[this is quite a long post, but please bear with me, I think it's worth it, if only as a vehicle for reflecting on things]
days weeks ago I was sat in a session on ePortfolios at the Naace conference - there were many parallel sessions on at the time and I had quickly and quietly ducked out of the Learning Platforms one (call me chicken if you like). The reason for this is that the whole area of ePortfolios is looming on my mental radar at the moment, for a number of reasons:
- there are vague but seemingly definite targets on it (from Government);
- there are many definitions about what an ePortfolio is, and not one of them appears to concur with any other;
- I don't want us to make a decision which hitches our wagons to whatever's in the news around the time we make that decision.
So, the session is going on and I'm tapping away wondering if being in this session was the correct decision. Then, at some point when the discussion was centred around what should happen next in the area of ePortfolios (which begs the question - what's happened already?), a thought wandered into my mind and wouldn't leave.
Here's the problem: the specification for Learning Platforms is, in parts, one of the most vague things you could ever read. By "Spring 2008" (when is/was Spring?):
every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio
Apart from the obvious questions:
- What exactly do we mean by personalised?
- Is potential enough, or should it really support an ePortfolio?
- If (as is indicated above) a "personalised online learning space" is different to an ePortfolio, does a VLE count as one?
- If that's the case, what's the relationship between a VLE and an ePortfolio?
At the moment, as far as I can tell, the "market" in ePortfolios for school-age children is packed with vendors of all shapes and sizes claiming that whatever they're selling ticks the above box. In some ways, they're right - in that the target above is so vague that you could almost give every child a 8GB USB memory drive and be done with it, so anything with the label "ePortfolio" on it would tick the above box.
Now, some of the tools on offer are substantial, have learning (rather than simply file storage) at the core, and allow reflection, publication, and many of the other tools which crop up once you start to dig, even at a shallow depth, into the literature on ePortfolios. Some are simply file storage with a customisable front-end (no thanks).
The major problem (and one that mirrors the situation with Learning Platforms) is that there's no true interoperability - a pupil who might create a stunning portfolio of work at a primary school risks losing this on transition to secondary school - and the only option might be "getting a copy of it on CD" or, at best, as a structured .zip file with files in specific folders (assuming someone at primary age remembers to place their work in meanginful folders). Also, we have the problem that the "stuff" - whatever's in the portfolio, the associated learning reflections and other information would need to be moved between portfolio hosts if different providers are providing the primary and secondary schools' ePortfolio systems. Now that (so the "ePortfolio" provider would have you believe) is a reason for everyone (across a Local Authority, an RBC, a nation?) to use the same system - which doesn't really sound like true interoperability to me, more like so-called "lock in" on a grander, and possible more frightening, scale. From the market's point of view, it gives vendors a chance to clean up - anyone who gets (for example) the whole of London, or the whole of an RBC, has a licence to print money, as theirs is the only option.
One of the problems is, that the guidance on this is so vague about what an ePortfolio might be that the concept of "interoperability" between different systems is clearly a pipe dream. Of course, any system should be able to read files, but it's the nuances, the processes, the learning associated with those simple files which is as, if not more, important. Coupled with the fact that the Becta guidance just throws that phrase "potential to support an ePortfolio" in there.
So here's what I think Becta should do. It involves:
- above all it takes the guts to do something which is quite directive, but at the same time gives schools and vendors the freedom to be creative.
Put simply, in my ideal world / parallel universe Becta would commission what might be the world's largest amount of online storage space (including hosting, backup, redundancy, whatever it takes), using some of the former Grant 121 money designed to help schools meet the vague targets mentioned above. Whatever size they decided it should be, it would be. Wherever it was sited, it would be sited.What Becta would specify would be the ways in which this space could be accessed - i.e. the ways in which any tool would pass data to and from this space, using common (open) standards based methods. If you've got a flickr account, you'll know it's possible to allow other applications to access the data stored in flickr - well that's what I'm thinking of for this space. Vendors would have to use these standards to be able to write to and read from the space. What exactly they "wrote" there would be up to them - and schools could pick from any vendor knowing that their tool or product could write to this national ePortfolio space.
Schools would have administrative control over their own space and staff and pupils would simply be "hooked" onto the online "peg" of their school and then moved on as appropriate. LAs would have access to their schools - etc. etc., with a bit of thought you can work out how this would work. Of course, users would ultimately own their space (and who knows, the Becta space might be configured to export to currently popular and free online storage in case a user wanted their own backup).
The advantage for users, schools, LAs, etc would be that because any tool could write to and read from this space, that an individual moving from one institution to another could use whatever tool that those institutions used (the same or different) and still access and manage their information - in the same way that a whole load of applications can access my space on flickr (if I let them). This removes the fear of "what if I move schools?" or (horror!) move across an LA or RBC boundary, in which case you're almost certainly back to having your work on a CD.
I think that this approach would increase creativity in the area of ePortfolios as it would be obvious to a vendor that any school, LA, or RBC would be able to move to a better product if the current one wasn't up to scratch - an ease of movement which has obviously been missing from the dominated-by-one-vendor MIS market for years. It also gets around the cumbersome and (in my opinion) wrong view that an ePortfolio should live inside a Learning Platform. At a stroke it would at remove the issue about interoperability - since ePortfolio tools would be interacting with a single central data store, rather than each other.Is this achievable? I think I know the answer to that one - but I think it's desirable, and as the definitions around ePortfolios are so vague & multifarious that Becta will offend most people if it comes up with a definitive one, could it / should it provide the tools to get all sorts of portfolios working in harmony, rather than simply sowing a few seeds, turning its back and then having to manage all sorts of different, competing crops and their accompanying weeds?