Even though I am on vacation in Europe, I still keep current on my e-mail. I received an e-mail recently from a graduate student who read my article "Competing Paradigms in Portfolio Approaches" with great interest. She plans to do a literature review, as part of her dissertation, on the different types of portfolio approaches/practices in teacher education programs and their underlying paradigms. She asked for further guidance in the area of paradigms in relation to electronic portfolios. Here is my response:
To my knowledge, very few teacher ed programs are addressing these philosophical perspective when they are making decisions about implementing e-portfolios. They assume that the tools are neutral, but I believe they aren't. If students must organize their artifacts around a set of standards, rather than their own choice of organization, then the portfolio follows a positivist paradigm. If the learner can truly tell a story of their own learning, and organize the portfolio around the themes of their own learning journey, then the portfolio follows a constructivist paradigm.
At the end of that article I ask questions about learner motivation to maintain the portfolio once it is no longer a requirement. I think issues of intrinsic motivation have not been addressed by the field.
I also recommended that she not restrict her literature review to just electronic portfolios but to look at the entire literature on paper-based portfolios. The electronic elements are only containers and construction tools. The purpose, process and context should be similar between electronic and paper-based portfolios. Look beyond the tools and publishing format, to the underlying issues.
I recommended a couple of Dr. Joanne Carney's articles:
http://it.wce.wwu.edu/carney/Presentations/presentations.html and click on her AERA paper, which is the beginning of a literature review and framework for research in electronic portfolios.
This graduate student responded, agreeing that tools are not neutral - they come with their affordances, which can make portfolio assessment challenging. What do you assess - the portfolio as a whole or its contents?? Can you take the contents out of the container?? Doesn't the container color the perception and therefore the evaluation of its contents? She also wondered whether creating a portfolio to address standards makes the portfolio approach positivistic. If the student is allowed the freedom to interpret the standards with the help of their portfolio, wouldn't it be a reflective, constructivist activity??
I believe the two approaches (positivist and constructivist) have more to do with how portfolios are viewed in relationship to assessment. Are portfolios assessment OF learning or assessment FOR learning? Summative or Formative assessment? There is a great deal of difference. One has a perspective of what a student has learned to date (past-to-present); the other has a perspective on what more the student needs to learn (present-to-future). One is more of an institutional focus on accountability; the other is of an individual focus on understanding. One is often treated almost as a "bean-counting" exercise (have all of the standards been covered?) whereas the other is approached as an exploration of new insights.
The concept of Assessment for Learning is discussed in detail by the QCA in the United Kingdom: http://www.qca.org.uk and click on ages 3-14 and you will see Assessment for Learning. The QCA definition: Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.
Don't get me wrong, in an age of accountability, both perspectives are important. I am simply calling for a balance. My fear is that our emphasis on the organization's needs has overshadowed the learners' needs. I am trying to emphasize strategies that, while difficult to quantify, lead to much deeper learning.
I am currently reading a fairly new book called The Art of Changing the Brain by James Zull (Stylus, 2002), that relates the biology of the brain to strategies that support deep learning. He relates Kolb's Experiential Learning model to the structure of the brain, and emphasizes the role of emotion and reflection in deep learning. That is why I am so excited about the role of blogging to support reflection in electronic portfolios and digital storytelling to help tell the story of learning in an emotionally engaging way.