Saturday, September 24, 2005

Digital Archive for Life

I must admit it: I'm a CNN junkie! The news in the last three weeks has been riveting! I was in a hotel room in Minneapolis with CNN on all last night, and I woke up around 3 AM as Hurricane Rita was making landfall. The reporters all seemed to be saying the same thing, but they were in the middle of the action, although I often tire of the repetition of CNN's schedule (in the evening, wait three hours, and you'll hear Larry King, again!). But still, when reporting a live event, I'm hooked... even at 3 AM. I am relieved that Rita was not as destructive as Katrina. But with the triple blows to Florida last year, and the devastation so far this year, it makes you wonder about the impact of global warming... but that is a discussion for someone else's blog.

I mourned for the devastation of New Orleans. I have many fond memories of that city: my first trip there for ISTE's last Tel-Ed conference in 1998, over a Halloween weekend, where we gaped at the antics on Bourbon Street; the two weekends that my husband and I spent there before and after a Caribbean cruise that left from the dock behind the RiverCenter Mall; the NECC conference in 2004, held in that infamous convention center; my PT3 visit to the University of New Orleans to talk about ePortfolios on their Lake Pontchartrain campus; another PT3 keynote address to another group of student teachers at a conference at Loyola University; and at least one AERA conference held there. It was such a good conference city; I hope New Orleans returns to its vibrancy. I've heard of several education conferences that were scheduled in New Orleans that are being moved to other locations. It makes me sad. The city needs the revenue more than ever!

But on a less personal note (for me), what I found especially poignant about the Katrina news stories were the pictures of the "lost" children that CNN showed last week. They say that showing those pictures resulted in at least a dozen solved cases. But I was also concerned about the devastation that the citizens of Louisiana endured. In addition to the tragic loss of lives and homes, hurricanes also wipe out family artifacts, physical memorabilia including family photographs and videos. I remember the story of the man who kept a diary every day of his adult life, only to have it wiped out when his New Orleans home was flooded. I remember all of the silhouettes on CNN after Hurricane Katrina, where families no longer had the photographs of their missing children to post online. However, in a few instances, teachers who saw student names listed on TV, sent in their photos to the CNN website. This anecdote illustrates the central role that schools can play in the preservation of these artifacts. How can schools help families to preserve these artifacts in multimedia formats, and post them online in free websites like

There is a movement in Canada and Europe to establish an electronic portfolio for every citizen by 2010. As I wrote in an earlier blog entry, the potential of e-portfolios to support lifelong and life wide learning is limited only by our current technologies, limited experience, and narrow vision. Instead of an e-portfolio, a concept that is not widely understood, what would happen if every citizen was issued personal web server space that they would own for a lifetime? Like a virtual indexed filing cabinet, this Digital Archive for Life (DAL) would provide space to store the raw materials for e-portfolios, archives of family records, genealogy and digital stories, autobiographies, child development data (such as digital versions of New Zealand's "Plunket books"), evidence of personal and professional accomplishments, and all kinds of personal information. From cradle to grave, we could store and celebrate the results of lifelong and life wide learning. And in cases of tragedies, like hurricanes or floods or the isolated cases of home fires, or the more likely catastrophic hard drive crash, we would have our memories preserved.

The other issue that the victims of Katrina faced was the loss of personal records: health records, financial records, the documentation of our lives that we all take for granted... until it is destroyed. I remember the stories of the doctors who had to use their best professional guesses as to prior health history while practicing what they said was worse than 3rd World medicine! Who knows if they would have access to the Internet in a disaster, but what if we had a smart card that we could carry in our purses or wallets, just as we usually never leave home without our credit cards, where our medical history could be stored for just these types of emergencies. I understand that these cards are used in Germany to store medical history and health care information. In the richest country in the world, why don't we have access to this type of information? This subject was briefly mentioned tonight on CNN, of having more electronic medical records. Perhaps that is a deficit of our decentralized health care system, but that is also a topic for someone else's blog!

But the point of this blog entry is not to advocate for more cards to carry in my purse. This information needs to be stored online, in a server bank that is built like the Internet, to be able to withstand a catastrophic event, with redundancies and security, as a place to store our personal information, artifacts, memories. I pay $7.77 a month for 5 GB of server space to store my website (and I don't use 20% of it!). I just received notice that .Mac accounts have increased storage space to 1 GB for $99 a year (it's about time!). This is not a lot of money out of my pocket. But I'm a techie... it's what I do. Where is the easy-to-use webspace for the average citizen to store their essential information? Yahoo only gives 15 MB. The Gmail service from Google offers 2.5GB of e-mail storage! They also host the Blogger service, that I use to create this blog. That is all a good start. But what we need is that Digital Archive for Life, where we can store our most important information... so that we won't lose our favorite digital photographs due to a hard drive crash. Backups to CD-Recordable discs or even DVD aren't the long-term answer. Who knows how long that media will last, or can be read, and physical media can be destroyed in a disaster? We need reasonable online storage space, with a transparent, idiot-proof content management to organize it... our own personal archivist!

I used to advocate for portfolios stored to CD-ROM (or now DVD). I realize now that is an interim solution. Just in the last week, I've experienced the weaknesses of online portfolio systems that go down for technical reasons; I've also been frustrated when the network in a school is down, making training nearly impossible. But that is no reason not to move in this direction. What we really need are online repositories for high quality content (including DVD-quality video, not the emaciated versions of movies that individuals can stream today). Some day, we will have the bandwidth to handle that type of data, as corporations and cable companies are able to do today. But what do families do with their precious family memorabilia? That is our challenge! Anyone want to join me in this pursuit?


Erin said...

I hear your ideas, but let's be realistic here...few people want their personal information where potentialy anyone could access it. You've got the ACLU making noises about right to privacy and how many people don't, or in reality, will never have the means to the technology to use this method of storing information (especially personal family artifacts, stories.)

I guess in a "perfect world" this would be cool, but I don't have to tell you, we don't live in a perfect world.

The stories about teachers seeing the names of kids is cool, and is a good example of technology being helpful, but it's always nice after the fact.

If we could just do away with the ACLU... :-)

Rach said...

Hi Helen,
My name is Rachael Brown and I'm a student in my final year of my Bachelor of Education (Primary) at The University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia. I am currently doing some research into the use of electronic portfolios in primary (elementary) education with some students in Grades 3 and 4 but so far, I'm struggling to find any previous research on using electronic portfolios in high schools or primary schools. I know your research is mostly in higher education, but I was wondering if you know of anyone who has done some research into using electronic portfolios with children in elementary schools???
Thanks for your time,

Ross said...

Hi Helen,
This is another comment from "down under" (Adelaide, South Australia). I am a retired Business Manager working part time as a Careers Adviser in a State High School. I have been putting a lot of effort into portfolios - especially e-portfolios and have been very impressed with and helped by your work.

I have developed and promoted a form of e-portfolio and personal learning plan (MyPlan) for secondary students (details are here

Bandwidth and storage are problems that will be with us for some time. I have been encouraging students to store their MyPlan on their MP3 Player along with their music and photos as well as on their home computer. Keeping several copies in various places should help.

I would also be interested in seeing how Rachael progresses with her primary school project.

Ross Lamb