eportfolios for academics


For the recent ePortfolios Forum at the University of Canberra, I presented a poster describing first steps in integrating eportfolios into our academic development programs at UNSW. While portfolios have been traditionally used for learning and for professional practice in creative disciplines, there is growing momentum for use of eportfolios to integrate learning across disciplines in a range of educational contexts, including development of graduate capabilities in higher education. Teachers who are not creative practitioners may find it difficult to conceptualise the use of portfolios in learning, so use of eportfolios in their own professional development can support their own development of reflective practice as well as provide a model for their students’ use of eportfolios in learning.
The image shows how eportfolios are currently conceptualised and being implemented in the UNSW Foundations of University Learning and Teaching program. Here’s a link to the full posterA learning portfolios approach to academic development.

hellooo ETMOOC

Alien in our midst

…. so here i am in the new ETMOOC course, wondering if I really will have the time to participate this time. Have enrolled in MOOCs before, and had life/work/everything take over, not to mention the timezone issue between Oz and North America. I am working in educational development and technology at UNSW in Sydney, doing my own creative work in my real life, and trying to fit a PhD somewhere in between. Looking forward to meeting new people and learning new things!

Cultivating my digital garden

Jacaranda, Bundeena, photo by me.                     CC licensed

I am an evangelist for online connectivity, personal learning networks, and digital citizenship – ie the ability to ethically and productively manage your online identity and relationships. It seems to me that the reluctance of many university academics/teachers to engage as a professional in the world of social media is a big barrier to them effectively engaging their students in online learning and digital skills. So I do my best to ‘walk the talk’, and model ‘connected’ practice.

In fact, I am an accomplished ‘lurker’, having multiple online accounts in multiple online forums, tools and social media, but having found just a few so far that seem to enrich the way I work, and even then it’s hard to say that they make me more productive – in fact can be a terrible time-suck. I use Facebook minimally, have a couple of WordPress blogs for managing my online portfolio and talking about my research, save useful links to Diigo but forget to share them, and managed a grand total of 5 tweets in Twitter over 3 years. Clearly it’s not enough to dabble in the shallows – it takes time, effort and confidence to dive in and publicly interact to develop not just a presence but a network.

So – I am spending my holiday getting my digital persona in order  – blogs, twitter, diigo … tragic 😉

One of the first tasks is to visit some of the bloggers whose work I have found inspiring and useful in the areas of higher education research, PhD study and learning technologies and follow them more proactively. Some of these I’ve been dipping into for a few years (EduPunk anyone?), others are new and I wonder how I didn’t find them before. You’ll see the list I’ve gleaned in the Blogroll on the right (of the homepage) – and BTW it’s quite annoying that I can’t reorder this list. Here are just a few of the bloggers who inspire me:

For PhD study

For edtech

something new to try out:
Keep Learning – an education technology blogging project by Instructure –

of course some old favourites:
The Conversation
Brain Pickings
Stephen Downes
Abject – Brian Lamb
bavatuesdays – Jim Groom
and whatever happened to: Mike Bogle

The sun is shining outside – and the weeds are growing – back to the real world 😉

back to the future – ePortfolios Australia Forum

I am exploring how eportfolios could help learners present their developing skills in different dimensions of creative practice in their discipline, so I went along to the  ePortfolios Australia Forum this week to share my ideas and see what is happening. Thanks to everyone I met, for some really stimulating conversations, and for your interest in my work. Here’s a copy of my poster, The creative learner, and a graphic of the model I created to frame eportfolio assessment of creative practice (PPTXPDF). You also like to find out more about the Studio Teaching Project and the holistic assessment model that I am drawing on.

The Forum showcased some impressive projects (such as eportfolio implementation for all NZ schools, also see http://myportfolio.school.nz/) and generated intense discussion about the purposes of eportfolios in education. Many participants were inspired to see the range of purposes for which eportfolios are being used, but in some ways I was disappointed by the direction eportfolio use seems to be taking.

eportfolios have been a hot topic in education for some years now, but effective, embedded implementation is slow and incremental. I think this is partly because eportfolios don’t make much sense when utilised for individual students in individual courses – the real power is leveraged when portfolios are used in whole of program, whole of life, whole of community contexts, and that is much harder. This lifelong-lifewide learning potential of eportfolios is what enthuses me, so an apparent focus on accreditation and CV building seems somewhat limiting, although I can appreciate the pragmatism of that. In fact Curriculum Vitae means ‘the course of life’, a representation of the progress of a life journey, not simply a vocational tool focused on employment.

