An Exercise in Absence . . .

Notes on the Past and Future of Digital Portfolios and Student Learning

By Kathleen Yancey
Florida State University

During the academic year 2002-2003, as I attempted to keep track of developments in electronic portfolios, I wasn't quite frantic. Given the widespread distribution of portfolios-in classrooms, in academic programs, in extracurricular programs, for employment-this was no easy task, and at the end of that year, I concluded that my search to keep up wasn't probably successful after all, unless of course we measure success by exhaustion. In terms of that metric, I did well indeed.

Upon reflection, much as a student in the midst of a term, I understood that caught up in the process of keeping up, I had some difficulty making sense of the object of my pursuit. On one hand, it seemed that ePortfolios were everywhere and on their way to becoming ubiquitous. Nearly all my colleagues across the country, and their colleagues too, were in medias res: considering using portfolios; planning the use of portfolios; or implementing some version of ePortfolios. On the other hand and at the risk of sounding heretical, all this busy-ness about and around ePortfolios sometimes seemed like sound and fury signifying . . . well, to continue my Shakespeare allusions, there's the rub. I wasn't certain at all what it was signifying.

Location isn't everything, but as Einstein pointed out, it frames what one sees. This term, I'm in the midst of making a transition to Florida State University, where I'm directing a graduate program in rhetoric and composition, which also means that for the first time in several years, I'm focusing on graduate education and not on general education. And for me right now relative to ePortfolios, there's a quiet: I'm not using them in a class; I'm not conducting a case study; I'm not working with in-service teachers who want to use them in their own teaching; I'm not advising another program on my own campus about how they might design and implement their own models. Inside that void, I have the opportunity to reflect on digital portfolios, on why I was attracted to them in the first place, and on what I'd like to do with them when I return to them, as I will in the spring semester.

My morphing to digital portfolios occurred rather "naturally." An experienced practitioner and researcher of portfolios in print, I have been teaching in computer classrooms and labs since the early 1990's, so morphing to digital portfolios was a "natural" move to make. (In fact, given that context, I often wonder why it took me so long to morph.) At the same time, like others, I have certain assumptions about portfolios, chief among them that a "good" portfolio model enhances learning. Now I think this for many reasons, two of which I'd like to mention here. One is that as a faculty member, I want my curriculum, pedagogy and assessment aligned. Teaching composing with computers, and teaching about composing with many different technologies, I found that digital portfolios provided the culminating piece for student learning and performance. Two is that portfolios do function as a vehicle for assessment, and the best thinking about assessment is that it should enhance learning: portfolios can do this.

But as portfolio systems are created (with an emphasis on systems) and as digital technologies accelerate (with an emphasis on technologies), I have to ask: when it's all said and done, will digital portfolios have enhanced learning? This question, this concern, it seems to me, is absolutely at the heart of this application of technology, and in that, in expressing this value, I fear that I'm in the minority. More and more, I see calls for portfolio systems; more and more institutions talk in terms of gathering and reviewing student work; more and more career centers see portfolios as a perfect vehicle to facilitate a transition to employment. None of these is a bad thing, you understand, but to me, they seem to compose a perfect storm of non-learning-related portfolio activity.

In this context, what I don't hear is deafening. I don't hear questions about student learning. I don't hear questions about what Alan Luke calls the new socio-cognitive ways that students learn and represent their learning, about the new processes we need to develop to articulate what we value in such learning. I don't hear questions about reflection.

Perhaps most telling, I don't hear students--at all.

So what I see is, in part, a function of a doubled absence: the silence of students echoing my own silence, and inside of this doubled absence, I'd like to suggest three fundamental questions related to digital portfolios.

  1. As we go forward, will we engage students in the new processes that accompany digital portfolios? I'm not totally persuaded that we faculty are Mark Prensky's digital immigrants and the students are the digital natives, but I am persuaded that with portfolios, especially those that take advantage of social software for new collaborative knowledge-making occasions and sites, we are developing a new educational model, something akin to the convergence model of information. In other words, there are new ways of producing knowledge, new sites for distributing it, and new ways of circulating it. How can the portfolio assist in this? And how can we engage students in answering this question?

  2. At the risk of sounding like a broken record-and there's an interesting technology (!)--where is reflection in this mix? What are the reflective questions we are asking? Why are those the appropriate questions? Where are student questions? How is learning represented? Is reflection principally the act of an individual, or is it collaborative as well? What do we value in reflection? If reflection is a defining feature of portfolios of all kinds (and it is), then we need to get at least as serious about reflection as we are about systems, about technologies, and about data mining.

  3. Where's the quiet? I referred earlier to a kind of busyness, one that we often associate with ICT. In the midst of that, we need to find another space, one that isn't connected 24/7, one that isn't always on, one that is located in what I've called pause time, an occasion for contemplation that is ever more difficult to obtain given the speed and invasiveness of digital technologies and networks. In other words, digital portfolios are about the social, yes, but also about the individual; about the connection, but also about an intentional disconnection. It's within the interplay of plugging, pushing, pulling, and resting that sustained learning occurs.

I'd like to share one other set of cautions. In Portfolios in the Writing Classroom, Catherine Lucas identified three that are as relevant for digital portfolios as for print. First, she notes that portfolios can be "weakened by effect," asking "Can . . . [a] spirit of exploration remain central to the use of portfolios as they become more commonplace?" Second is the "failure of research": "The danger here is that those who cling to the illusion that only what can be measured or counted is worth doing will find the effects of portfolios . . . not only resistant to measurement but initially resistant even to definition." Given the scale that digital technology makes possible, her last caution, co-option by large-scale assessment, is perhaps the most prescient. She notes that if we are not careful, portfolios will become merely a new vehicle used to perform the old task, with the result that portfolios will become standardized-with common assignments and restrictive learning conditions. Should this happen, Lucas says, portfolios "will be just as likely as other standardized tests to limit learning by restricting curriculum to what is most easily and economically measured." As I have noted elsewhere, the impulse animating assessment is the impulse animating digital technology: the collection of everything in an effort to measure it all. Such an intersection of impulses, as Lucas notes, tends to the lowest common denominator: how, after all, d'es one measure wisdom?

Although it may sound otherwise, I'm still optimistic about electronic portfolios, and I will be using them-and blogs and altered books and other technologies-in my teaching in the Spring. As I do, I'll work to heed Lucas' cautions, and I'll aim high, actively engaging students, providing questions and opportunities for reflection, and including by design spaces for quiet as well as for interaction.

Kathleen Yancey ( ) directs a graduate program in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University and is tri-director of the National Coalition for ePortfolio Research.

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