Entering the “swampy lowlands”

“swamp” by vistavision. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND
“swamp” by vistavision. Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-ND

At last my three “conversations” (if I can call them that, they sound like interviews to me) are now in the bag and I will be posting my thoughts about that in a future blog post. In the meantime, I have been reading a number of articles around e-portfolios, academic practice, professional development and professional learning, I should have heeded Schön’s (1987) warning:

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground, overlooking a swamp … In the swampy lowland, messy, confusing problems defy technical solution. The irony of this situation, is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. The practitioner must chose. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to prevailing standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry?” (Schön, 1987:3).

For starters, Reilly (2009) asserts that there is actually a difference between “professional development” and “professional learning” that I didn’t actually appreciate until I read her article, she explains that:

Development is a noun. Its suffix -ment used to form nouns chiefly by attaching to verbs, suggests a subject who is no longer doing, but rather exists as an object being acted-upon. In contrast, learning is a gerund and functions as a verbal noun indicating ongoing action. To professionally learn requires a doer. Learners actively determine their presence and agency. It is the chasm between being acted-upon and acting that we need to understand” (Reilly, 2009:81).

Reilly (2009) goes on to liken professional development as “dressing the corpse” because educators gone on predefined, prescriptive courses where they have no sense of agency or valorisation. We’re back in the zombification of Higher Education territory again. Swamps and corpses are all the ingredients we need to make our very own zombie programme (as in a course, not in television). Whilst this is all very interesting and fascinating, I am beginning to feel that this EdD “idea” of mine is going to lead me towards some unhithertoo quagmire. Once again, I am remined of Lawy’s (2006) paraphrasing of Biesta (2004) that education is all about “risk, trust and violence” – I need to be strong and I need to be brave, no-one said that this “pilgrimage” was going to be easy.

One of the reasons for reading Reilly (2009) because she makes linkages between professional learning and rhizomatic learning, of professional learning she says:

Professional learning … does not mean going it exclusively alone, following a crowd, or pledging allegiance to a product or practice. All, some, and none of these are possibilities … While development can be scheduled and plotted with specific content determined ahead of time, professional learning has more nomadic tendencies, resisting the linearity of input and output. As such, learning possibilities need to be occasioned from multiple, nonhierarchical networks, similar in design to the intricate nested interrelationships to be found on the World Wide Web. This emphasis on connections produces the possibility for neighbor interactions (Davis & Simmt, 2003)—the ideas, hunches, and insights that inform individuals’ and collectives’ thinking. Among these interactions, settled households emerge” (ibid., 2009:93).

You can see from the above statement why she might think that professional learning might have something of the “rhizome” about it. She begins to synthesise what this linkage between professional learning and rhizomatic learning might look like:

This stream undermining its banks reminds me of the contemporaneity of learning that is present in the flow of dynamic encounters. At such times it may be easier to recognize that ideas have neither beginnings nor ends. Rather, they exist in infinite middles between infinite things. Instead of trying to control and limit these variables, designers of professional learning need to attend to the comings and goings of people; the locations where the bifurcation process appears most lively. Think again of our stream undermining its banks and gaining speed in the middle. The tensions between containment and breach become the very forces in which we reinvest; the inevitable middles from whence new understandings might emerge” (ibid., 2009:94).

She draws quite heavily upon the “Funds of Knowledge” initiative by way of an exemplar of how this might work in practice, the example is very schools based. Like McIntyre (2012), the rhizome has provided Reilly with a model in which to begin to explain professional learning. For McIntyre (2012), the rhizome provided him with a model to explain how the “Learning To Teach Online” project was able to propagate itself. Whilst these are good conceptual models, I really do need something a little more pragmatic. I have a feeling that I will be taking Dave Cormier’s “Rhizomatic Learning – The community is the curriculum” course at P2PU sometime soon.

My next big read was Baumgartner’s (2009) taxonomy for e-portfolios. One of the three people who I was having a “conversation” with mentioned that they could not find a taxonomy of (e-)portfolios so developed their own taxonomy based on some of the descriptors, features and properties that they were able to extrapolate from their literature review. Baumgartner’s work developed out of a 2 year project. He begins by saying that from “an epistemological point of view, there is no hidden classification scheme of e-portfolios ‘out there’ in the world of software and pedagogy, which has to be discovered” (p.13). He uses Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action to begin to construct the taxonomy because “a taxonomy is always a construction guided by some basic theoretical principles” (p. 14). This framework provides him with three different approaches to (e-)portfolio usage: software evaluation (objective relation); case applications (subjective relation); and application scenarios (social relation). He suggests that there are a “at least eight tasks a good taxonomy has to meet” (p. 17), these being:

  1. Integration
  2. Orienentation
  3. Information
  4. Cost Reduction
  5. Transfer
  6. Innovation
  7. Heuristic Tool
  8. Theory Construction

