This ain’t yo mama’s e-portfolio, part 1

It’s been over a year now since my full-fledged burn, baby, burn conversation with Gardner Campbell about WordPress Multi-User, ELS Blogs, the Digital Five Ring Binder, and the underpinnings of re-imagining an online distributed space for teaching and learning that both encompasses and moves beyond e-portfolios, capturing a whole range of activities both for class and beyond.

Image of a hydra

This is a conversation that hasn’t happened in a vacuum, see Cole Camplese’s post about using the blog as an e-portfolio back in May, 2006 (and several subsequent iterations on that idea). Or Mike Caulfield’s posts here and here on the topic of e-portfolios. Or Helen Barrett’s ongoing discussion of all things e-portfolio. Or Gardner’s vision of the feedbook back in the day. Or Stephen Downes’s on the subject of the space of RSS, aggregation, and distributed student and course content way, way back in the day. The conversation has been one that has unfurled over time for a long while and I enter it very late and only capture a snippet of its history. It’s by no means new, in fact it has held a pretty steady space in the imagination of educational technology for well over a decade, if not longer. In fact, many have moved away from the idea of an e-portfolio altogether, re-framing it as a Personal Learning Environment that can take into account the dynamic, distributed personalized spaces wherein we network, interact, create, commune and by extension learn.

All this said, I want to return to one simple and very unrevelatory idea, how might we imagine a campus cyber-infrastructure for managing a cheap, flexible, and dynamic e-portfolio system? And with that, I’m off…

Barbara Ganley’s 21st century proverb, “Twitter to connect, the blog to reflect,” will lay the groundwork of how we might think about the blog as e-portfolio and much more (I’ll ask many of you to forgive the limitations of my terminology as we get started). This blog/e-portfolio creature might be better understood as a digital frame for experiences or a personal archive of one’s thinking over time (an idea laid out nicely here by Martin Weller as he articulates our collective wondering whether the blogosphere is moribund). I like the idea of understanding a student blog/portfolio as an archive of their throught over the course of their time as a member of an academic community. A space that they can share, interact in, take with them, and build upon as they move onwards and upwards with their lives.

But a portfolio isn’t an archive, right? Well, yes, you’re right smart guy, but we need to spend a bit more time here to move to the idea of featuring and presenting one’s best work as a portfolio so often connotes. An archive becomes the raw material of thought that can be categorized, tagged, fed out, and re-worked in whole series of different and exciting ways. I have said it before, and I’ll say it a gain. With a blogging platform like WordPress and Drupal† you can feed off of categories or tags, which makes the work students file under a particular tag or category easily syndicated to an aggregated course blog –I talk at length about this here, here, here, and here and see Andre Malan’s frighteningly lucid post on the subject of different kinds of course blogs). And by extension, students can use categories and tags to filter specific work for a course blog, a group blog, or even a separate portfolio blog that they feed in only the things they want to feature (keep in mind that students, faculty and staff can have as many blogs as they want, wither on the campus system or elsewhere–more on this soon).

Cole Camplese had brought up the point of using the PSU network drive, or storage space, as a private repository for files that students wanted to keep separate from the blog. I think this is a great feature, and given that PSU has the infrastructure to integrate it with their blogging system it is a bonus. Fore those who don’t have it, I’m not sure you would require a locally supported infrastructure for the job. Might this be better provided by services like divShare, Google Docs, Blip.tv, YouTube, Flickr, and so on. The more I think about it, the shear simplicity of integrating selected Google Docs, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, divShare files, etc. into a blog often makes these services easier to work with then a centralized campus storage/file sharing network. The small pieces loosely joined approach guarantees that everyone takes ownership of their work, takes responsibility for the services they choose, and defines their own digital management plan which isn’t premised on the outdated notion of a central network/storage backbone provided by colleges and universities. Universities can make recommendations, and IT departments and/or libraries might make recommendations, but the choice rests with the individual. As Jon Udell outlines the logic of a syndication oriented infrastructure which makes far more sense for universities and colleges than the current practices of continually trying to maintain and host everything locally. As Brian Lamb put it (and I shamefully keep quoting this, sorry Brian!):

Schools should be in the business of managing data flows rather than in supporting an end to end user experience. We can only dream what might result if the energy going into the campus-wide LMS’s would go into creating flexible and easy to use “syndication buses” or to addressing pragmatic instructor challenges to using the “small pieces” approach — things like student management tools, gradebooks etc. And what about providing the service of institutional archiving and data backups to mitigate the risks of using third party tools?

In my mind, the key to such syndication driven architecture has everything to do with tweaking a few tools (like Andre Malan’s Add BDP RSS and Add User widgets) and perhaps a hack or two to make this work so that the the campus community is sharing their work with one another in a way that is visible and open, while at the same time as simple as a tool like Facebook (which qualifies under Ganley’s notion of connect), but unlike Facebook this system would be open and students, faculty, and staff would control their data (see Justin Ball’s post here).

This is the key, we cannot build a monolithic system that will represent the new breed of “Learning Management Systems” on campus, rather we need provide possibilities for a community to come into conversation with itself and the rest of the world by making it easy for everyone to share their feeds, filter their work to appropriate spaces, and become part of larger community that is not dictated by an overarching logic of management, control, and isolation–those are the tools of nefarious capital ) D’Arcy Norman and Bill Fitzgerald have come up with an excellent prototype of such a system for Drupal both here and here, respectively.

So, with that, I’ll end the overview and brief and idiosyncratic context and move into some specific examples and how blogs (and in my case WPMu specifically) might be used for eportfolios. I just wanted to stop here and pace myself a bit because my posts are becoming ever-longer, and Jerry reminded me I should make break thi stuff up so that someone will actually read it.

Part deux out at 3 am tomorrow morning )

† I imagine applications like Movable Type and Blogger can do something like this with tag/category feeds, I’m just not familiar enough with them, so I haven’t been able to find such features on blogs that are using these applications.

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