Wikis, Blogs, and eFolio: How wikis and weblogs trump eportfolios

A few months ago a student asked me if she should set up an efolio to present her academic work. She pointed towards eFolio MN as a portfolio clearinghouse. ePortfolios, she had been told, are The Way To Go: The Way to Get Noticed.

Listen to the language of portfolio magic!

Welcome to eFolio Minnesota, a multimedia electronic portfolio designed to help you create a living showcase of your education, career and personal achievements. All Minnesota residents, including students enrolled in Minnesota schools, educators and others can use eFolio Minnesota to reach their career and education goals. See Before You Begin to learn more about using this cutting-edge electronic portfolio tool, or go straight to Sign Up. It's fun and easy! efoliomn

Students can use the ePortfolio system to organize their resumés and the work they do in college and present themselves to Teachers and Potential Employers.

More than this, the claim continues, efolios are pedagogically valuable for teachers and students. Students can use them for reflection and teachers for assessment. Surely, the simple act of selecting and organizing that big box of undergraduate projects must lead to some kind of learning.

It's not that I would restrict the use of efolios. They're out there, so if you need a presentation space, use it. It's DIY resumé building, a weekend project. Most of the sites have tutorials for use, and there's bound to be good advice for selection and presentation around.

But I'm skeptical of any pedagogical claims for creating eportfolios. Having taught writing by portfolio evaluation for a year, I'm familiar with /TheVirtuesAndTheDrawbacks of selecting and assembling papers for presentation. In fact, experience with writing portfolios makes me skeptical of Big Claims for what is, in essence, organizing a box of projects.

For instance, efolio people point out that efolios handle all kinds of media - image, text, video, sound - and make the efolios available to a worldwide audience. But I wonder if that's all that valuable.

Just how many students - or faculty, for that matter - have done projects that incorporate image, text, video and sound well - projects that they'd really want to show to the world; and just how many need a worldwide audience to get hired are two questions only a spoilsport would ask.

Here's another: If someone's student work entails image, text, video, and sound well, they don't need an efolio, They already have their projects on the web for all to see.

I'm familiar with Trent Batson 's arguments about the efolio boom. At one end, efolios are simply about managing student artifacts (those projects and papers). As such, mostly harmless. On the other end, a mandate to implement academic portfolios can reshape the university curriculum towards having students produce stuff than can be featured on a portfolio. Some disciplines (education, for instance) might welcome this, and some industries (education again, for instance) find portfolios useful for accreditation.

But not all disciplines value the student artifact, and not all ways of learning work this way. Demonstration is not always about the selected artifact. In the more significant cases, it's about ongoing creation, about demonstrating development over time.

Here's Batson's claim, hyperbolic for effect, but worth considering.

Freeing student work from paper and making it organized, searchable, and transportable opens enormous possibilities for re-thinking whole curricula: the evaluation of faculty, assessment of programs, certification of student work, how accreditation works. In short, ePortfolios might be the biggest thing in technology innovation on campus. Electronic portfolios have a greater potential to alter higher education at its very core than any other technology application we've known thus far.

I'd be concerned about the way any one technology, and any one mandate, pushes us all down one path - and not really a pedagogical one, either. The reform here isn't pedagogical. It's more a change in management.

two ends of argument
Here's one end of the argument, an admittedly strong, contentious position: ePortfolios help students package themselves as commodities for corporate consumers. eFolio MN is a presentation piece, based on filling in templates. But filling in templates leads to generic representation, template thinking, fitting the mould, Painting by Numbers - exactly the things education is trying to move beyond in teaching.

Evidence: Have a look at the generic example, Jane Doe. Notice how well our Jane tailors herself for consumption as defined by the portfolio software designers and sponsors:

My Skills
* I am proficient with Microsoft Word, Excel, Access and PowerPoint!
* I work well by myself, but really do my best work as a member of a team!
* I have tremendous references!
* Give me a call for further details!

note: As of December, 2007, Jane's list has been moved to the sidebar.
note: As of February 2012, Jane has disappeared. So much for the persistance promised by the vendor. One more argument for rolling your own.

To make this laundry list of exclamation points work, Jane will have to trim and shape her portfolio (and her reflection on it) to suit. And in trimming, so is trimmed out the pedagogical value in creating the portfolio.

Here's Jane's generic introduction, an ungrammatical high-school level wheeze of a self-obvious purpose statement that other efolio makers are to model.
Welcome to my online portfolio, where I present my skills and experiences. I hope you enjoy the way that my abilities are portrayed, and look forward to talking with you about how I can help your company succeed.

That's the generic sample, but it has its effects on others. Muster your own evidence: Have a look at a few examples.

a more moderate claim
But if you find that perspective too hard to accept, here's another, A More Moderate Claim that leads to a more moderated consideration.

Perhaps the idea that filling in templates leads to template thinking is overstated. I don't want to move towards technological determinism, so I'm not suggesting that by shaping a presentation of an education and career into a template makes the writer necessarily a template, any more than breaking a text into short lines makes the text necessarily a poem. But as short lines make the text look like a poem, so the template.

The essential distinction I want to make is between the value of fitting one's presentation to a template - using the web as a passive delivery / presentation system - and the value of using the web as a medium for content creation. I want to ask how the use reflects or defines the do-er.

Evidence: Have another look at the same examples.

There are other issues in the bushes. For instance, the templates naturalize. They seem to include everything employers would need to know - they appear complete - by allowing users to leave out or skim over essential information.