At the Forum, challenges to implementation of eportfolios in institutions were explored, and the issues that arose are familiar to anyone who has ever worked in educational technology. It seemed so Groundhog Day – are we still making the same mistakes?
I won’t rehash the discussion, but for me two big sticking points are:

Teachers who are not accustomed to presenting themselves online, developing a digital identity, or cultivating  online networks to support their social, professional and personal lives, can’t really understand the potential of eportfolios for themselves and students. So the implementations we saw tended to be for individual students in individual courses for specific, limited purpose, and the students whose eportfolios were showcased said they had never previously had the opportunity to see each others’ portfolios.

Specialist tools have been developed (such as Mahara and Pebblepad) to assist institutions in implementing ‘educational’ eportfolios. To me this is falling into the LMS trap – an institutional ‘one size fits all’ tool to try to accommodate the myriad purposes of an eportfolio kind of misses the point. The examples we saw where students struggled to use one of these tools for a range of ‘eportfolio’ purposes underlined this problem. These ranged from web folio to research showcase, laboratory report journal or professional resume, all very valid and meaningful activities in themselves, but for each of these functions students complained that the system was hard to use, time-consuming, and did not have all the functionality they would like and expect. Sounds rather like an LMS, huh?

In all of these use examples I could think of freely available online tools that would have done the job better – be it WordPress, Google Sites, LinkedIn or Flickr. Rather than developing their digital literacy by seeking and evaluating appropriate tools, and designing a suite of online artefacts that could be aggregated to represent themselves as a digital citizen, these students are struggling with limited institutional systems that they are unlikely to use in their wider or future life.

It seems to me that while teachers are not themselves engaged in developing their own digital identity and networks, it is difficult for them to provide leadership to either their students or their institutions in effective implementation of eportfolios in education. The provision of institutional tools to make it ‘easier’ may help to entrench limited perceptions of eportfolio purpose rather than achieve more creative pedagogical outcomes.

David Jones has also made some very good points regarding the shortcomings of eportfolios in education on his blog.

From trees to rhizomes, a line of flight …


kaleidoscope © Belinda Allen

For me, liminal space in learning, where developing new knowledge requires a leap of faith, resonates with Deleuzian notions of ‘rhizomatic’ knowledge. Rhizomatic networks were posited by Deleuze and Guattari (1987) as a metaphor describing the structure of knowledge.  A ‘tree’ metaphor was (and is) a widely used way of describing the way knowledge and understanding emerge from root concepts and branch out into related ideas and concepts, as opposed to a strictly hierarchical and linear mode of progression in knowledge development. Concept-mapping and mind-mapping follow the root-branch-twig structure of the arboreal metaphor. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) found that this model did not adequately represent inter-relatedness, connectivity and spontaneous eruptions of ideas that are apparent when knowledge is looked at in a social constructivist light. According to D&G, the rhizome represents an anti-model, (amodel? immodel? unmodel?) that liberates us from formal thinking and knowledge structures:

“Let us summarize the principal characteristics of a rhizome: unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. … It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object … When a multiplicity of this kind changes dimension, it necessarily changes in nature as well, undergoes a metamorphosis. Unlike a structure, which is defined by a set of points and positions … the rhizome is made only of lines: lines of segmentarity and stratification as its dimensions, and the line of flight or deterritorialization as the maximum dimension after which the multiplicity undergoes metamorphosis, changes in nature. These lines, or lineaments, should not be confused with lineages of the arborescent type, which are merely localizable linkages between points and positions. Unlike the tree, the rhizome is not the object of reproduction: neither external reproduction as image-tree nor internal reproduction as tree-structure. The rhizome is an antigenealogy. It is a short-term memory, or antimemory. The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. … the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.” P21 (A Thousand Plateaus).

