Revisiting Social Portfolios

I am digging on diigo in such a huge way right now. There is a whole new energy coming from my colleagues across PSU and their use of diigo as a place to not only save bookmarks, but to have great conversations. This week I have watched a really smart discussion relative to lecture capture happening there … a conversation with participation that might not have happened just a few months ago.

I am also really liking being part of a larger network that can expose me to stuff I have missed. Case in point, my friend and colleague, Jeff Swain was quoted in this Campus Technology piece titled, Evolving ePortfolio at Penn State. I love reading Jeff’s comments and how much they underscore the ideas formed with our TLT Faculty Fellow, Dr. Carla Zembal-Saul. Carla’s thinking when she came to us was that portfolios shouldn’t only be about the individual, but about the affordances that the modern web has to offer — specifically the social opportunities. Carla’s vision and leadership pushed us all to move from the world of, “collect, select, and reflect” into the ever expanding Universe of ongoing reflection.

“When blogs, social networking and other interactive technologies came along, we tweaked our e-portfolio initiative,” said Jeff Swain, innovation consultant for the university. “We wanted students to be able to develop interactive, online portfolios that would be able to stay and grow with them throughout their college careers, and beyond.”

I have been reminded of this recently in my own life as I have moved back to this wordpress space for my own blog and quasi portfolio — this is my social time machine. I spent the better part of two hours last night sitting and digging through my own past, reading the words I wrote six and seven years ago and marveling at how much has changed and stayed the same. Carla’s work was such a natural fit for us several years ago and is still such a powerful concept as we move forward.

I am constantly torn with the notion that we should provide these spaces for students to use as portfolios — I mean at the end of the day it might make sense for them to be in public (non edu) spaces so they can be part of their own long-term ownership and not locked into our own infrastructure. I guess at the moment I still think it is important that we provide these spaces as a place to get started. I can’t even imagine if I would have been able to start writing in my own space when I was in college and would have access to revisit all that stuff today. If I am amazed at my growth from 2004 to now, imagine how I would feel being able to look back 20 years. If I then layer on it the ability to read the comments of the various people I had come into contact with during that same time I would have a real story to read through. And I bet I would understand myself that much better.

No matter how you slice it, the web has given us a platform that demands public identities and in the framework of the academy, public scholarship. I am thrilled I have my personal time machine and I think both Carla and Jeff are so smart to continue to press our populations to participate in the notion of ongoing reflection. The notion of personal publishing is a critical one for us all to continue to investigate and participate in. Blogging isn’t dead and it certainly has so much value in ways that we are all still working to understand. I am thrilled to have access to my past and thrilled to be connected to people like Jeff and Carla as I ponder the future.

Horizontal Contributions

Since I am thinking in a very Google Wave like mode I thought I’d share another thought related to the tectonic change that platform may inspire. In the days after watching the video of the Wave demo I’ve been finding myself thinking about how much of our online cnversations we are missing. In the Universe the Wave has led us to conversations happen in lots of places, but are instantly available in one central place — the Wave client. What I mean is that I can start a Wave, embed it in a page, and let people contribute from all over the place. The power in what I am understanding this whole thing to look like is that these contributions are not only available in the context of the submission (perhaps a comment on an embedded wave on a blog), but also in the original Wave. What I am pulling from this is that I can, via my Wave client, revisit my social contributions in context without revisiting all the sites. Just this idea has me really spinning.

So if I apply this to the notion of the traditional blogging platform I can see where this could be really important. Here at PSU we promote our Blogs at Penn State as a publishing platform … one that is powering new forms of ePortfolios. Last summer while working with Carla Zembal-Saul we explored and shared the idea that the portfolio is more than a single person’s thinking, but also a place to engage conversations. So if we look at the fact that someone commenting enhances my own artifact, then shouldn’t we think about the comments we leave elsewhere as part of our overall evidence as well?

If I think about it, lots of times I stumble across an old blog post someone created that I’ve commented on at one point and I’ve forgotten. Sometimes I read those comments and think that I should have a way to move that content back into my own space — even if it means I can only review it out of the context of the original post. With all that said, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll call horizontal contributions. In a vertical sense we contribute original posts in our own space and people comment on them. Then if I show up at your blog, I can contribute a comment in that same vertical sense. In a horizontal model I have some sort of tracking that allows me to see not only all my own posts, but also my comments across the entire web. This would give an opportunity to gather these as further evidence of my overall contributions online.

