Tuesday, 15 May 2018

E-portfolio and Personal Uncertainty Management

One of the practical problems we face in my university is a plethora of e-portfolio systems which are meant to capture competencies and student "reflections" in various ways. Big questions about what competency is, how to measure it, what reflection is, how to capture it, whether it should be assessed and so on tend to get ignored: in the spirit of Cohen and March's "Garbage can model of organisational decision-making" the choice of the tool (and a different one for each academic area!) suffices for making a decision about intractable questions in education. So choosing a tool manages the uncertainty of the decision-makers (actually, its worth reflecting on how much of capitalism is like this in general!) Deep questions of education get buried further once a tool is adopted, and technical questions about "how to do x" then dominate thinking. Bateson summarised the problem in Mind and Nature:

Innovations become irreversibly adopted into the on-going system without being tested for long-time viability; and necessary changes are resisted by the core of conservative individuals without any assurance that these particular changes are the ones to resist.

Confusion is an important aspect of the educational journey. There is no learning which isn't preceded by some confusion. Confusion generally is managed by conversation, but thought is a counterpart to this conversation. Conversation itself is not just about talking to each other: conversation is about intersubjectivity both with those immediately around us, our contemporaries who are not with us, and those who are no longer alive. Libraries (and now the internet) are places of conversation - often with the dead (are they really dead?!)

Conversation works by coordinating rich multiple descriptions of things. Everybody has different ideas and descriptions of what they experience. We explore the differences between our descriptions by talking in the pub, or by reading books or watching videos. In the end, what occurs is a process of tuning-in to the generative mechanisms in others who attempt to describe the same things that we do. The more we tune-in, the more powerful our communications will be.

The communication "x is competent" if it is said with real feeling (where someone might add "x is brilliant", or "you should get x to do that!") is the revealing of the inner generative mechanism of judgement by someone of somebody else: the different ways in which "x is competent" might be articulated is an indicator of the strength of feeling about x. Said without feeling, it doesn't mean very much. There is no feeling in e-portfolio competency management systems.

By talking to each other, by reading, by practising, students acquire redundancy of expression: multiple ways of saying things. Through a process over time things are experienced and gradually the structural mechanisms for producing a rich variety of expression emerge. It is a diachronic process, and e-portfolio presents itself as a way of capturing the episodes of experience which go into forming the whole person at the end.

The problem is that e-portfolio becomes a kind of ritual which students are compelled to do. It becomes thoughtless, automatic, alienating. It needs to become conversational (in the deepest sense), intersubjective, a way of tuning-in to the inner-worlds of others; a way of generating insight.

No tool alone can do this. It requires a rethinking of pedagogy.

When students write entries in their e-portfolio, what they are doing is creating 'objects'. Objects are powerful mediators of conversation. They reveal something of the inner-world of one person to another. Different kinds of objects reveal different things. The pedagogic problem of e-portfolio is the demand that all students create the same kind of object and keep on doing it. So while something is revealed in the first instance, it gradually becomes less meaningful.

The making of digital objects is an opportunity to inspire students to creative forms of expression which break the boundaries of ritualised description. Activities could be coordinated such that drawings, poems, videos, photographs and so on can all be used as a way of driving conversation. Competency will reveal itself in the richness of descriptions produced through intersubjective engagement. It can all be much more fun.

It's interesting that given the richness and power of the technology, that we've turned it into something so dire. Why have we done that? Because the institution has needed to manage the uncertainty created by technology!

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