Thoughts on a ‘portfolio approach’ to learning

In 2016 the Mahara eportfolio system was introduced at Flinders, making an account available to every staff and student. The eportfolio is an online user-authored and managed ‘space’ which belongs to the account holder and travels with them. When used in the context of coursework, it lends itself to longitudinal, cross-topic activity, as well as integrating between coursework and extra-curricular activities. Its paradigm-shifting power is that it puts the student and their work, not the topic, ‘at the centre’.

Portfolio created or curated content can be securely shared by students into FLO sites. Typically, portfolio-based tasks are prescribed by the topic to the student, usually with room for interpretation and individual expression, where the student is given rein to decide how their portfolio task will be constructed and presented, building meaningfulness through the online architecture. But it is possible to go further, and leverage this authoring technology for student-directed learning, exemplifying a students as partners approach where the student is the responsible driver of their work. In this next-level conceptualisation of portfolio work, the prescriptive ‘task’ is replaced by an approach, a methodology for learning – a ‘portfolio approach’ to learning.

What might this look like? Given the reins, the means and the support, the student considers what they need to demonstrate, and decides what they will do and how they will do it. They will need to make decisions about the degrees of openness around their work (Parkin, 2018), how they will organise their work meaningfully, and how they will connect between units of work. Being longitudinal, they will be constantly remixing their work as they go. Work in progress, polished artefacts and journaling can all be opened to elicit responses from others, be they teachers, topic cohort, friends, work colleagues, groups and networks, or the public. But it is the student who themselves directs how they engage and what their experience will be.

The portfolio is a technology that is designed to make practice visible; it gives form to what might otherwise be formless (Akama, Light, & Bowen, 2017) and makes it possible to see, experience, explore, create, make sense of and communicate the ‘inner workings’ of our work. Not everything needs to be shared. But the portfolio space itself becomes a kind of ‘other’ as such, witnessing us (Burrows, 2011) – in its spaces we see ourselves as if through another’s’ eyes (Lyons & Freidus, 2004). Practiced as a discipline, it can be a creative, playful, generative space that opens new ways of seeing, doing, and making new connections between things.

Leveraging the full potential of this quiet but powerful technology and positioning the portfolio as a learning approach is a bold move and requires coordination, lots of support, and commitment to the approach (Scully, 2018). As a learning philosophy, it needs to be understood and valued by both students and staff. But perhaps the real challenge in a ‘portfolio approach to learning’ is appreciating the possibilities – because these are in the hands of the student.

To explore further: see Portfolio Assist for videos, literature, ideas; browse the FLO staff support Mahara page; or contact a learning designer.

Akama, Y., Light, A., & Bowen, S. (2017). Mindfulness and technology: traces of a middle way. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems.

Burrows, L. (2011). ‘I saw myself reflected in an institution for the first time’: making academic and personal learning in teacher education visible through an e-portfolio. A case study of a graduate teacher. Paper presented at the Australian Teacher Education Association, Melbourne, VIC.

Lyons, N., & Freidus, H. (2004). The reflective portfolio in self-study: Inquiring into and representing a knowledge of practice. International handbook of self-study of teaching and teacher education practices, 1073-1107.

Parkin, N., Wadham, B., Hall, S., & White, I. (2018). The scholarly self at the intersection of the eportfolio and doctoral education: A collaborative self-study. Paper presented at the Quality in Postgraduate Research Adelaide.

Scully, D., O’Leary, M. & Brown, M. (2018). The Learning Portfolio in Higher Education: A Game of Snakes and Ladders. Retrieved from Dublin: Dublin City University, Centre for Assessment Research, Policy & Practice in Education (CARPE) and National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL).

Contributed by Nicola Parkin
Learning Designer, CBGL

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