And so I enter the labyrinth …

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Threshold concepts‚ liminality‚ uncertainty‚ identity …

Threshold - Dingle Peninsula

Threshold – Dingle Peninsula, W. Ireland © Belinda Allen

My thinking about creativity and transformative learning has led me to consideration of all of these, and also led me to the Threshold Concepts Conference 2012 at Trinity College Dublin, June 27-29. My thoughts seemed validated when all of these concepts came up with some regularity throughout the conference. Ray Land’s keynote on liminality, where he flagged the idea that liminal space may be a productive space for creativity (see 7:50 in the recording), made me think he must have read my abstract. This was followed by discussion with Brendan Hall on his thesis about a positive perspective on ‘uncertainty’, then seeing the presentation by Daniel Blackshields and colleagues on creative aspects of thresholds in integrative learning. Finally, my reference to Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland representing a creative experience of liminality was picked up by Patrick Carmichael in his concluding presentation on curriculum and technology. Altogether satisfying as a conference, with a bunch of ideas coming together for me, and several people enthusiastically expressing interest in my work.

Threshold concepts ‘theory’ was proposed in 2003 by Ray Land and Erik Meyer as a way of thinking about ‘troublesome knowledge’, a concept introduced by David Perkins in 1999. This concept has particularly resonated with university teachers across disciplines who find that certain disciplinary concepts seem to be difficult for students to learn. As a relatively new area of research it is also under intense exploration and development, as scholars and practitioners try to use it a tool for thinking about their own teaching and research contexts.

My own presentation (‘Creativity as threshold: learning and teaching in liminal space’) explored ideas around creative being and creative identity, with postmodern notions of ‘self’ in flux relating to ‘being for uncertainty’ (Barnett) and liminality as a creative space, citing Foucault’s concept of the ‘aesthetic self’.

Foucault proposed thearts of existence” as those reflective and voluntary practices by which men … seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make of their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria” (Foucault, 1992, p. 10-11). He furthermore suggested that life could be conceived as a work of art, in that we are each in the process of creating our ‘self’: “art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn’t everyone’s life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?” (Foucault, 1991, p. 350)

(These inspiring quotations sourced from Clare O’Farrell’s Michel Foucault website – a  great place to start exploring his ideas).

  • Carroll, L. (1974). Alice’s adventures in wonderland and Through the looking glass. Cleveland, OH: Collins-World. (Originally published 1872)
  • Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Foucault, M. (1992) [1984]. The Use of Pleasure. The History of Sexuality: Volume Two. Tr. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
  • Foucault, M. (1991) [1984]. ‘On the genealogy of ethics: An overview of work in progress’. In Paul Rabinow, (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
  • Meyer, J., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Occasional Report, 4.
  • Perkins, D. (1999). The many faces of constructivism. Educational Leadership. 57. 3 (Nov 1999): 6-11.

The guru of praxis …

Sounds like a good name for an arthouse movie or an avant-garde band … but is in fact referring to Professor Stephen Kemmis, whose AARE workshop on Professional Practice Theory I attended last weekend at the University of Queensland. Stephen is a guru in my eyes, perhaps best known for co-authoring one of the bibles of critical practice, Becoming Critical (Carr & Kemmis, 1986).

Praxis is all about critically reflecting and acting on practice, with the intention of changing practice for social good. So we would be practicing this in the workshop? Not exactly …

Stephen began the workshop with a confession of his tendency to monologue, and pleaded with us to alleviate this through asking questions, contributing to discussion, and initiating group conversations. Then he began to speak … about the history of schooling and of universities … of the design of classrooms and the design of the book (did you know that books were designed to be chained to tables and shelves so that they could not be stolen?)… of the bureaucratisation of teaching … of the redesign of the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences … where was this leading?

… to ‘Practice architectures’, a construct which accounts for contextual aspects of practice, proposing that it is “profoundly located”.  Rather than try to spell out all the dimensions of this, here is a version of Stephen’s model for researching educational praxis as related to its architectures, drawing on ideas about practice from Habermas, Bloom, Marx, Foucault and Bourdieu:

“an expanded view of the relationships between the individual and cultural–material–social purposes of education”


Related to this is the concept of ecologies of practice – the interconnected system of social practices that support and inform each other (also see Lemke’s ideas around ecosocial systems). And so the workshop went along, in the style of an inspiring and occasionally interrupted monologue, brimming with ideas from the beaming and benevolent guru, ranging from Aristotle to Foucault, Bourdieu and Schatzki.

