ePortfolios | Viewpoint

The Student Portfolio is the New Book: New Practices, Profession, and Scholarship

The master and apprentice, the teacher, the teacher as interpreter of the book, and the book itself has each served, during one epoch or another, as a prime organizing entity or model for our culturally-accepted theory about educating novices. Compared to today, knowledge changed slowly during this long period, and therefore these time-honored models for learning served us well. But a printed book is static, seemingly out of step in this dynamic digital age, and so can no longer serve successfully as the most important central organizing entity for learning today. The student electronic portfolio is superseding the book as the most useful organizing element: It is a dynamic organizing space in a dynamic knowledge process.

It is hard, perhaps, to remember now, but until only a decade ago, knowledge and the information necessary to form knowledge was scarce. The delay between discovery, analysis and description, review, publication, dissemination, consensus, and the final formulation intended for novice learners (i.e., a textbook or standard monograph) was measured in years. We had "great books," classic analyses by recognized thinkers, and courses of study for novices could therefore reasonably settle into an unchanging and unchallenged curriculum and resultant set of syllabi.

This description was accurate until just yesterday! We have experienced, in the first decade of this new millennium, a cultural epiphany of unthinkable scale and depth. I find myself constantly checking myself when I say a phrase common in our culture--"an apple a day, keeps the doctor away," for example--and telling myself I can now instantly check to see if there is indeed any truth in this old saying, or any other that I come across.

This little example is magnified a million times in scope and scale in the kinds of research and rapid knowledge building we are doing now. It is no stretch to say, "The knowledge of an academic course no longer pre-exists the course." This is literally true, since over 15 weeks--or 10--the knowledge domain in which the course is offered will in fact have moved its conceptual conversation significantly enough to challenge the instructor's "truths" from the beginning of the course. Knowledge in any field is a moving target now. And as for the good old book, rumors of its death are premature: The publication process has, necessarily, speeded up and hundreds of thousands of books, in English alone, are published each year.

We can see that a student today needs less help with finding resources but more help in evaluating them and in integrating them into the student's study assignments. Libraries of open educational resources (OERs) are out there: I heard just this morning about a state university system helping students find and use OERs as a substitute for or supplement to assigned books, to help the students find affordable knowledge sources.

Librarians become ever more useful as students and groups of students collect evidence of their reflections about knowledge resources they find and place those reflections in their portfolios. Over time, student reflections on these multitudinous resources represented in their portfolios become a major resource itself: The process of looking back at your own comments on resources you found, interpreted, and collected weeks or months earlier is one of the most intense and engaging learning practices of all. The teacher’s role can become and is becoming that of helping students build their collection of resources and reflections (the "evidence") so the collection is aligned with current thinking in the field.

Nearly half of all U.S. colleges and universities support portfolios to one degree or another: Portfolios are reaching critical mass and are at take-off stage. They are in many ways the new book--at the core of the learning enterprise as the most appropriate and productive learning space in this post-Web 2.0 era.

Appropriately, two FIPSE (Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education) funded projects focused on the study and broader implementation of portfolios launched at AAC&U's annual conference in San Francisco this past week. A professional association for portfolio studies and the development of the profession started nearly 2 years ago--The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL.org, pronounced “able”)--and currently has 100 institutional members around the world (and it is affiliated with a dozen other portfolio organizations). Finally, and interestingly, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal called The International Journal of ePortfolio, published at Virginia Tech, is now accepting manuscripts to be published starting this coming summer.

This journal, IJeP is so important for the considered and thoughtful development of the portfolio as an organizing principle for education as a result of the changes I've described, that I invited C. Edward Watson, Associate Director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER), to describe this journal. He is therefore serving as co-author of this article. His description of the journal follows in the next five paragraphs:

"Building on our success with The International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, CIDER has launched The International Journal of ePortfolio, a new double-blind, peer-reviewed, open access journal freely available online. IJeP's mission is 'to encourage the study of practices and pedagogies associated with ePortfolio in educational settings.' The journal's focus includes the explanation, interpretation, application, and dissemination of researchers', practitioners', and developers' experiences relevant to ePortfolio.

"As co-executive editors of IJeP, Peter Doolittle (also of Virginia Tech) and I have charted the trajectory of interest, practice, and research regarding portfolios over the past few years. It became clear that a significant need was emerging on the scholarly landscape. Prior to IJeP, it had often been challenging for researchers and practitioners to locate suitable publication outlets for their work. IJeP was designed, in part, to address this specific need. Crafted as a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, scholarly location for inquiry and discovery into portfolios, manuscripts being sought include those that address portfolios in educational settings from myriad perspectives, including the methodological, theoretical, and empirical.

"Coupled with the conception of IJeP as publication venue is the complementary notion of IJeP as a practitioner's handbook. For example, those actively practicing scholarly teaching and SoTL (see, for example, the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, ISSOTL.org) have been similarly challenged to find relevant scholarship to inform their portfolio practice. IJeP will additionally function as a centralized location for faculty, instructional technologists, administrators, assessment specialists, and others seeking research-informed guidance into their teaching, assessment, and portfolio management challenges. Furthermore, its open access format ensures all institutions, regardless of resources or global location, will have ongoing access to this scholarship.

"IJeP's conceptual development process was inclusive and invited global participation to ensure truly international perspectives were evoked and addressed. Part of that process included developing relationships with other organizations engaged in portfolio work. Representatives from AAEEBL, AAC&U, and the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, as well as recognized portfolio scholars, practitioners, and technologists, actively serve on the editorial board for IJeP. All board members, along with our call for papers, can be found at the IJeP Web site.

"Ultimately, IJeP will serve as the global nexus for portfolio scholarship. It has the great potential to further foster engagement in portfolio research and provide research-informed models for the full range of portfolio practices and pedagogies. These are crucial activities as portfolios increasingly become central to the learning enterprise at more and more institutions. Those with questions regarding their manuscript's suitability for IJeP should contact the executive editors at ijep@vt.edu."

Behind all this activity is the central fact that this is the age of the self-directed learner. It must be: Not only do students "swirl" while in school but increasingly will continue to swirl as employees. College graduates now will move from job to job at 2- to 3-year intervals for the foreseeable future. Portfolios have become essential for success not only in education but in life as well.

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