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 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.

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.

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.

Following the sun

Here’s an interesting online conference:
Follow the Sun
Online Learning Futures Festival – Futures for Knowledge
27–30 March 2012

I’ve updated this poster that I first prepared when starting out on my PhD:

The creative graduate

The creative graduate

Would like to do an new version using ‘rhizome’ rather than ‘tree‘ visual metaphor, although I think kaleidoscope still works … and this quote from Dante fits the nature of the PhD journey quite well, too:

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)

Here’s the whole of the text.

Madness vs. method

Elemental geometry

Elemental geometry © Belinda Allen

Dabbling around in some critical approaches to creativity, I came across Kerry Thomas from UNSW, who has published some papers looking at creativity in senior secondary art teaching from a sociological viewpoint, eg:

  • Creativity as the Exchange of Symbolic Capital in the Transactions between an Art Teacher and his Senior Art Students (2002)
  • Creativity as a Kind of Inferential Social Reasoning in the Transactions Between Art Teachers and their Art Students in the Final Year of Schooling (2006)
  • Creativity as a Function of Open Secretiveness, Denial and Euphemisation in the Transactions between Art and Design Teachers and their Students (2007)

These all look at the disjunction between the ‘teaching’ and the ‘learning’ that manifest in a ‘misrecognition’ of teacher agency. This stems from a fundamental contradiction at the heart of ‘teaching’ creativity.

In her paper ‘Can creativity be taught and learned?’ (2007), Thomas clearly articulates this paradox that lies at the heart of all suggestions that creativity can be taught and measured:

Senior art students and their art teachers are caught in a bind. On the one hand students are obliged by their art teachers and the conditions of final year assessment to find creative autonomy inside of their own intentional resources. On the other hand they, with increasing maturity and social awareness, begin to realise that their creativity is rewarded with its conformity to the values of art education convention. Similarly, art teachers are utterly aware that while they need to fulfil the expectations of their students as creative artists they also need to meet their professional obligations to instructional outcomes. How do students and their art teachers overcome the contradictions implicit in teaching and learning creativity? (, K.pdf)

Thomas goes on to propose that particular social and cultural strategies have developed so that learners and teachers can manage these contradictions. The traditional critique session in the art studio becomes a rehearsal of roles.

For me, this fraught situation illustrates why a highly-structured and standards-based system of education has inevitably led to a general undermining of creative outcomes (as expressed  so eloquently by Ken Robinson). Creativity may be characterised by the taking of risks, by non-conformism, even by subversion and destructiveness. How is a standards-based assessment regime supposed to measure that? However, what separates such acts from mere delinquency is the ability of the perpetrator to harness these for the purpose of some kind of formal outcome – a book, a painting, an engineering design, a business plan, a musical performance – a method to the madness, if you like. Education for creativity then must ideally provide an environment that supports a disposition of non-conformism and risk-taking, and rewards the discipline brought to the ‘creation’.

Multiple paths to an unknown destination


Entanglement © Belinda Allen

The antecedents for my thinking of how creativity fits into higher education begin with Dewey, and traverse Habermas, Bourdieu, Giroux, Kemmis and McLean. These theorists are not specifically concerned with creativity, but with critical pedagogy, cultural production, praxis, and the transformative nature of learning.

So how does this relate to creativity?

Of all the multiple perspectives on creativity there are two that seem robust and useful, and not coloured by social, political or ideological agendas. Firstly the concept of creativity as a disposition: more than a process or a product, it is a way of seeing, of being, and of acting in a particular way in a given situation that can be identified as ‘creative’ (eg Torrance, Amabile). Secondly the concept of creativity as systemic: dependent on a range of factors that are beyond the individual, such as the environment, colleagues, prior work in the field, and the opportunities for action, collaboration and recognition (eg Csikszentmihalyi, Simonton). But I do have a third perspective, one that is perhaps more ideologically coloured. The dimensions of creativity that relate to personal and social ‘good’ seem neglected in recent discourse that focuses on the economic benefits of developing a creative workforce (eg, Pink, McWilliam). Of course there may be related personal good (able to participate in creative and challenging work), and social good (creative industries develop services and products that improve enjoyment of life). But my aim is for a personal good that goes beyond a hedonistic pleasure in enhanced lifestyle, seeking to support personal growth and capacity for meaningful contribution, and a social good that raises collective awareness of social, political and environmental situations and brings creativity to designing solutions for (or ways of living with) urgent and wicked problems (eg, McLaren, Giroux).