And after the workshop, Stephen kindly autographed my copy of Becoming Critical 🙂

A forest … more metaphor wrangling

Sacred site - angophoras

Sacred site - angophoras © Belinda Allen

Here’s a longstanding metaphor for my thesis. On reading Kamler & Thompson I thought maybe it could be more positively focused:

The forest

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
 (Dante – Inferno: Canto I)

The thesis is a dark forest, and I feel lost in trying to navigate its complexity. Feelings of inadequacy stem from the fact that I have not done major research before, and insecurity stems from my experiences with the administration and assessment of the process, which so far has been difficult and unclear. The whole field of qualitative research has opened up before me and seems so vast that I cannot see the end. But it is that I cannot see the forest for the trees – each unfamiliar branch of the literature seems to loom large before me until I can take the time to read and digest, it then takes its place among the multitude of trees.

On the other hand, ideas of risk-taking, exploration and liminal space are important to my topic. If this thesis is to be in itself a creative activity, I should relish the lost-ness, and even seek it. In Dante’s journey, the lost way is precursor to a difficult and even life-threatening journey (through hell) which is necessary for the experience of transcendence in the end (to paradise) – it is the hero’s journey, and so is the journey of my thesis!

The liminal space:
In philosophy, an ‘aporia’ is a philosophical puzzle or a seemingly insoluble impasse in an inquiry, often arising as a result of equally plausible yet inconsistent premises. It can also denote the state of being perplexed, or at a loss, at such a puzzle or impasse. Lather (1998) proposes a praxis of stuck places – where ‘aporia’ – the impassable passage – is a place of critical power. The kind of ‘new criticality’ espoused by Burbules (2009) suggests that aporia is a starting point for radically new thinking – that deep criticality depends upon embracing what seems to be unknowable and impenetrable.

So – the forest metaphor changes, from representing being overwhelmed and lost, to representing adventure, challenge  and opportunity – I am the creative orienteer, designing my own compass.

It’s like a jungle … metaphors for literature review

Tasmania wilderness © Belinda Allen

A paper by Barabara Kamler and Pat Thompson discusses the anxieties around doctoral writing. They say: “What often looks like poor writing is also a textual struggle to take on a scholarly identity and become authoritative.” In this study they looked at the power of metaphor in how research writing is approached by doctoral students. The metaphors expressed by students tended to position the researcher as overwhelmed, helpless and/or lost. Workshopping these metaphors to develop more positive images (for example, a dinner party) improved the researchers’ confidence in approaching the task, and their positive expression of an authorial voice. As I am currently working on (and feeling overwhelmed by!) my lit review, I thought I would like to exorcise my negative metaphors and develop positive ones:

The jungle
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under (Grandmaster Flash)

I’m fighting through thick jungle, at any point I may be tripped by a creeper that I haven’t seen, or ambushed by a wily jungle animal. I’m collecting plants and flowers for my museum collection – I am distracted by those that look or smell most beautiful, but it’s important that I make a representative collection and can justify each specimen.

At almost every step, there is a tantalising byway where I see glimpses of plants that I have not yet collected – but are they important? I need to compare them with all the others, but my bag is so full I can’t easily look through them all. Perhaps I should collect them just in case …. But the weight of all the specimens is slowing me down and I wonder if I will ever find my way out and be able to make sense of the collection.

Kamler & Thomson (2006) point out that negativity in how the task of literature review (and indeed the PhD study) are perceived can adversely affect feelings of self-efficacy in completing the task. Negative perceptions emerge when metaphors are created, and analysing and rethinking the metaphor can help to make perceptions more positive. Lee & Kamler (2008) found that such negative self-perception reduces confidence and authority in writing, and minimises the author’s voice in a way that is detrimental to doctoral writing where the authorial voice is essential.