This isn’t Wave specific per se as there are third party commenting engines that do stuff like this — if everyone on the social web used them. I’m not promoting a tool like Disqus for general use, but in an environment like ours we could easily replace our MT commenting engine with a third party one. It would be integrated into the templates so it would be invisible to users. What would need to happen is shibboleth integration, but we’ve done that before. I think it is something we’ll explore … and if we do I’ll be sure to share what we find. What do you think about this thinking? Crazy talk or is there something to it?

Supplemental Activity

So after my post the other day where I was lamenting the lack of opportunities I see for engagement in the school system I got a handful of comments telling me the same thing — “take matters into your own hands.” Good advice and it really got me thinking about some things. My wife and I have always spent time reading with our daughter … as a matter of fact, the little lady has always really been into reading, talking, singing, and all sorts of other really creative and engaging activities. She pushes us more than we push her and that is really cool. But, I’ve never really taken the time to bring my own interests, research, and perspectives home to her.

Night before last, she and I sat down at the kids’ eMac and opened up iWeb for the first time. I decided that I was going to find a way to work with her to create a digital portfolio, journal, blog, or whatever where she and I could spend time reflecting on the work she was doing in school, the things she was thinking about, or anything in between. The goal for me is to get her used to the idea of actively reflecting on her activity in an ongoing way. As a sidebar, I personally think it is an incredible opportunity to develop a life-long story about her intellectual development … that is, if it sticks.

So we created a website with iWeb and published it into a password protected space within my .Me account. Very easy and relatively flexible. The real win here is that with only a little instruction she is getting the hang of it. Last night, for example, she wanted to publish a story reflecting on her kitty, Misty. We sat at the desk searching for a picture at Flickr tagged Misty and she dragged it into iWeb. She then proceeded to dictate the words and I was surprised how she spent time really reflecting on what Misty had meant to her … Misty passed away almost two years ago. The time we spent reflecting was good for both of us. She talked while I typed, but then ran and got her Mother so she could read her reflection to her. She was really proud and I was happy to have spent the extra time with her.

The other thing we’re trying to do is capture some of her analog work and put it into her space. Two nights ago she was showing me a picture and the story she wrote to accompany it on a piece of paper. I grabbed the camera and snapped a picture of it. She helped me import it and drag it into iWeb. She then told me the story of how she drew it, what it meant to her, and when I asked her where the story came from, she looked at me at said, “from my mind.” I probably should have known that. Either way it is reflection and that is something I now can trust she is engaging in.

The Six Children

The Six Children

Scholar Blogging

As I type, members of the ETS staff are working with a group of students from the Penn State Schreyer’s Honors College to get them going on a very cool new project we are a part of. About a year ago, I was having lunch with Dean Chris Brady from SHC and we started talking about how important it is for students to think critically about the things they are learning both in and out of the classroom. The thing Dean Brady talks about is the importance of the things that go on outside of the classrooms in an honors education. We talked about how powerful blogs could be as ePortfolios and really looked at how categories could be easily used to link program goals and outcomes to student posts. We promised each other we’d find a way to make it happen.

A year later and I am thrilled to see we are launching a pilot with first year Honor Scholars who self selected in based on a great post by Dean Brady that will see them posting their learning and life experiences over the course of the semester, year, and perhaps their entire college career. One of the key ingredients here is the linkage between the SHC mission and the students’ reflections. Scholars will use the three main themes of the mission as categories … these themes are:

  • Achieving academic excellence
  • Building a global perspective
  • Creating opportunities for leadership and civic engagement

So as the Scholars move through their academic careers they will reflect on events in an ongoing fashion and critically select the categories that match the experience. The other piece that makes this very interesting is how Dean Brady envisions these Scholars’ advisors using the portfolios to assist in academic advising. The way it typically works is that as a student comes to visit an advisor for a meeting, the advisor pulls the transcripts and talks to the student about their curricular progress. With the added notion of the category driven portfolio, these same advisors can quickly use the categories to filter content and get a more complete look at how the student is progressing through their college career. I am very eager to see this take shape.