This third perspective is one that in its emancipatory nature owes more to the field of critical pedagogy and transformative learning than to creativity studies. Since its origins in a Marxist approach to literacy education, critical pedagogy has been harnessed to a range of interests, such as feminism, counter-racism and environmentalism. Creativity has tended to be sidelined as a tangential interest, or critiqued as a product of white, middle-class liberal arts education. But I believe that the emancipatory potential of creativity as both a focus and a strategy for critical pedagogy is under-explored (Pope, 2005).

I am interested in:

the creative graduate – how do they act, what are the environmental factors that support or inhibit their creativity, and what agendas does their creativity service?

the creative teacher – how can teaching as a creative act promote and support the development of creativity in learners? How can development of creativity empower teachers to promote a social justice agenda?

the creative researcher – how can a critically creative/creatively critical  approach to research in learning and teaching support creative development of learners and teachers?

creative technologies – what is the role of technology in enabling creativity in learning, teaching and research?

The research question:

How can a critical approach to the development of creativity in higher education contribute to the promotion of personal and social good in learning, teaching and research?

A dog of my own …

At the Coorong

At the Coorong © Belinda Allen

Creativity – the more I read the bigger it gets. I began to think that maybe it would be better to avoid ‘creativity’ as a term altogether, as it seems to mean such different things to different people in different contexts. Now I find that Mark Runco, an eminent psychologist who specialises in creativity studies (he is editor of the Creativity Research Journal and E. Paul Torrance Chair at the Torrance Center, University of Georgia) has been there before me. In his recent review of the research, ‘Creativity’, he says that he too thought that ‘creativity’ was just too ambiguous to be useful. But then he realised that ambiguity is everywhere, not only in creativity studies, but in pretty much all research endeavour. Perhaps, he says, ambiguity is inherent in scientific work, and has advantages in widening the focus of attention or as a catalyst for other work?

In the history of research on creativity there have been a multiplicity of approaches and perspectives, and Runco does a great job of unpacking these. In the past there have been studies focusing on how intelligence and creativity are correlated, and whether creativity is just an aspect of intelligence. This reductionist approach diminishes our understandings of both – just as Gardner has suggested that there are multiple dimensions of intelligence, Runco seems to suggest (as does Sternberg) that there are multiple creativities …

Of course, one of the things I now need to do is to focus in and frame a ‘manageable’ research question. The proliferation of interesting tangents and subtopics that I come across in the literature is one of the problems – any one of these may turn out to be a really productive focus, but I can’t follow them all. Another problem is that just when I think I have pinned down an idea that is compelling, relevant and original, I find that others have been there before me. Like going at dawn to the pristine beach only to find it’s already covered in footprints. Conferences and journals are my beaches, and I find all sorts of people walking there with their dogs named ‘artography’, ‘critical creativity’, ‘creative pedagogy’ and such-like. I so want a dog of my own …

The ideas that have really been making me want to throw a stick relate to integration of creativity into practice at all levels:

  • Creativity as a graduate attribute (or disposition) across disciplines and professions.
  • Teaching as creative practice.
  • Research as creative practice.
  • Curriculum as a way to integrate all of these.

The authors who are really turning me on have such a holistic approach, and their work is framed in critical theory/critical pedagogy. I am enthused by both the personal development and social revolutionary aspects of this approach.

Reading to do: Giroux, McLaren, Pope, Higgs, Titchens et al …