Tuesday, November 6, 2012

WAC 4: ePortfolios

I have grounded my concept of a writing across the curriculum program (WAC) in connectivist theory: that knowledge and communication are network phenomena, a function of mapping and traversing complex, multi-scale networks. As Stephen Downes says in his post Types of Knowledge and Connective Knowledge, "connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections." To my mind, language is one of our primary tools for mapping and traversing these networks. Indeed, language is more than a tool—language is a fundamental part of the knowledge and communication networks themselves. Language is like DNA: it is the tool and instructions by which the organism/network emerges, it is part of the scaffolding of the emerging organism/network, and it is part of the maintenance system for the emerged organism/network. Language, like DNA, is woven into the very knowledge and communications that emerge from its play. It's a bit like making the blueprints and hammers and saws part of the house they are helping to build.

But this is still a very abstract concept that may not have an intuitively obvious application. A core, practical application in my WAC is the ePortfolio, an ideal application that fits nicely into a connectivist, network perspective. I'll say why, but first let me point out that I am not saying that ePortfolios are connectivist. A constructivist, cognitivist, or behaviorist can use ePortfolios as well as any connectivist, but I particularly like a connectivist take on ePortfolios. Here's why, and let me cite my source up front: Jonan Donaldson's article Digital Portfolios in the Age of the Read/Write Web in the current issue of Educause Review Online. Mr. Donaldson, an instructional designer at Oregon State University, says all of the things I want to say about ePortfolios and more, so I'm leaning on him heavily in this post.

The first key feature of ePortfolios is that they have emerged from the read/write web. I began using ePortfolios when the e(lectronic) in ePortfolios meant a PowerPoint burned to a CD. This was decidedly old-school and not very network aware. All that is changed, and now ePortfolios are best understood as a function of complex, multi-scale networks. This implies that all ePortfolios are on the open Web and not locked within some organizational silo and that they are owned and managed by the student.

Jonan Donaldson lists a number of affordances provided by ePortfolios:
  • ePortfolios help shift from teacher-centric education to student-centric education, as students become active producers of knowledge rather than passive consumers of knowledge. Rather than simply learning the eternal truth from their teachers, students use ePortfolios to create connections among their bits of personal knowledge and the people they encounter in school. This fits well with Downes' contention that "The very forms of reason and enquiry employed in the classroom must change. Instead of seeking facts and underlying principles, students need to be able to recognize patterns and use things in novel ways. Instead of systematic methodical enquiry,… students need to learn active and participative forms of enquiry. Instead of deference to authority, students need to embrace diversity and recognize (and live with) multiple perspectives and points of view." ePortfolios can provide the scaffolding for this approach to learning.
  • ePortfolios provide students with intrinsic motivation. As Donaldson points out, "Turning consumers of knowledge into producers of knowledge transforms learning into an active experience." Mapping networks is not a passive activity, and it requires some intrinsic motivation. Deleuze and Guattari make this clear in their distinction between mapping and tracing the rhizome. Traditional education is largely a matter of tracing which depends on extrinsic motivations such as rewards and punishments rather than mapping which relies on intrinsic motivations.
  • ePortfolios enhance student autonomy. Donaldson says, "Not only can students individualize the look and feel of their portfolios through templates and design options, they can also enjoy increased individualization of content and the delivery format of portfolio artifacts." ePortfolios let students "recognize patterns and use things in novel ways" and "learn active and participative forms of enquiry." In other words, it helps fit the knowledge to the student rather than fit the students to the knowledge. (Many may seem autonomy as inconsistent with networking, but this is a misunderstanding of networks. Each node in a network must maintain its own autonomy and integrity to perform its role in the network and to make the network what it is.)
  • ePortfolios enhance collaboration. Donaldson notes wryly that "it is often said that we learn best when we do, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that we learn best when we do together." A network demands collaboration and cooperation (in Downes' sense of the term) among its various nodes, and research shows that when students connect to (network with) a teacher, another student, or a community of practice, then they are more likely to stay in college and succeed.
  • ePortfolios enhance digital literacy, as Donaldson notes, "incidentally while tackling the learning objectives at hand." Students learn to recognize, validate, and use a wider range of patterns in different kinds of data and information (text, image, video, audio, number, and more), and they learn to orchestrate this data into coherent, appealing documents. These are incredibly valuable skills.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' digital image. Most of today's college students already have digital image that is unfortunately not under their control and not always positive. Building an ePortfolio helps the student to learn how to build a professional brand and why that brand is important. The online world is not going away, and our students must know how to navigate it and use its powers.
  • ePortfolios enhance students' 21st century writing skills. As Donaldson says, modern writing means "being able to create digital content that conveys information effectively for dissemination through websites, blogs, wikis, online presentations, illuminating graphics, audio content, and video content." This ain't your grandma's writing. Rather, this is the production of illuminated manuscripts: documents illuminated with image, video, sound, calculation, hyperlinks, and yes, text. ePortfolios help us learn this kind of writing, the kind of writing we will do in the 21st century.
I want to add to Donaldson's list that ePortfolios connect students to their communities of practice—first as students and then as fledgling professionals. Blogs, Twitter, RSS feeds, and more tools that can be aggregated on an ePortfolio help connect students to their personal learning networks and to their communities of practice. They connect to each other to get through school and then to practicing professionals to join a profession.

Finally, perfect WAC would include ePortfolios from the faculty and staff. I know of no better way to teach students how to build an ePortfolio than by building one myself.

Yes, ePortfolios.

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