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E-portfolios: Seven reasons why I don't want my life in a shoebox

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23rd May 2011
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How's your e-portfolio looking? Donald Clark hopes you're not looking at it all. Here he explains why...
E-portfolios have taken up more conference time and wasted effort than almost any other learning technology topic I can recall. The idea's been around since the 90s but isn't it odd that no one seems to have one? Never has so much time been devoted to something with so little real impact. An army of researchers, academics and vendors have been touting the idea that everyone should have a shoebox of 'stuff' which they fill up as they go through life as 'lifelong learners'. Politicians and educators of the 'control freak variety' love the idea, but like identity cards, the rest of us seem to be completely indifferent. So why have they not taken off?

Uninteroperable

I may have invented a new word here. E-portfolios are largely confined to education, and some vocational adult learning programmes, but the 40 odd mainstream VLEs preclude any real interoperability. Buy a VLE and you're stuck with their e-portfolio, a specially designed shoebox in a specially designed boutique shoe shop.

Institutionalised

Hopelessly utopian, it is the perfect example of something that turns out to be the opposite of what was intended; a shoebox of stuff so attached to institutions that you have to leave it behind. E-portfolios have been institutionalised and therefore rendered useless for students by the very people who are meant to be equipping them for life.

Human nature

Human beings do not behave as educationalists would like them to behave. That's because education has a flawed and simplistic view of human nature (usually behaviourist). Proof of this comes in the fact that they still insist on teaching Maslow in teacher training. Maslow has a simplified and false theory of human nature, so do e-portfolio apologists. People can be lazy, procrastinators, messy, change their minds and quite often want to forget what they've done. In the corporate world, as they say, HR is neither human nor resourceful, it's a control department. Human nature mitigates against us having our life in a shoebox.

People are not learners

People do not see themselves as 'learners', let alone 'lifelong learners'. It's a conceit, as only educators see people as learners. Imagine asking an employer – how many learners do you have? People are individuals, fathers, mothers, employees, lawyers, bus drivers, whatever….but certainly not learners. That's why an e-portfolio, tainted with 'schooling' will not catch on. By and large, most adults see school as something they leave behind and do not drag along with them into adulthood.

Boundary problems

Media are linked on the web and cannot be easily stored in a single entity or within a single entity, so the boundaries of a real e-portfolio are difficult to define, and will change. An e-portfolio would have to cope with my social networks but they are proprietary. Information wants to be free fiscally and ontologically. We want to be part of all sorts of expansive and variously porous networks, not boxed in.

Plus ca change

The only thing that will not change is the fact that there will be change. So e-portfolios will be no sooner built than redundant. The technology, and culture around technology, will change. And as these changes occur, e-portfolios will be unable to keep up with the changes. In another sense, people sometimes want change, and don't want their baggage dragged along behind them.

Recruitment myth

I spent a lot of time recruiting people and what I needed wasn't huge, overflowing e-portfolios, but succinct descriptions and proof of competences. If by e-portfolio you mean and expanded CV with links to your blog and whatever else you have online, fine. But life is too short to consider the portfolios of hundreds of applicants. Less is more.

Let's get real

Lifelong learning in a shoebox? Justifying e-portfolios on the basis of lifelong learning won't wash. It's too ambitious. So let's get real. I can see their use in limited domains, such as courses and apprenticeships, but not in general use, like identity cards.

Donald Clark now 'thinks, writes and talks' on learning. Check out his Youtube video  and blog. Donald is speaking in The Big Debate on 2 December at Online Educa

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