By J. Todd
The use of portfolios as an educational tool is not a new idea. Nor, in fact, is the idea of making portfolios digital. A quick literature search will find numerous articles discussing the benefits of using either traditional or digital portfolios, often focusing on the impact in discipline-specific settings. Portfolios are not only effective teaching tools, but also effective assessment tools. As the need to conduct college- or even university-wide assessment becomes more common, we've seen renewed and increased interest in digital portfolios — or ePortfolios as a way to assess a student's learning over the course of his or her academic career.
A number of studies suggest that ePortfolios can deepen learning, primarily because of their reflective nature. A very common component of effective portfolio use is an essay or sometimes a letter in which the student discusses the work she has included in the portfolio, explains why she included the specific artifacts in the portfolio, and contemplates on the learning that is demonstrated by those artifacts. This reflective nature affects learning by helping students to make connections between the what they've learned within a specific class, what they've learned in multiple courses, and what they've learned in classes and experienced outside of those classes. ePortfolios foster this kind of interconnected learning by requiring students to reflect upon their learning and their experiences in an expansive way.
Helping students make connections is something I've been focused on for some time now. Xavier just finished a five-year initiative called Read Today, Lead Tomorrow, which was designed to help our students become more active and engaged readers. At the core, we focused a lot on the idea of making connections. Active reading requires students to make connections between what they are reading and what they have already read or what they already know. Engaged reading takes that further and challenges students to make connections between what they are reading and what they've experienced — in other texts, other classes, and other aspects of their lives. This ended up being one of the most challenging aspects of Read Today, Lead Tomorrow, because students today simply are not used to being asked to think that way. They want to know what they need to know to pass the test and then they assume (often rightfully so) that they can forget that knowledge as soon as they've passed the test.
This is the end result of what Batson calls the behaviorist theory of education and what Paolo Friere calls the banking model. It is the belief that knowledge is content, limited and controllable. According to Batson, "The use of the word 'content' as a reference to knowledge is based in the belief that knowledge is finished and is a commodity. If it is a commodity, then it can be 'delivered.' And with this set of terms and behaviorist and mercantile misconceptions, learning was reduced to such a simplistic formula that it gave rise to questionable claims made by commercial initiatives. Those who talk of education as 'delivering content' not only ignore the complexity of actual learning, but also trivialize education itself" (110). Friere takes the critique further by describing it as a form of oppression: "Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the 'banking' concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits" (58).
The methods discussed in many studies about ePortfolios challenge this understanding of learning. They suggest that knowledge is an ongoing and unending process. Reflection is often seen as the key to helping students understand their own learning in this way. According to Eynon, Gambino, and Torok, "Reflective learning is a process through which one makes sense of new experiences in relation to oneself, her environment, and a continuum of previous and subsequent experiences. Reflection makes learning visible to the learner, making it available for connecting and deepening" (3). Making learning "visible to the learner," I think, is key to fighting the oppression Friere talks about. As we know, many who are oppressed can't even see their oppression. In the immortal words of Verbal Kint, "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."
Moreover, ePortfolios seem to help students take greater ownership of their learning. O'Keefe and Donnelly explain their students' response to their use of EPortfolios: "Some students reported that the ePortfolio served to demonstrate their learning. One student called the ePortfolio 'a record of my progress throughout the year' and described it as 'a repository for my work,' while another said that the ePortfolio acted as a 'mirror' reflecting the student’s learning" (5).
Thus, I agree with Batson when he says, "Electronic portfolios provide most of the capabilities to manage a course of study designed around situated learning" (111), learning that breaks away from the content-delivery version of education that still dominates American education today. We need to liberate our students from this oppressive model. We need to help them take ownership of their educations and to see how what they learn and experience is deeply interconnected.
- Batson, Trent. (2011). Situated Learning: A Theoretical Frame to Guide Transformational Change Using Electronic Portfolio Technology, International Journal of ePortfolio, 1(1), 107-114.
- Eynon, B., Gambino, L. M. & Torok, J. (n.d.). Reflection, integration and ePortfolio pedagogy. Catalyst for Learning.
- Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
- O'Keeffe, M. O. and Donnelly, R. (2013). Exploration of ePortfolios for adding value and deepening student learning in contemporary higher education, International Journal of ePortfolio, 3(1), 1-11.