E-Portfolios Are Not the Fitbit of Higher Education


This month Jeff Young, Goldie Blumenstyk, and friends have launched a new section of the Chronicle, called “Re:Learning: Mapping the New Education Landscape”, which looks at some of the recent technological, economic, and political challenges to higher education. I think–and not just because it would be on brand to say so–that this is a potentially interesting refresh of the Wired Campus focus.

On their Facebook page yesterday, they shared a Forbes article arguing that e-portfolios are the Fitbits of higher education. The article is authored by Adam Markowitz, CEO of Portfolium, and Ryan Craig, an investor in it.

It’s important to reject this line of thinking outright: If e-portfolios come to represent the Fitbits of higher education, then we will have utterly failed our students. Markowitz and Craig’s vision of education is essentially one of widget production (their emphasis):

Quantified Students will be able to map current skillsets against the requirements of target careers, evaluate the gap, and then select the educational program or path that gets them to their destination quickly and cost effectively. While this may sound like science fiction, so did wearables and tracking personal health and fitness data just a few years ago. Getting to the Quantified Student is a data problem that is being solved using algorithms honed by terabytes of training data, extracting skills and competencies from student work, job descriptions and curricular information.

The digital representation of the Quantified Student already exists: It’s called an e-portfolio

As Quantified Students declare majors and continue to accrue skills, four years of academic work will find a permanent home in the cloud rather than in the trash. All of the underlying data will be indexed and eventually cashed in by students to prove competencies to skills-hungry employers.

This is an incredibly depressing view of education.

Like Natalie, I liked my Fitbit very much, and wore it diligently until I got an Apple Watch. The Fitbit was helpful precisely because it was automatic–it gathered data without my reflection or intervention–and because I didn’t really have to think much about what to do. If it was getting near the end of the day and I wasn’t near my goal, then I just needed to get up and move around. It didn’t care about the context of a particular day; it just implacably reminded me to be less physically lazy. Simple! It was great.

That shouldn’t be the point of a portfolio. A portfolio should incorporate some principle of selection. (“Curation,” if we really have to have a no-longer-trendy buzzword.) There should be some metacognitive element, wherein the learner is able to reflect on all their experiences–academic, co-curricular, undergraduate research, athletics, work-related–and demonstrate their accomplishments in a meaningful way. Turning all of their work into a data dump to be mined doesn’t help that goal. (It would, however, probably help the goals of “helping employers find employees” and “aligning curriculum with imagined workforce requirements,” but, again, those really can’t be the point of the activity.)

Portfolios, if you like, should borrow more from Gardner Campbell’s old description of blogging’s educational goals–narrate, curate, share–rather than Fitbits. What’s wanted are not so much an e-portfolio as a quantified dashboard, but rather a site where the design and navigation themselves reflect the values and skills of the learner. There are other educational moments when the kind of approach they describe is useful–for example, as part of a degree assessment or some other advising conversation–but it strikes me as tangential to what a portfolio might be.

To the extent that e-portfolios simply represent the quantification of higher education, then precisely to that extent we tell our students that the most important goal of education is compliance.

Two other wild things about this article:

Photo “Sketchbook” by Flickr user Brian Pennington / Creative Commons licensed BY–2.0

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