Reconsidering (e)portfolios — How can we give the power back?

Short Version         (Longer Version to come later)

I want to begin making clear that I really like portfolios as a pedagogical practice. However, I have some serious reservations about what I see as some unquestioned assumptions driving much of the discussion and its various manifestations. At the core of my thinking, I want to see them succeed in transformative ways where students develop deeper understandings of their intellectual journeys and future contributions to the world.

Here are a few of my synthesized questions:

  • Is it possible that current approaches to (e)portfolios dis-empower students?
  • To what extent have we critically examined the organizing assumptions driving the current logic of (e)portfolios?
  • Is it wise to frame a major part of the discussion around the expressed desires of the business community?
    • For example, is it sound to assume that businesses know what skills and attitudes they want in employees? Can they explicate them with a degree of clarity? Or, is it often a case of “I’ll know it when I see it”?
    • When “91% of employers” say that “critical thinking, communication, and problem solving abilities are more important than a potential employee’s major” should we assume that employers know what these terms mean and what they look like broadly and within their business contexts?  (see AAC&U LEAP Challenge rationale)
  • Are the connections we make between (e)portfolios and job skills / life skills / valuable dispositions creating a system that will move forward with or without students?
    • In other words, is it safe (adequate) to assume that merely moving through the process will promote the skills and habits of mind we want to result from creating an (e)portfolio? Is exposure enough?
  • Is it possible that these assumptions merely perpetuate an existing top-down power dynamic that, by its nature, places students in defensive and passive roles – socially and intellectually?

This last question is the root question. When a student creates a portfolio for the purposes of a grade, a job, or some professional appointment, is there a sense in which the student is automatically (by nature of the assumptions that inform current practices) positioned in a dis-empowered role? I imagine a student submitting her work saying: “Please look at my best work and tell me what it’s worth.”  This is passive. It’s asking for acceptance. Moreover, I would argue that those evaluating the work may not have a clear idea of the criteria used to guide the assessment; I doubt that students have a clear idea of the criteria. This makes me sad given the rich and significant ideals of providing a liberal education for all students.

What are other options?

What if (e)portfolios were not a record of student work, but a record of student thinking? Students’ work tends to be the focus of what is included in a portfolio. Why? I would argue that one reason points to efficiency and ease. I don’t see this position, even if it isn’t acknowledged, as consistent with the theory that informs valuable general education.

What if students put the thinking first and let the work (artifacts) be mere examples of the thinking that they have explicitly practiced? Here is a link to one of my first attempts expliciting the idea and its place within my general education class. Here is another link that elaborates on the next steps emphasizing “Visualizing our Intellectual Journeys.”

The proposal is that students clarify and track their intellectual development as described through skills, attitudes and dispositions that are both transdisciplinary and discipline specific. Their portfolios represent a narrative of development where their artifacts are examples of the thinking.  Consequently, the student is in the position to say something like: “Hello, let me tell you how to read my work. Let me tell you about my skills and how they will help your program/team/business.”  That’s a power shift.

As a final thought, I think such a shift is pragmatically feasible. In other words, I think that such a shift would help advance institutional, general education initiatives while also providing significant learning experiences. It can be done, and I’m working on the ‘how.’

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