Like the person that I had the “conversation” with, Baumgartner used the “literature on e-portfolios to construct the taxonomy” (p.21). The came up with three main types (or classes) of (e-)portfolio:

  1. Reflection
  2. Development
  3. Presentation

For each type (or class), he considered there to be two types of (e-)portfolio owner:

  1. Personal
  2. Organisational

And finally, he saw that (e-)portfolios were orientated in one of two ways:

  1. Product
  2. Process

This in Baumgartner’s view gave him 12 types (3*2*2) of (e-)portfolio, as listed in the table below:

Developing a taxonomy of e-Portfolios (Adapted from Baumgartner, 2009)
Developing a taxonomy of e-Portfolios (Adapted from Baumgartner, 2009)

Baumgartner’s taxonomy also included how an (e-)portfolio could be used in different temporal situations:

  1. Retrospective (the past)
  2. Current (the now)
  3. Prospective (the future)

Together with a collaborator, Bauer & Baumgartner (2012) use a “pattern language“, a phrase coined by the architect Christopher Alexander to describe a “generative system that by using a set of rules (syntax), facilitates the combination of a limited number of clearly defined elements in an unlimited way with each other“. In Bauer & Baumgartner’s case, it’s likening the (e-)portfolio to a shop made up of different shop windows as metaphors for the different types of (e-)portfolio that Baumgartner had originally described in his taxonomy. I have to say that I thought this particular work seemed to be overly, and unnecessarily, complicated and just provided the (e-)portfolio scholar with yet another metaphor to play with, which is, presumably, underpinned by Alexander’s notion of pattern languages.

The Bhika, Francis & Miller (2013) paper draws upon the notion of social pedagogies as a way of integrating e-portfolio practice within professional development. Using the Bass & Elmendorf (n.d.) definition, social pedagogies are:

design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an “authentic audience” (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course” (Bass & Elmendorf, n.d., para. 2).

They conclude:

Intentional, integrative social pedagogies enable learners to create their own learning or social communities, which can be an engaging environment, learners can use this for everyday activities, keeping in touch with each other, finding the latest resources, and sharing their own experiences … Furthermore, when these social communities exist within an online platform such as ePortfolio, they allow communities of learners to develop and flourish beyond the physical and temporal boundaries of the classroom” (Bhika, Francis & Miller, 2013:125).

I found the notion of social pedagogies (with boundary objects) forming communities of practice to be an interesting one. I know that a lot of our staff would like to share practice with eachother more often but neither have the space nor time to do so. So I am beginning to wonder if an (e-)portfolio (or personal learning system) could possibly facilitate such an opportunity?

Bryant & Chittum (2013) offers a timely reminder that:

Although the theoretical foundation for ePortfolio use is strong, it is not sufficient to justify widespread use. As ePortfolio use continues to grow and valuable time and resources are being invested in this fairly new pedagogical tool, it becomes even more important that we have empirically-based evidence for its adoption” (ibid., 2013:190).

They reviewed a sample of 118 peer-reviewed journal articles on (e-)portfolios. Whilst the theory and rhetoric for the adoption of (e-)portfolios to facilitate knowledge construction and skills, deeper reflection, academic development is strong, it would seem that the empirical evidence is weak and insubstantial and a “transition toward empirical assessment of their impact on student outcomes is needed“. The one glaring issue that has been identified by the author is the absence of a comparison or control group:

… as a result, it is difficult to determine whether learning or positive growth in other realms occurred because of the ePortfolios or because of the general structure of the course. Researchers should begin to compare ePortfolio use to non-ePortfolio use within separate sections of the same course in order to parse out the specific contributions of the tool” (ibid., 2013:195).

They also offer an interesting point around longitudinal studies involving student:

Finally, the adoption of institution-wide ePortfolio systems that will follow students from their freshman year to graduation provide a new opportunity for researchers: longitudinal studies that look at differences between ePortfolio and non-ePortfolio users over the course of several years could provide useful information on potential benefits once students become sufficiently acclimated to the ePortfolio process” (Bryant & Chittum, 2013:195).

This is of interest to me, especially if I am to look at the progression of early career academic staff, within the context of academic practice or professional learning, and whether an (e-)portfolio can facilitate this development. Again, one of the people I had a “conversation” with mentioned a longitudinal study. If I am going to do this, then I need to be ready and primed by December 2014 when the first cohort of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice (PGCAP) begin. It is now clear to me that I have 9 months to go before I begin my descent into the “swampy lowlands” of (e-)portfolios, academic practice and/or professional learning.


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Bauer, R. & Baumgartner, P. (2012). “Showcase of Learning: Towards a Pattern Language for Working with Electronic Portfolios in Higher Education”. In Proceedings of the 16th European Conference on Pattern Languages of Programs (EuroPLoP 2011). Irsee Monastery, Bavaria, Germany. 13-17 July 2011. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2396716.2396722 [Accessed 23.2.2014].

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