I attended the AAC&U eportfolio workshop last weekend in Washington DC. This was my first time at this conference, and it was good to see rhetoricians well-represented among the presenters, including Chris Gallagher, Kathy Yancey, and Darren Cambridge. It was also a conference with a heavy corporate presence, which is not surprising given the potential money to be made in supplying these services to universities (and the general unpreparedness of institutions to think through these issues on their own). However it was not until the very end of the day that I was able to identify a useful “matter of concern,” to use Latour’s phrase, though perhaps in retrospect it could have been predicted.
The closing session was given by Edward Watson, one of the editors of the International Journal of ePortfolios. He offered some analysis of the content of recent articles in the field and made the argument that more quantitative, reproducible research needed to be conducted and published. While he was willing to say that he didn’t mean that the research that was being done wasn’t valuable, he maintained that the field required more “rigorous” research as well. Darren, who was in the audience, spoke up to object to this characterization, which initiated some back and forth around the room. He remarked that portfolios arose from a value placed on epistemological pluralism and complexity that didn’t fit into the model of quantitative, reproducible research that Watson sought.
I’m not so interested in taking sides in a field beyond my own. From a distance, this desire for quantitative certainty to be associated with education is now a familiar theme. Government agencies, accrediting bodies, university administrations and so on want these kinds of assurances. They want to know that if they institute policy A for $XXX then this will result in x, y, and z effects, so that they can evaluate risk and return on investment. That is, they want to know that spending a bunch of money on instituting an ePortfolio system will result in better retention rates, time to degree, job placement, communications skills… something. And the edTech corporations want to make these assertions in their sales pitches too. There are also some education research disciplines that will claim such knowledge can be produced through empirical research. My position on these matters is fairly simple. I’m happy for scholars to pursue their research agendas in their communities. I don’t know that I would call such methods rigorous, unless by rigorous we mean predictable, because I will occasionally read such work and I’ve never found anything surprising about it. If you’ve ever read an empirical, quantitative study about writing pedagogy that produced results you thought were surprising, please let me know. I would honestly be interested in reading it.
Here is what I would assert about eportfolios. They are neither a necessary or sufficient cause for improving student learning. Depending on how they are employed within a curriculum and pedagogy, they can be a useful tool for creating opportunities for reflection and integrating learning experiences across courses and semesters. Depending on how they are structured, they can be a means for fostering learning communities. On the flip side, they can be nothing but a bureaucratic hoop. If eportfolios improve retention or time to degree it is because they way they are structured in an institution helps students to make their work more meaningful to themselves and chart their own development: through portfolios students can take ownership of their learning, but only if they see the portfolios as theirs rather than as another requirement. However, this also requires faculty and staff to be on board with the process. Then eportfolios become a tool for connecting faculty with students. But that’s a lot of work.
In short, if an institution invests heavily in eportfolios (though really eportfolios are just a MacGuffin) and faculty are invested in their operations and students are given ownership over their work, then they can become a tool for improving educational experience and results. Is that a claim that we really need to test? If we all care about something, believe that it is important, and invest our time and resources in it, then that thing will be the means by which we succeed. Our “problem” is that we don’t really have that thing. And I don’t think that eportfolios is a magic pill to solve that problem, but it is an opportunity to address it.
All of this become clear to me as I was onboard my flight home. The speaker system on the plane was not functioning, so when the attendant spoke into intercom system all anyone could hear was static. This fact was as obvious to her as it was to everyone else on the plane. Still she made all her rote announcements through the system. You know the ones: seat trays and seats in upright position, you can use your laptop now, etc. etc. I imagine she is required to make these announcements in this way, even though the system is malfunctioning. This reminds me of higher education. Communication is not really the point. It’s just the wah, wah, wah of the Charlie Brown teacher. So it’s not about eportfolios per se. It’s about opening a new circuit of communication.