E-portfolios and identity: more!

The one annual e-portfolio (and identity) conference that I attend reliably was this year co-sponsored by CRA, on top of the principal EIfEL — London, 11th to 13th July. Though it wasn’t a big gathering, I felt it was somehow a notch up from last time.

Perhaps this was because it was just a little more grounded in practice, and this could have been the influence of the CRA. Largely gone were speculations about identity management and architecture, but in was more of the idea of identity as something that was to be developed personally.

We heard from three real recent students, who have used their portfolio systems for their own benefit. Presumably they developed their identity? That’s not a representative sample, and of course these are the converted, not the rank and file dissatisfied or apathetic. A message that surprisingly came from them was that e-portfolio use should be compulsory, at least at some point during the student’s studies. That’s worth reflecting on.

And as well as some well-known faces (Helen, Shane, et al.) there were those, less familiar in these settings, of our critical-friendly Mark Stiles, and later Donald Clark (who had caused slight consternation by his provocative blog post, finding fault with the portfolio concept, and was invited to speak as a result). Interestingly, I didn’t think Donald’s presentation worked as well as his blog (it was based on the same material). In a blog, you can be deliberately provocative, let the objections come, and then gracefully give way to good counter-arguments. But in the conference there wasn’t time to do this, so people may have gone away thinking that he really held these ideas, which would be a pity. Next year we should be more creative about the way of handling that kind of contribution. Mark’s piece — may I call it a friendly Jeremiad? I do have a soft spot for Jeremiah! — seemed to go down much better. We don’t want learners themselves to be commodified, but we can engage with Mark through thinking of plausible ways of avoiding that fate.

Mark also offered some useful evidence for my view that learners’ interests are being systematically overlooked, and that people are aware of this. Just let your eye off the ball of learner-centricity for a moment, and — whoops! — your learner focus is sneakily transformed into a concern of the institution that wants to know all kinds of things about learners — probably not what the learners wanted at all. There is great depth and complexity of the challenge to be truly learner-focused or learner-centred.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Kristin Norris of IUPUI, looking at what the Americans call “civic identity” and “civic-mindedness”. This looks like a laudibly ambitious programme for helping students to become responsible citizens, and seems related to our ethical portfolios paper of 2006 as well as the personal values part of my book.

Kristin knows about Perry and Kegan, so I was slightly surprised that I couldn’t detect any signs in the IUPUI programme of diagnosis of the developmental stage of individual students. I would have thought that what you do on a programme to develop students ethically should depend on the stage they have already arrived at. I’ll follow up on this with her.

So, something was being pointed to from many directions. It’s around the idea that we need richer models of the learner, the student, the person. And in particular, we need better models of learner motivation, so that we can really get under their (and our own) skins, so that the e-portfolio (or whatever) tools are things that they (and we) really want to use.

Intrinsic motivation to use portfolio tools remains largely unsolved. We are faced again and again with the feedback that students don’t want to know about “personal development” or “portfolios” (unless they are creatives who know about these anyway) or even less “reflection”! Yes, there are certainly some (counterexemplifying Donald Clark’s over-generalisation) who want to reflect. Perhaps they are similar to those who spontaneously write diaries — some of the most organised among us. But not many.

This all brings up many questions that I would like to follow up, in no particular order.

  • How are we, then, to motivate learners (i.e. people) to engage in activities that we recognise as involving reflection or leading to personal development?
  • Could we put more effort into deepening and enriching the model we have of each of our learners?
  • Might some “graduate attributes” be about this kind of personal and ethical development?
  • Are we suffering from a kind of conspiracy of the social web, kidding people that they are actually integrated, when they are not?
  • Can we use portfolio-like tools to promote growth towards personal integrity?
  • “Go out and live!” we could say. “But as you do it, record things. Reflect on your feelings as well as your actions. Then, later, when you ‘come up for air’, you will have something really useful to reflect on.” But how on earth can we motivate that?
  • Should we be training young people to reflect as a habit, like personal hygiene habits?
  • Is critical friendship a possible motivator?

I’m left with the feeling that there’s something really exciting waiting to be grasped here, and the ePIC conference has it all going for itself to grasp that opportunity. I wonder if, next year, we could

  • keep it as ePIC — e-portfolios and identity — a good combination
  • keep close involvement of the CRA and others interested in personal development
  • put more focus on the practice of personal-social identity development
  • discuss the tools that really support the development of personal social identity
  • talk about theories and architectures that support the tools and the development?

3 thoughts on “E-portfolios and identity: more!

  1. I too enjoyed the conference and thought I would follow up on a few things in case readers were interested in the work we in the Center for Service & Learning at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis(IUPUI) are working on.

    We have been working on a developmental model for civic-mindedness and have been using Marcia Baxter-Magolda’s (2004) work on Self-Authorship for the basis of our thinking. However, we have stated in a recent publication that looking into other theoretical frameworks is important as we move forward (see citation below). For a more general overview of our work, see a recent submission to the AAC&U publication “Diversity & Democracy” coming this fall.

    Steinberg, Kathryn S., Julie A. Hatcher, and Robert G. Bringle. 2011. “A North Star: Civic-Minded Graduate.” Paper submitted to Michigan Journal for Community Service Learning.

    What we are ultimately arguing here is that we as facilitators of student learning should be intentional in our efforts to promote student civic growth and development. That in order to fulfill the mission of HE, we need to understand the importance of educating students in a way that prepares them for responsible citizenship. We have developed reflection prompts, a rubric, and a 30-item Likert-type scale to assist in assessing student civic-mindedness. These tools aim at gathering information and evidence related to one’s ability to collaborate with others, their understanding of issues in society and how they might be addressed including their understanding of key stakeholders and the various democratic processes involved in addressing those issues. And lastly, do they have a sense of responsiblity because they have a college education to give back to their community in some way? How might they operate as professionals in their disciplines based upon their understanding of societal issues?

    These are all questions we are raising, encouraging students to think about through structured reflection, and are assessing the effectiveness of our programs as a result of this.

    Please feel free to contact me (Kristin Norris, norriske@iupui.edu) in the future if you have further questions or would like more information or resources. I will be presenting at AAEEBL and hopefully many more ePortfolio conferences in the near future including AAC&U’s annual meeting at the end of January in Washington, DC.

  2. Hi Simon – seemed like a curiosuly un-reflective conference where the net result is people confirming each others ‘groupthink’ views. Lots of talks bigging each other up – not enough critical thinking. I was astonished that there was no time for questions and debate. It sort of confirmed my view that the ‘academy’ has lost the plot when it comes to pedagogy and genuine reflection. Surely a conference on e-portfolios of all things should involve discussion and debate, not just talks from the front. I came away thinking that, as long as e-portfolios remain the sole concern of HE, they’ll languish in this dead zone. Another observation few people tweeting, only one blog post – where’s the enthusiasm?

  3. I just wanted to comment further on our theoretical framework thinking. We appreciate the feedback as we are always interested in further development.

    Regarding the theoretical framework for student civic development:
    We are aware of the work of Perry and Kegan, but have based our thinking more directly on the “self-authorship” model of Marcia Baxter-Magolda, which is an application of the other two models. Baxter-Magolda, I think, holds more direct implications for program development, and we have begun development of a “Civic Learning Pathways Model” based on her work. We have not directly correlated our tools with those of Perry or Kegan, but it’s a good idea. We also see other applicable models also, including Musil’s civic learning spiral, Loevinger’s stages of ego development, positive psychology (character strengths and virtues), Deci & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, and the intergroup contact hypothesis. We describe our thinking in relation to a couple of these in the attached article.

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