yet not-articulated, version of the e-portfolio.

    For what does one want a portfolio? For what does one use a portfolio? As opposed to some other aggregation of personal work (like a journal or an archive)? I think utilitarian questions of this nature, and the answers to those questions, have to come first.

    Assuming, then, that the questions are asked, and then an app is developed to fulfill those answers, we get serendipity. No tool is good only for those tasks for which it was designed. The screwdriver is a pretty good ice pick…or murder weapon. Twitter, today, is a pretty good place to meet groovy folks and chat. This multiple use isn’t a new phenomenon, nor at all limited to “new” tech.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  6. Chris Lott says:

    Phaedral: I think you are right on… that’s what I’m getting at with my second paragraph w/r/t sequences and installations. In most of my conversations I don’t have time to elaborate on my shorthand. However, even that step: publish it, tag it, grab the feed(s) is light years better than even the most elaborate and expensive eportfolio apps.

    There has been a lot of talk about eportfolios for years, much of which has been devoted to the “utilitarian questions” you mention. The purposes, needs, and features are pretty well established, though there are, of course, many overlapping visions.

    Those discussions have taken me to the same place as Jim and others– that developing a new app is probably not the way to go, but designing a way that can assemble the existing pieces and still meet most needs (everyone has their own idea, but I think a number of ideas about what portfolios should do are misguided if not downright harmful) could work.

    Really, people are already using all kinds of existing tools to accomplish the tasks that portfolios are meant to accomplish… my thinking– and I suspect Jim’s– fits in the region between those relatively primitive but useful methods and the hopeless direction of the monolithic system.

    Thre are plenty of ways to publish every content type. Most of them have feeds. If I had a way to aggregate those intelligently and then provide an entry point to contextualized installations/presentations for specific purposes, topics, etc… that’s all I need.

  7. Cole says:

    I have invited a faculty member from our College of Education to be a faculty fellow with us this summer to put some real academic teeth behind the bite on this. I’ll be sharing the details as they emerge, but we have now assembled an instructional designer, programmer, senior developer, and now a faculty fellow to focus intense energy here. I am betting the farm on blogs as portfolios this year and I am hopeful we can produce outcomes that really push this forward. So much more to come — it is an exciting time to be part of this space!

    Loved the post–>

  8. @Cole – sweet! looking forward to seeing what you come up with. Between the bava love and the ETS magic, I bet there are going to be some awesome blogfolio resources showing up this summer! 🙂

  9. Alan Levine says:

    I claim prior blogging too, was looking this stuff back in 2003:

    bunches more.

    Not that it matters.

    its a struggle (IMHO) between this old concept of a fixed portfolio (like a real leather case full of “best work” and the more fluid thinfs we are familiar with in a web 2.0 space. I see this tensuin between portfolio as a thing, as a contained “the portfolio” and perhaps portfolio-ing as a reflective practice.

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  11. AJ Cann says:

    We’ve just looked very hard at for student ePortfolios for all the reasons you mention:
    but on balance, we’ve come around to favouring instead:

  12. Reverend says:

    @Dnorman, Chris, and Phaedral:
    I responded to you all in part two, And D’Arcy, why am I not surprised you blogged this already back when you used to blog in 2006 😉

    I look forward to your groups future steps, you have been a defining factor in all this stuff. And we’ll be sure to steal as much from your work as possible. And the fact you’re doing all this within a campus system of 80,000 is nothing short of amazing.

    Yeah, I keep you in mind always when writing stuff like this, for I take to heart your deep understanding of the fact that the terminology and ideas of eportfolios, PLEs, etc. can often become an obsession in and of themselves. And like you, I am far more interested in getting to the heart of the matter of watching and tracing inspired and impassioned teaching and learning unfold before one’s digital eyes.
    With that, I have tried to avoid remaining to comfortable in any one definition of an eportfolio, PLE, presentation site, etc. It ultimately makes more sense as a blog/archive/website as you referred to it at NV, and my heart remains there. But the e-portfolio ideas is always being thrown around (and I have heard about from number of people recently), and I was hoping to use these posts to kind of hijack the idea, under the usual terminology, to suggest that yep it’s kinda like a blog/digital-notebook/archive that can be re-worked with RSS as you see fit.

    In fact, the links you and D’Arcy left here have been extremely helpful for both me and Andre Malan at UBC, who was in many ways the inspiration for this post. I’m not interested in the idea of pushing e-portfolios for the sake of some campus initiative, but as a more local, grass-roots space for letting people know the potential power of collecting and re-presenting all the cool work they did.

    And your call for prior art is recognized and understood, I try not to mess with Babe Ruth whenever possible 🙂

    @AJ Cann,
    That wetpaint site is very attractive. Do they handle feeds pretty well? Yet another tool/possibility for the portfolio. Thanks for that.

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