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The Higher Education Hedgehog

Electronic portfolios, or ePortfolios, are greatly underestimated. Portfolios, in combination with Web 2.0 capabilities, and implemented by following the best exemplars of institutional transformation around portfolio-based learning design, can lead institutions from “good to great.” (As in the book: Jim Collins, Good to Great, HarperCollins, 2001;

In his famous book, Jim Collins talks about the hedgehog being stalked by the fox, time after time, and each time when the fox gets near, the hedgehog goes into a ball, his porcupine-like quills deflecting the fox. The hedgehog has figured out one strategy for survival at which it can be the best. If companies can figure that out, Collins says, and if they can stick to their hedgehog concept, they have at least one part of what it takes to move from good companies to great companies.

What is the hedgehog strategy for colleges and universities as they change from book/paper/print-based institutions to digitally-capable institutions? The quantity, quality, and character of how our culture creates knowledge now is sweepingly and stunningly different than 20 years ago. The entire culture has embraced new media and, at the same time, resultant new forms of communication, research, collaboration, aggregation and display of knowledge, and community-building. But, at what should be the hotbed center, the academic curriculum and associated practices and methods, we find not enlightened adaptation, but confusion, defensiveness, and rationalization regarding how the most basic functions of teaching and learning occur. Or, we find acceptance that change is needed, and even descriptions of what kinds of changes are needed, but without any plan as to how to implement the changes.

The portfolio offers a frame and a method to ease the confusion, replace defensiveness with innovative thinking, and end the rationalizations about not knowing what to do. Portfolios and Web 2.0 were meant for each other; portfolios and current trends in learning and research are also meant for each other. As a way to focus the energies of your institution in this time of epic, century-long transformation, the simple portfolio serves best.

Here’s a frame to help understand the portfolio hedgehog concept:


Portfolio instantiation

Student development over four years

Personal portfolio owned by student; continuity; body of work cumulative not segmented

Developing reflective (critical) thinking

Reflections on work in portfolio; culminating reflections; response reflections; capstone reflections

High-impact learning experiences such as experiential learning or field work

Portfolio to capture and process evidence of the out-of-classroom experiences

From teaching to learning

Portfolios provide students a better picture of their own development as a learner; brings an opportunity for student to “own” learning

Assessment and accountability

Assessment for learning (students’ own assessment of themselves) to institutional assessment and accreditation management

Student ownership of learning; swirling students; free-lance students

Life-long portfolio

Employability; work force development

Better evidence for HR; life-long portfolio; recording achievement

The unbounded classroom

Portfolio as an extended virtual classroom workspace

Social and collaborative learning

Sharing student work and reflection with a team working on a problem or a case

Authentic learning; authentic assessment

Portfolio making learning process visible while engaged in real-life learning; reflections on real-life learning provide data for authentic assessment

From product to process

Portfolios support conversations around the work being done; the process of working toward a product becomes visible.

All the trends that academic leaders talk about can be operationalized through enlightened use of portfolios. Those institutions that employ the portfolio hedgehog will compete most successfully in this century.

Portfolios enable students to stay more connected with learning in a course when they are outside of the classroom. We might call this “nearby learning” in contrast to “distance learning.” “Homework” is now doing something in addition to just reading something. We therefore see emerging a tripartite learning design:

- Classroom (with a new guiding/learning modality in place)

- Nearby (internships, service learning, field work, team meetings, and so on)

- Homework (individual work)

Portfolios allow the barrier between formal and informal learning to blur so that “informal learning” becomes a visible, valid, and viable part of the entire learning process for students. Now that knowledge is everywhere, there is no reason to restrict learning experiences to the classroom.

The arguments for re-designing learning and scholarship are legion but the blueprints for doing so are scarce. Acquiring a portfolio system does not by itself lead to any of the transformations listed above.

A Quick Take on the ePortfolio Market

The ePortfolio market is in flux. It grew quickly between 2000 and 2005: a mixture of university-incubated proprietary systems, open-source systems, commercial proprietary systems, and commercially-supported open source systems proliferated. Many systems started as student portfolios but quickly became (in the U.S.) assessment management systems since the money was there: Accountability was the buzzword. It was understood that portfolios produced the kinds of reports that showed student progress toward learning goals.

This market shift had mixed results as the systems became less usable as student learning portfolios and not mature as accreditation management systems either. They had become institutionally-centered systems and therefore many of the values listed above were unintentionally lost. A “trough of disappointment” (Gartner) followed and portfolios seemed on the decline: They were too complicated to implement for institutional purposes and had lost their student learning orientation. (This story is not the same in other parts of the world for a number of reasons).

The market has, however, re-vitalized as both educators and portfolio vendors learned lessons. Educators found new ways to use portfolio systems; new companies entered the market; portfolio systems from the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand gained adherents in the U.S.; large U.S. IT corporations began committing resources to portfolio development; and the world ePortfolio community formed an association in response to the upwelling of interest and work. Portfolios are definitely back; it is once again a growth sector.

For a peek at the world portfolio picture: We know about the well-established pattern of portfolio usage in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand but here is a tidbit about the rest of the world, a quote from a portfolio vendor, referring to analytics of his Web site: “I can't supply names but our analytics are certainly telling a story. In the last two weeks we have had visitors from 47 countries with a (relatively low) bounce rate of 30 percent. By way of example Turkey, Morocco, Brazil, South Korea (22 minutes), Iran (22 minutes), Spain, Portugal, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Bulgaria, Hong Kong, India, Taiwan all had average visitations of over 5 minutes average per visit which is way beyond a casual look. There were also quite a few visits from Africa but with a much higher bounce and very short visitation.”

Rules of Thumb

1. The composition of a portfolio committee or task force formed on campus should cut across boundaries--include potential stake-holders such as faculty, faculty development staff, teaching and learning center staff, student services staff (portfolios as a resource for more informed advising) staff from offices coordinating alternative learning experiences, institutional research staff, technology support staff, academic administrators, students, placement office staff, distance learning staff, university 101 (or equivalent) staff

2. Do not limit thinking by believing that one portfolio system will serve all purposes.

3. Do not make choosing a portfolio system the first goal, but rather defining what purpose the portfolio system will serve

4. Seek advice from portfolio-experienced peer campuses

5. The sine-qua-non of successful portfolio implementation is to design the course around the portfolio: The portfolio is the work of the course and the deliverable. If the portfolio work is, instead, an add-on to an existing curriculum, the portfolio work will not seem worth it nor will any of the benefits of portfolios be realized.

6. A successful portfolio implementation is, most clearly and unavoidably, a long process of re-constructing classroom process and methods. Set reasonable benchmarks and expectations.

7. “Rubrics,” one of those words educators nod at when it is spoken, but which inwardly brings shudders, take on an important role for re-defining the work of educators and learners. The tacit rubrics faculty members carry in their heads and bones are suddenly inappropriate to the age. We therefore need explicit rubrics for the new learning modalities that are appropriate. For examples and guidance, go to and click on VALUE. AACU’s VALUE project has developed rubrics that can serve as models and starting points in the redesign process.

The best tools in the hands of an inexperienced carpenter do not build anything. But they may cause injury. Too many campuses have jumped in by first purchasing an ePortfolio system and then finding it was not suited to their purpose. Products are definitely improving, and quickly so, but buying now and planning later is still not the way to go. You can also check for a list of leading portfolio campuses. One final note: Your current course management system, or learning management system, may also offer portfolio technologies.

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