What is a portfolio?

by Shane Sutherland


What is a portfolio?

~ Portfolio ~

FEBRUARY 4th 2016· by Shane Sutherland

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What is a Portfolio?

This is a question that just keeps popping up. I remember way back in 2005 having a discussion with Kathy Yancy and Barbara Cambridge at one of the EIfEL conferences, and complaining that we couldn’t have proper discussions because we couldn’t agree on what an ‘e’portfolio was. Barbara chided me, arguing that there were more important questions to answer. And yet, here we are in 2015 and the question is emerging louder than ever. It came up in a keynote at this year’s AAC&U conference, has been tackled by a plethora of speakers in AAEEBL’s webinar subject devoted to the subject, was covered at HERDSA and had papers devoted to it at this year’s AAEEBL conference in Boston - including one by yours truly, aided and abetted by the wonderful Tracy Penny-Light. Our paper was titled ‘Nailing jello to the wall’ - a saying I picked up from my very first university lecturer, albeit he nailed jelly (and plaited water).

The AAEEBL paper was written to prepare for a webinar I did for AAEEBL back in the summer and has been a great springboard for a chapter I’m writing with Alison Poot (more about the book soon). Indeed, I have found that through writing with Alison I have been forced to think really deeply about the bold statements I’ve made in conversations with leading portfolio thinkers and various PebblePaddlers over the years - and to reconsider more than 10 years of plaiting watery jelly along the way! In essence the presentation, chapter and webinar present the following ideas:

Firstly, that for the purposes of clear and consistent communication about portfolios, we need to distinguish between portfolio practices (principles and pedagogies), portfolio processes, portfolio presentations, and portfolio platforms.The case is also made that the time has long since passed to drop the ‘e’!

If you’ve read Pebblegogy (still a free download) you’ll know that over the years we’ve offered definitions of portfolios from a platform-centric view - remember the line about digital theatres and audience by invitation only? My (our) current pre-occupation is thinking about portfolios as presentations, that is, creative outputs.We distinguish between two key purposes for creating portfolios: to present evidence about me (me-portfolios) and to present evidence about an activity I have undertaken (task-portfolios), each represented by a number of sub-types of portfolio (personal, professional, promotional, process, production, pedagogical, placement and project).We also propose that the format (that is, the look) of a portfolio is a function of the purpose, the content, and the audience, and that there are three broad format types: the narrative portfolio, the mapping portfolio, and the collection.

Across these various types and formats of portfolio presentation we argue that there is a continuum of ‘portfolio-ness’ with some presentations more portfolio-like than others.This is important (we think) because it helps differentiate portfolios from other online presences. Indeed, I received an email this week which was crafted as well as any portfolio, it was studded with links (evidence) and conveyed a clear story - like many websites do. But was it a portfolio? To determine where a portfolio-like artefact is on the continuum we have devised the DAPPER framework and the portfolio-ness of any presentation can be assessed according to the degree to which it demonstrates each of 6 dimensions: Development; Authenticity; Purpose; Personality; Evidence; and Reflection.We believe that the DAPPER framework can help guide the author in the design and content of their portfolio and provide the audience with a basis upon which to assess and understand the portfolio. We also argue that the ability to create a good portfolio is a complex skill that requires training, support and rehearsal.

For now I’ll leave you with a taster of the DAPPER criteria:

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To what degree does the portfolio demonstrate movement along a learning journey?This might be evidenced by progressive learning experiences across time and/or contexts...

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To what degree is the portfolio a credible, genuine, and valid account of the experience and learning of the author?This really speaks to the degree to which the learning process of the author is surfaced and all of the other DAPPER characteristics contribute to this...

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To what degree is the reason or intention behind the portfolio evident?Does the portfolio relate a particular story, for a particular audience, for a particular purpose?This might, for example, be the difference between a showcase of all my photography (less portfolio-like) and a showcase of my best photos of sporting events with reflective commentary to support my application for a position as sports photographer with a local paper (more portfolio-like)...

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To what degree does the portfolio portray a sense of the author as a unique individual?Portfolios provide the opportunity for the author to express their personality through not only the content but also the appearance of the portfolio, and the degree of interactivity and creativity of the format...

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To what degree are the claims made in the portfolio evidenced and justified?Is the evidence appropriate and valid, and is the significance of the evidence explained? This can relate to the notion of portfolios having ‘depth’ – where links are made to evidence behind the text so that it can be viewed if desired...

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To what degree does the portfolio move beyond the description of experience?Does the author articulate feelings and thoughts, and demonstrate evaluation and planning?Are connections made between learning experiences and the broader learning journey?

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How do these dimensions look to you? Are they evident in your learner’s portfolios? Have we missed any that you think are really important?

Further reading

CRA RAPPOR magazine 

Trent Batson Blog

AAEEBL seminar series

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CEO and founder of PebblePad, Shane has been a big presence in the world of portfolios and personal learning ever since the company's inception in 2004. It's not just his boundless enthusiasm and towering capacity for innovation that keeps PebblePad at the top of its game ... when you're 6' 10" having a list of great ideas 'as long as your arm' is somewhat of a competitive advantage!