My colleague, Erin Long, is the lead instructional designer working on the project with the Scholars. She wrote a post that outlines some of the things we’ll be asking the Scholars to think about as they participate. I like situations where we end up with “wins” on multiple levels — students thinking critically about their intellectual development, faculty more actively participating in the advising expereicne, and us getting honest feedback in a real world use of the technology. We’ll be reporting back throughout the year … are there other things we should be considering along the way?

What’s in a Number?

Sometime week before last I posted a little screen capture from the Blogs at Penn State admin dashboard showing some basic system stats. I published the screen capture without comment — I wasn’t really sure what the numbers really represented — what is an “Active Author” for example? Take a look at today’s stats below …


Last week I was lucky enough to give a guest lecture in my good friend, Bart Pursel’s, IST 110 class. I used to teach IST 110 nearly every semester while I was at the College of IST. As a matter of fact, I had a big hand in the design of the course — my team built the first hybrid offering of the course that took full advantage of the web, a problem-based learning approach, and new ways of thinking about how faculty and students should interact. Let’s just say I feel very attached to the course and the kinds of students it attracts. This class was no different — 50 or so very smart students all wanting to talk, engage, and discuss nearly every point I tried to make. Bart is doing a great job with the students … introducing them to all sorts of technology — from blogs and wikis to podcasts and virtual worlds. He is taking a week by week approach to ask them to work and interact with different technologies throughout the semester. Each time I said, “do you know about X” they would all say yes. It was nice talking to students who seem to be in the know.

When I got to blogs I was trying to make my point that these tools are really personal content management tools and not just there for random thoughts. I showed a slide that has little thought bubbles that list all sorts of opportunities for using a PSU Blog … things like ePortfolio, note taking, team work spaces, and more are represented on the slide.


Bart stopped me and asked the class if any of the students had posted since the lessons on activating and using the blogs — not a single person raised their hands. Not one. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Either was Bart … he wrote about it late last weekend and I left a comment there. It has me thinking more about the whole situation and I am wondering how others feel about a couple of fundamental questions.

The first question that hit me over the head is related to something I started to think about recently — can we honestly expect them to “come over to our stuff” just because we build it? This isn’t the same old issue with them showing up with accounts at Blogger, FaceBook, MySpace, and others … this to me is about giving them a real reason to use our tools. I am continuing to attempt to rebrand the blog and when I have a chance to really talk the concept through with people they do get it. I am just not sure how to make the message clear without having to deliver it … that one is confusing me. In my opinion the thing that needs to happen is that students must be asked to integrate the technology into their classes in a meaningful way. I saw a great site created with the Blogs at Penn State the other day from a woman who runs the PSU Alumni Magazine … she used the Blogs as a tool to track her journey through Alaska. It is a wonderful example of how a blog tool allowed someone to create an experience — in this case it had nothing to do with anything other than the content … and that published content was born out of the need to share.

The second question I have is related to getting people engaged in this idea of how we drive adoption in the “blogs for ePortfolio” space … my post last week about it seemed to capture a little mindshare among more than a handful of people and it served as a great basis for a discussion (and the emergence of an opportunity) today during a lunch meeting. The idea that we could get faculty and students really working together to create a plan that helps track intellectual and personal development was little more than a pipe dream for me last week. After today’s lunch meeting I think we have at least two opportunities to make this real. The first came from a colleague in the College of Education who has been committed to ePortfolio for much longer than I have been thinking about. She will find a way to make it all go because it all makes sense to her … I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get others to consider this form of portfolio space. Today’s opportunity will be a step towards the larger goal of getting new people interested in how we do this. It won’t be a huge project, but both opportunities could prove to be tipping points.

Can we do it with big numbers? I have no idea, but that question brings me back to where all this started … what’s in a number? Does counting … count? If turning 1000 students out of 45,000 into people who care enough about their development that they are willing to use our stuff to store, manage, and reflect on their stuff are we being successful? And if I look back at my slide pasted up there would 1,000 using it for portfolio, another 1,000 using it for note taking, another 1,000 for sharing videos they’ve made, another 1,000 using it to manage teamwork, and so on really matter? When that adds up we have something to report. Until then, can it be classified as a bad decision to pursue this opportunity? Not in my book — by any measure progress is what I am after. And looking at my little system screen capture tells me we have made progress already. If you’ve read this far, you might as well leave a comment with some thoughts.