Or for another instance, the truly innovative isn't going to fit neatly in the template. So what's being asked for is not innovation but the demonstration of Good Fit. The templates ask, To what extent can you make the story of your education and career Fit Our Expectations. But this might have an upside. Perhaps doing this helps the presenter understand how she - or her education, training, understanding - fits in the corporate and academic world. That realization can be valuable.

eFolios work by providing a small set of options to place on the page. Some of the links and content are Required (must have a link to web mail). Others are Optional (the user can choose to have it or not, but not adapt it.) It's all very Customer-Friendly. It's all very marketing-language friendly. And eFolios might be appropriate for the job-seeker, the recent grad interested in packaging herself for mainstream employment.

But Customer-Friendly is often Learner-Hostile because the customer / consumer model is the wrong model for teaching and learning. eFolios suggest that the customer model might be the wrong model for demonstrating excellence, as well. The students who are shoehorning themselves into the template are doing themselves an injustice. What gets left out is the most interesting, most telling evidence - the actual evidence of learning.

A learning alternative to template efolios: WikiWorkSpace
In the end, efolios will be a short-lived trend (efolio sites tend to be commercial sites, and commerce has a way of moving on to greener pastures once the rush slows down. Slow, steady growth is not their way) and will probably prove harmless, leaving a trail of forgotten media projects and outdated resumés in pdf littering the corners.

But I like to see our efforts and money going towards providing tools - writing spaces, in this case - that students can use for their own purposes. In pushing portfolios, we're squandering the opportunity to offer students something they can learn from, and teachers something to teach with, something they can use actively, for creation, not just presentation.

Want a place for students and teachers to show their learning? Give them a place to learn.
We need the two kinds of spaces for two general kinds of creation.

The university has loads of resources at hand, so we can do more than simply offer the space (or a set of templates.)
It wouldn't take long for students to figure out how to link anything to anything, and for the knowledge to spread both face to face and online. It wouldn't take long for students to develop some pretty sophisticated structures to present themselves in.

Equipped with both wiki and weblog, students can choose to use one or the other or both as rhetorical and pedagogical needs demands.

Need something more formal? Try this: Teachers could ask students to use their wiki for notes, writing, projects, and the like. they could then review work in progress and, if given permission by the student, edit, comment, intervene right in the project itself.

Giving students and faculty wikis and blogs makes their primary computing environment a pedagogical environment, as well as a showcase.

The significant shift would be from static presentation in templates to active, ongoing construction and reconstruction, designing and adapting sites to needs and content rather than shoe-horning content into templates.

This is what we could be doing, easily, for cheap (wikis and blog codebase are open source) This is the kind of thing that would support students academically. This is the kind of thing we should provide, just as we offer students high-speed access and an email account. This isn't visionary. It isn't revolutionary. It's pedestrian.

But it doesn't squander the opportunity.

If your university doesn't provide the writing spaces, try for a weblog, and PeanutButterWiki for a wiki. Both are free for basic service.

Update July 2004
The U of M Library implemented part of this idea in April, 2004, by making weblogs available to students, faculty, and staff at UThink. It takes a library to think beyond the template.

UBC Wiki is exploring this idea simply by making the space available, and demonstrating the breadth of (academic and professional) use of wikis.

Update August 2005
A former student in Advanced Web Design emailed a couple of weeks ago asking to have the work she did for the course (a course in which she earned an A) taken down. While the work might have helped her get her first position, she now saw that same work as a liability. Her concern reminded me that the folio of student work is something we all get past, leave behind, outgrow. A more permanent working space, such as a weblog or a wiki, is something we continue to develop overtime, something we grow with.

Update May 2006
Students in Web Content Writing created an efolio as a way of rhetorically analyzing efolios. The rough project notes are here. The students' consensus: Efolios are too generic, too constraining to accurately or persuasively represent them. They would only use one if required.

Update Dec 2006
Marcus O?Donnell , in "Blogging as pedagogic practice: artifact and ecology" (Word doc: make a similar argument for a pedagogy of weblogs over an academic career:
If blogging is both the construction of a personal knowledge artefact and an ecological practice, which reveals emergent knowledges as a series of dynamically linked spaces, this immediately focuses any pedagogy of blogging on questions of connectivity and the evolution of ideas over time.

I am therefore becoming increasingly convinced that blogs used across classes over the duration of a degree course, rather than blogs focused on specific assignment tasks or blogs developed for single semester units are a more congruent use of this technology.
If students were encouraged to establish a blog at the beginning of their course and continued to use it to post research notes, stories and reflections throughout their degree studies, this would become a unique and powerful teaching and learning tool. The blog would evolve together with (and record) the student's learning and practice experience.
* Students would grow into blogging and gradually figure out what it is best for them to blog and how;
* Connections in the course blogsphere would develop organically over time;
* It becomes a metalearning tool that allows students to make connections across subjects;
* It has the potential to contribute to a department wide sense of learning community.

And, I would add, it would make efolios redundant.

Update Mar 2010
Some of the Personal Learning Environments I've been looking at lately tend to incorporate eFolios in the mix. Others don't. Because I'm nearly convinced PLEs are worth pursuing, I'm looking for a good argument as to why an efolio would be necessary, and what pedagogical value it carries.

Update May 2011
Some of the links to to eFolioMN have been broken. eFolioMN has moved its content and didn't bother to use redirects. That might be just one more argument against portfolios over developing content, but I wouldn't want use eFolioMN's error as an opportunity.

Update June 2011
Martin Weller has weighed in and stirred up discussion with Eportfolios - J'accuse.

Update Feb 2012
The example of Jane has disappeared, and the vendor has changed urls a couple of times. So much for the persistance promised by the vendor. One more argument for rolling your own.

April 2004. Moved December 2007
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