Holistic Acts of Categorization: E-Portfolio Pedagogy in Theory and Practice

My first encounter with the word “eportfolio” occurred long before I ever created one. I was about two-thirds of the way into my AmeriCorps service year when my supervisor suggested we go to a daylong training on the topic. There, an eportfolio was presented to me as a privately managed institutional project, a series of templates that anyone could fill in with information about work, or school, or other predetermined categories decided upon in advance. It was a means of taking an individual’s life and work and reducing them to fit into the digital equivalent of a Mad Lib. It was oriented towards the needs of others (imagined future potential employers) rather than the needs of the individual user—so much so that after an exasperating day we decided to pass on implementing this idea during my service year.

My second, more sustained encounter with the term has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. In my current work as an instructional technology fellow at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York (CUNY), we use the word “eportfolio” to describe a flexible network of over 3,000 web sites, created by and for individual students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as for Macaulay courses and student organizations. Instead of asking our community to adapt to a single form of digital representation, we’ve collaboratively developed a system that can adapt to each person’s needs and desires, one that truly has no default structure—though we do provide some templates for students in need of a pre-set starting point. This comes with its own set of concerns—success has been gradual, and a significant investment in human capital has been the key to helping all interested members of our community negotiate both a technical learning curve and the very idea of digital identity itself. Nevertheless, the system that we have developed now best reflects our institution’s educational values, and also remains the best tool we have to meet the needs of our diverse student body.

Having experienced both uses of the same word, I think it’s most useful to understand “eportfolio” as an umbrella term—a label that can be applied to almost any online public product in which a relatively comprehensive effort at digital identity or self-presentation is the primary focus. In this respect, an eportfolio isn’t a thing, so much as an idea, or a mindset. How we choose to translate that idea into a tangible thing can involve any number of a wide variety of tools, from pre-formatted templates hosted by a for-profit edutech company to the appropriation of open-source blogging software to provide a relatively undefined space for digital identity creation. But the long-term success of any large-scale eportfolio project depends not upon the tools a group chooses to use for the job—though the choice of technologies will undoubtedly reflect that community’s understanding of itself and its values—but upon inculcating mindfulness and a sense of possibility in those who choose to participate in the project, guiding them through questions of identity formation and development in a technologically-driven world that is often moving faster than we might prefer.

In my teaching life I tell my students I am a constructivist. What this means, I explain, is that my pedagogy is about building things, and they should expect to work together in each session to produce materials that will help us all come to a richer understanding of our chosen subject. One of the most useful ways to employ this in a literature classroom—and a method that has a direct parallel in eportfolio creation—is to encourage students to see literary texts as material from which different types of data can be gathered, and to then lead them in different ways of organizing and reflecting upon that data. I may come to a class session with some quotations I’ve culled from the week’s reading, for example, and ask my students to work in small groups to categorize those passages in whatever way makes most sense to them.

HeLa Category Map Spring 2013

student category map of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Spring 2013)

Some groups will choose to organize the material chronologically, some thematically, some by character—for the purposes of the exercise, it doesn’t actually matter, so long as they make a choice. After each group has finished, we come back together and “map” our categories in relation to one another on the board in a class-wide diagram or schematic, all of us better understanding the reading as a whole through the varied organizational structures different members of the class chose to apply to it.

HeLa Category Map, Fall 2013

student category map of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Fall 2013)

An eportfolio is also, at its best, an exercise in creative categorization, where its creator chooses what aspects of self to highlight and then thinks critically about how those choices relate to one another. And an “exemplary” eportfolio, then, is one that effectively reflects the results of this thoughtful decision-making. I’ve guided many individuals through this process, from assisting Macaulay seniors as they create digital versions of thesis projects to helping a retired professor envision a web site to accompany her new life as a documentary filmmaker, and in many cases the results have been exemplary. But it is the development of my own web presence that has proved the most instructive of these experiences.

When I first created this site in 2011, I envisioned it as a place where my hobby photography could have a home, with some additional space for those ideas about contemporary poetics that wouldn’t make it into my dissertation. Having absorbed my PhD program’s dictum that your CV should be holistic, truly “the story of a life,” right alongside the program’s boundless anxiety about effectively marketing its doctoral candidates in an era when jobs are scarce, I responded to what felt like competing messages by creating a space where I could first showcase my life beyond and apart from my dissertation, understanding that my academic work was part of who I was, but never all of who I was. It didn’t take long, however, before it was my site, not my CV, which truly felt like “the story of my life.”

A visually-oriented site structure that made use of both chronological, blog-like “posts” and pages of static information allowed me to build connections between my life as a teacher, a scholar, and a technologist—I was able to fully showcase my long history in the field of technology and pedagogy at the same time as I was able to add new efforts in photography or my thoughts on a recent poetics event. Key to this was the development of two horizontal streams of data as the primary feature of the home page in particular—providing every individual visitor with multiple yet definable pathways to follow upon each and every visit. The clean integration of multimedia has been an essential feature, allowing me to punctuate my writing with relevant images, audio, or video, and further promoting a sense of all-inclusive self-presentation.

Most recently, “Pedagogy” has become a new category of information on my site, providing me with space not only for the traditional curated materials of the “teaching portfolio,” or to recap the highlights of individual teaching engagements, but with room to ruminate on questions of academic labor and the politics of the modern university. So as my own interests have evolved, my site has evolved with me. The “map” of “me” has gotten more complex—and there continues to be room for growth. In this manner, my eportfolio mirrors the process of choosing—it’s never been and never will be a single static object. In that, it best reflects the living, breathing person it is intended to digitally represent, who, like anyone else, makes innumerable choices daily.

Achieving that integrated state is a process that has a number of initial components:

  1. Part of how I “sell” or “evangelize” this kind of digital identity work to new users is a matter of attitude—enthusiasm, compassion, and an openness to experimentation and growth that I hope I’ve demonstrated throughout this essay.
  2. I generally choose to explain this kind of identity making in human terms first, and technological ones later—most potential users can better articulate what they want that way, and are thus more involved from the outset, with less of that fear of the unknown that so often permeates the introduction of new technologies. Relatedly, it also helps to have human-oriented analogies or metaphors—that is, to choose a means of describing this project that will welcome all possible users. At Macaulay, for example, we call an eportfolio a “cabinet of curiosities,” which represents the kinds of diverse experiences we want our students to showcase online.
  3. It’s similarly important to invest in human capital early on—to find or train early adopters who can guide other members of the community, providing not only personalized technological support but also visionary appeal and up-to-date information about the production of digital identities.
  4. Finally, the success of an eportfolio program is also best considered on a human scale. Early adopters should be celebrated and publicized. Alumni should be encouraged to get involved early on, with a commitment to sustaining student eportfolios after graduation. Macaulay students are currently encouraged to keep eportfolios while traveling abroad, and our incoming students begin making eportfolios as part of their orientation, allowing them to both look forward and reflect from the very beginning of their university careers.
Macaulay students learning eportfolio basics

Macaulay students learning eportfolio basics

With a customized approach, a person-to-person expansion model, thoughtful language, and community-oriented benchmarks for success, eportfolios become natural digital outgrowths of the unique individuals and communities who build them. At its best, this approach to web development allows for not just self-expression, but concrete personal growth.