I consume so much that I must surely explode, or heave up half-digested, multi-coloured vomit: a morsel of truth here, a kernel of wisdom there – but they do not cohere. To me it is of interest to see how what I have consumed emerges and mixes together, to anyone else – a mess made by a glutton. The expectation of my academic overlords is that I will partake modestly, chew each mouthful 37 times, then spit it out or swallow. Methodical and selective; what I choose to swallow is finally excreted as hard little balls that no-one can argue with.

Choreographing the dance

Udaipur dancers © Belinda Allen

It’s a party and I’m dancing with as many people as possible. Some are easy to dance with – their moves match mine without too much trouble. Others are difficult, they have quite special moves that look impressive but I’ve no idea how to do it. Okay, I’ll go home and practice. There’s going to be a performance so I want to get the moves just right, and to make sure that everything fits together. I haven’t invented the dances, but I am the choreographer that will make the performance happen. I want to be able to rehearse again with these dancers so that when the time comes it feels right.

Walking the talk – creative praxis as research

Sacred centre 2

Sacred centre 2 © Belinda Allen

I’m interested in research on creative educational practice, in the form of praxis, which engages the practitioner-researcher in an iterative developmental cycle of act – critically reflect – theorise – act. But praxis has political connotations too – Marxist theory, developed further by Freire, sees praxis as a method of emancipatory learning, with the intention of empowering the marginalised and oppressed to achieve social transformation. (Can I really position teaching academics as oppressed in their relation to the institution?) To add to the subversion, I also intend to pursue alternative forms of publishing practice-based doctoral research.

So – I’m designing a praxis-based methodology investigating creativity in teaching and learning across a range of disciplines in higher education. As a creative practitioner (in visual arts), I am particularly interested in how creativity might apply to the research process as well as to teaching and learning. This praxis-based study will investigate and develop my own (creative teaching) practice as well as that of participants in the study, who will be working on developing creativity in their teaching and in student learning.

New forms of presentation and publication of academic research are emerging (See for instance Sarah Thorneycroft’s presentation at ascilite conference a few months ago). A proliferation of doctoral studies in creative disciplines is also pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable in methods and formats for academic publishing. Publication media are also expanding beyond printed text to include online publication, multimedia and time-based media. All this has implications for disciplines where investigation and development of practice is a valid focus for research – including education.

A practice-based thesis in a creative discipline, for instance visual art, has evolved to be generally in the form of an exhibition (or performance) accompanied by exegesis – that is a body of work is developed and presented, its place in art theory and practice is researched, and its bid for acceptance as ‘original’ is justified and tested. This would ‘normally’ investigate the work of the individual artist who is engaged in the research.

A distinction has been made between practice-based research and practice-led research. In the first, new knowledge is generated through practice, the results of that practice are included in the research outputs, while in the second the investigation is into practice itself, how practice happens and leads to new understandings about practice. In my study I intend a participatory action research approach, in which participants collaborate in researching their own and each others’ practice. So this seems to better fit the definition of practice-led research. Practice-based research is dependent upon development of the creative artefact. However, creative artefacts generated in practice-led research may be no less worthy of inclusion in doctoral ‘publication’. Here’s a useful way of comparing action research with praxis-based research.

To exemplify creative practice, and creative research, the publication mode should also be creative – not simply, for example, a set of case study reports within my conceptual shell. Thinking out loud:

  • Critical reflective activity will be narrative based, with participants encouraged to be creative in presentation of their narratives – use of metaphor, creative writing, imagery etc to be encouraged. This data can be aggregated by each participant in the form of digital storytelling, published online rather than in printed text. (Could this include recording of classroom interaction? If I can get it through ethics …)
  • Participants will be supported to take a creative research approach to this activity – they will be encouraged to bring their own creative ideas to the design of the research activity.
  • Thesis publication will be in the form of online case studies and reflections (digital storytelling) produced by the participants (including myself), accompanied by my analysis of how the methodology worked, and a revised framework for managing creative praxis in HE teaching and learning.
  • The hub of creativity is preparedness to take risks – how can that be reflected in the research methodology and final form?

I’m about to embark on a bunch of reading about Creative research approaches and Practice-based thesis, so look forward to seeing what other have done.