August 15, 2010

ePortfolios & Learning Management Systems: Setting our default to social

Education has for too long defaulted to secrecy, opaqueness and inward reflection on "what education is". It's time to change that default setting.

Clay Shirky points out in his latest oeuvre Cognitive Surplus that the way startups choose to set their 'default' settings is hugely important in defining how users will exploit the technology. When you buy an iPhone or a Mac the default for seeking out wireless is set for you to open: you constantly search for the means to communicate. I've just helped a chap in Auckland airport to turn on his wireless: the PC on which he was working had its system settings default to 'closed' whenever he restarted.

Shirky's (and my) plea would be to set our own personal defaults to social: the benefits of others serendipitously bumping into our content, our ideas and our pleas for help greatly outweigh the perceived risk or inconvenience of 'losing' a piece of ourselves to the vast online wastelands.

For my latest Core EDTalk from New Zealand I was asked to give my own take on ePortfolios, that is, electronic means of students to share the best of their work. Unfortunately, as with all jargon, we bring our on preconceptions to the table of what an ePortfolio is for and looks like. Generally, the teachers and parents I meet believe that they are:

  • for students to use;
  • for showing the best of a student's work;
  • convenient tools for capturing assessments; and therefore...
  • for private use, shared with a closed community of the teacher and/or class and/or school, but rarely the open web.

In the above video, I present my own take that they should be:

  • for students, teachers and parents to use;
  • for showing the workings that led to a final product (it's time we stopped covering up our learning in English, showing our working in Maths - let's get the process of learning out there for all to see, contribute to and build upon);
  • convenient tools for capturing anything that might, one day, relate to some learning - light touch tools such as Posterous are transforming blogging from a web-based technically superior-feeling activity in education to something anyone can do, even when they are offline (you post by email with Posterous, so you can 'blog' when on a plane if you want to, and let Outlook do the catching up when you hit wifi again). ePortfolios for teachers should resemble those useful moments of sharing in the staffroom. For students, ePortfolios should be the messy learning log or journal de bord that, frankly, not enough of them keep on paper anyway;
  • for the whole, open web: otherwise we set ourselves up for nearly only introspective learning with people who share our viewpoints, cultural biases and outlook on learning and life.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that most Learning Management Systems on the market these days and being developed by Education Ministries the world over have their defaults set to 'anti-social': private, closed networks that experts and co-learners in the 'outside' world cannot see or interact with. Sure, you can have an open blog that anyone can read and participate in, but you have to flick the switch first to go open. The default position is closed.

The reasons for this are normally noble sounding enough: safety of learners, the perceptions of teachers and parents are currently too 'conservative' (i.e. they didn't learn like that) to 'cope' with the concept of anyone seeing the work of students. Allanah King in Nelson does a good job asking the difficult (and not-so-difficult) questions of Learning Management Systems in this respect in her post: why would a school spend good money on one?.

But the longer teachers put up with these attitudes, rather than challenging them and asking intelligent questions about the balance of risk in not having students share with the world wide web, the longer we do not have conversations with parents, and invite them to spectate and participate in what learning can look like now, then the longer we will continue to do a disservice to the digital footprints, competitiveness and understanding of otherness in our young people.

If you want to see what ePortfolios might look like when we push the boat out beyond simply writing a blog or sharing different media online through Posterous, take a look at my older post on the fascinating eScapes project - I'd love to know what happened to it since these early days, if anyone can help.


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Thanks for the link- it will hopefully encourage further discussion.

Something thing else that worries me is that people would like to enter the debate in the comment section of the blog post on the worth of learning management systems but feel that they cannot enter into a public debate for fear of their employers knowing that they feel they are money not well spent.

People have been emailing me with their views- not wishing for them to be made public on the matter.

These are people whose first default is set to public!

Great post. Personally, I think of e-portfolios as places where we work things out," evolve our ideas and understandings. Yes, there is a place for the formal projects and structured rubrics around e-portfolios, but we lose their core promise and power if we see the formal elements as what matter most.


Last year I was involved in the e-Scape pilot in Scotland with Moray house - Susan McLaren and Rowena Blair. We used the Fizzbook spins as devices to capture evidence of pupils design work, collaborate with each other etc. The main thing that I did with the fizzbooks was to use them in the workshop when the pupils were making their projects (clocks). I found it great to be able to wedge a device into the workshop that could hoover up evidence of the pupils working (photos/videos/audio etc etc). All to often the physical process of making (plus mistakes) of what we do and make is lost for the finished product. The resulting e-portfolios were quite messy but what CDT/Design workshop isn't?

You can see me talk about the project in the teachmeet up at Perth earlier this year - it is very cringeworthy as I was up first and pretty nervous -

Like you explain in your post, the e-portfolios only got shared through Glow to a partner school. There was 4 skls involved in the pilot. No news at the moment whether it is going to continue or not.

This is a very interesting post with some very interesting feedback. I am interested to see where this subject goes in the future and will keep my eyes and ears open!

Thanks for the video link Ewan. Interesting to note its 4 years old - it seems we have the perfect opportunity in Scotland to move forward...

e-learning is a wonderful concept to bring a revolution in the field of learning as it has no boundaries to be hold upon..for the development of the site one needs to be a master in putting up the concepts required for the education purpose

We always enjoy going "back to school" – visiting college campus quads and K-12 classrooms – especially because we get to learn from our users, who are always happy to tell us what they want. One idea we hear a lot is, "Build a learning management system (LMS) to go along with Google Apps." We love the concept – but we also really value the great work being done by educational software developers - including those in the Open Source community who work on projects like Moodle, an LMS web application that educators can use to create effective online learning sites.
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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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