Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A traditionalist case for e-portfolios

Most proponents and opponents of electronic portfolios are future-oriented, focusing on how e-portfolios meld technology, assessment, learning, and employment into an education tool for the coming decades.  Their only difference is over whether this coming future is a good one or a bad one.

It strikes me that whenever opponents and proponents agree on the nature of a thing, and differ only on the value of that nature, it is time to question the agreement.

So here goes.  In my view, the real power of e-portfolios has not to do with the future but instead with the traditions of higher education, and because I value each of the following traditions, I support the use of portfolios to achieve them.

Here are the traditions, with the ways that e-portfolios make them more vital:

Tradition 1: Education is about more than developing narrow disciplinary or employment skills.  Westminster like most institutions has a set of college-wide learning goals, rooted in the traditions of the liberal arts in the US.  We desire students to become critical thinkers, to communicate well, the be reflective and creative, to be able to work with others, and to develop a sense of their place in the world.  These are old aims, but for the past 50 years or so, they have been out of vogue in higher education, replaced with narrower goals tied to the major and career.  E-portfolios (at least in the way Westminster hopes to use them) make the old, pre-disciplinary goals real, because they require students to make connections between their course work and the broadest aspirations of the institution.

Tradition 2: Education is about the formation or development of students into their full humanity. Not only do we hope that students will see beyond narrow boundaries, but we also hope that a college education helps them develop a sense of themselves as human beings, as actors in a complicated but rewarding world.  But in much of American higher ed, the focus on the development or formation of students as humans is in decline, replaced again by a career focus.  E-portfolios are a tool to remind students of their development, since portfolios track student growth across time, and require students to reflect on that growth as demonstrated in and outside the classroom.

Tradition 3: Student formation should take place in conjunction with mentors who nudge them to be wise in their development.  The oldest images of education are of a students linked with a mentor who, having been through the process, can provide guidance to students in their growth.  But in most institutions that mentoring, at least for most students, has been replaced by advising--by employees of the college helping students select classes, get internships, and stay on the course to graduation.  Nothing wrong with any of these things, but if they constitute the whole of the mentoring relationship, then that relationship hardly does as much as it ought.  Because the evaluation of an e-portfolio (at least in our proposed system) should take place in conversation with mentors, e-portfolios can be part of the mentoring that was once at the heart of human formation.

Tradition 4: The previous traditions ought to take place in a democratic setting. One of the great innovations of American higher education has been to link the first three traditions with democratic aspirations--that those things ought to be part of the lives of all people, not just the rich, white, well-off people who tended to have access to them in other settings.  But in higher ed today, the first three traditions are part of the experience of a limited group--honors students, students who pick traditional liberal arts majors, those who are savvy enough to tie into the informal system of opportunities that flow to the "best" students.  E-portfolios, though, if they are done well, are an expectation of all students.  And so they are democratic, making it more possible for all students, not just the privileged, to participate in the broad, formative, mentored learning that is as significant today as when it was created long ago.

So whatever else e-portfolios do for the future, my hope is that they do something important to revive the past, a past that holds out the hope that education is more than a functional, narrow, career-focused traipse through a series of discipline-focused classes.

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