Let me take you back in time – I’m a graduate student teaching an introductory instructional technology course to preservice teachers. I’m embracing the supposed revolution that is the world-wide-web by asking my students to create their own webpages. My ambition is to help my students explore the benefits the web may offer teachers. Now, fast-forward a couple of semesters, during which time I’ve viewed countless webpages dominated with copyrighted images of Mickey Mouse (this was Florida after all) and I find myself contemplating how this activity will help my students in the future. I conclude that it perhaps won’t, and my advisor and I settle instead on the idea of students maintaining a digital record of their learning in their sophomore year, which they could continue to contribute to throughout their remaining time at the university – and this, quite simply, is how my journey into ePortfolio started.
In many respects, formulating the initial idea was the easy bit; it was the rolling it out to the 200 to 400 students each semester that proved to be the more challenging part. Needless to say, that first semester didn’t go well. My students would arrive at my office, sometimes in tears, explaining that this particular assignment was simply too hard, with most of their questions and struggles relating to the technology; for example why weren’t any of their pictures showing up? Following my encounters with these students, I reflected on the same concerns – was creating an ongoing digital record (ePortfolio) simply too hard?
But we persevered, working through the problems, and by the end of the semester most of the students had an ePortfolio. This in itself was something to get excited about, but not nearly as exciting as what happened next. Some of the students came back to see me, and this time not in tears, in fact, quite the opposite. Students were thanking me for the assignment and going as far to say that it was one of the most meaningful things they’d undertaken in college so far. The students explained that being able to see evidence of what they had learned, and being able to share this with others (including their parents) had proved to be a really rewarding and valuable experience.
I still think back to these early experiences – though adventures might be a more apt description. No student had ever thanked me for an assignment before and it taught me that the things that require effort, which we have to invest time in, and reflect on, are often the most meaningful tasks we undertake. It’s a bit part of why I am still a huge portfolio ambassador and convert some 20 years on from my first adventures.
Fortunately, portfolio creation is somewhat easier these days.
As aptly demonstrated here with the PebblePad Portfolio Builder.
The power of portfolio.
I’ve always taken great pride in helping students and colleagues pursue what they are passionate about. I suspect this (to use a technology analogy) is an “inbuilt feature” of any educator. And, in a similar way, I’m pretty proud of myself – it wasn’t chance that saw me become the director of ePortfolio at Clemson University, a love and passion for what I did played a significant part in securing that opportunity. And it was an opportunity that often wowed me, sometimes perplexed me, mostly delighted me, and gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things ePortfolio. It is an ambition too great to try and condense that knowledge into this paper; so, for now at least, you’ll have to make do with the top three things I’ve learnt about the power of ePortfolio …
The "ah-ha" moments.
With ePortfolio the transformational moments are not confined to the top performing students, but can also be found within students who would otherwise struggle to find their voice and passion. ePortfolio has enormous potential for improving performance because it can help to level the playing field.
The process of developing an ePortfolio and the conversations and purposeful questions generated as a result help us begin to understand ourselves as learners, and make sense of our experiences. These types of activities prepare us for the increasingly complex and unknown future, and can yield significant benefit for faculty.
A new adventure.
I suspect there may be a question you have been pondering since reading this section of the paper, and it probably goes something like this – why Gail, after seemingly securing your dream role at Clemson University did you decide to leave and join PebblePad? The answer is a very simple one. I now have a unique opportunity to bring together my experience, my passion, an incredible portfolio technology, and go out and work with leading universities to transform student learning. When you put all of that together it’s easy to see why this new role has the makings of my most exciting adventure to date. Having already worked on PebblePad projects with Spring Arbor University and McMaster University, it’s clear there is huge potential to change the way colleges engage with learners and collect data on learning, both at a student and program level.
The future of portfolio
I started this paper by taking you back in time, it therefore seems only right to conclude by painting a picture of what the future might look like. Looking back at my early adventures I can see why I believed there was a technology skill set that students had to gain in order to participate. Now, technology has become ubiquitous, and in some cases invisible, and as a result portfolios can be less about the technology and more about the “making meaning of learning”.
However, whilst advances in technology provide greater scope to exploit the “learning benefit” of portfolio, it comes at a time when increasing accountability is placing more pressure on universities. This outcome-driven accountability can sometimes see universities shift the focus of the “meaning-making portfolio” to the less catchy titled – “portfolio as a repository or a container for assessment purposes”. My hope is that in the future we’ll see learning and assessment co-existing more harmoniously. I believe that PebblePad has a critical role to play in realising this future because it supports both the learning process and the learning product – with the latter forming a perfect basis for assessment because the story it tells is so rich. The ePortfolio will become the space through which we create, share, and grow intellectually. In this future the student is creator rather than consumer, and we become a society of knowledge creators and critical thinkers. Of course, the learner will also have at his or her disposal a rich portfolio that can be shared with employers or graduate schools, helping them advance their own adventures with consummate ease.