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Most effective pedagogic technique ever or 21st century cannon fodder processor?

As Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA) director Rob Ward reminded the audience, the dream of a lifelong learning record is hardly new. Yet considerable political will at the national and European level, combined with an increasingly networked world and maturing technical standards mean that the dream is getting rather closer now. But what about the nightmare scenarios of invaded privacy, litigated universities, and co-erced or apathetic learners? The CETIS pedagogy forum organised a debate to consider the consequences.

The motion: "This house believes that eportfolios offer huge pedagogic and social benefits for people in a modern society, and all efforts should be made to make them a reality as soon as possible"

In the proposing corner: Rob Ward and CETIS Learner Information SIG coordinator Peter Rees Jones

In the opposing corner: Professor of Technology Supported Learning Mark Stiles and Senior Research Fellow in IT and Law and Director of the Centre for IT and Law (CITL) Andrew Charlesworth.

First round

Ducking the easy accusation of being a starry eyed techno-utopian, Rob lays out his pedagogic credentials. The point is not that the technology can solve all problems, but it can help support real life. Having an electronic record of achievement can clearly support the real life business of lifelong learning. Both by making those achievements readily accessible to others —if required— and by enabling better awareness of, reflection on and control over the direction of one's own development in life.

Sidestepping a slew of objections by claiming to be a "yes, and" rather than a "yes, but" man, he starts challenging the opposition by reminding them that we are all in the business of people development. That effort can be made to happen with innovations like Personal Development Planning. It'd be negligence to reject them out of hand.

Going straight for the killer blow now, Rob cites a recent review study by involving more than 14,000 references that concluded that personal development planning is one of the most consistently effective improvements to students' academic learning and achievement yet surveyed.

Covering his back with buzzword compliance, Rob also points out that an ePortfolio is a key tool in the social inclusion agenda. By making both formal and personal development achievements truly portable across different institutions and life stages, the barrier-to-entry of learning becomes that much lower. It should also help fit learning to someone's situation rather than the other way round.

With the end of the first round in sight, he tidies up by referring to the bitiness of PDP and ePortfolio developments so far. Things have been tried out sufficiently, it is time for proper concerted effort.

Mark Stiles, unfazed, immediately counters the main blow: PDP maybe pedagogically effective, but where's the killer app? From the point of view of a student, what purpose do ePortfolios have other than providing a slightly long-winded way of building a CV for job interviews? Given that the interesting and pedagogically effective part of ePortfolios is the personal development planning process, how much evidence do we have of people able and willing to do that? Furthermore, if there are a privileged few who are capable, aren't we making second class citizens out of those who aren't?

On a roll now, Mark keeps the unanswered questions coming thick and fast. What are the resource implications to institutions of the UK government's commitment to the HE progress file? What will be cut to make this happen? Why, exactly, is central government actually interested in ePortfolios to begin with? Is it really to do with a learner centric focus, or is it more because it would tie in nicely with all the other central data that it is being gathered about citizens? After all, once all these ePortfolios become nationally linked, you'll effectively have a national system for administrating cannon fodder for the post modern society. People would effectively become their ePortfolio.

Finishing the barrage with the main point, Mark states simply that we can't risk trying this out before we have more answers to such pertinent questions.

Second round

Casually characterising the opponents' line of argument as a bit like a nineteenth century ghostride with rather shallow special effects, Peter Rees-Jones unleashes a bit of a scare himself: ePortfolio development is not just some UK-only concern at some point in the future, it is an EU wide requirement as of December.

Rolling on, and catching the blow about governments' intentions with lifelong learning records at the same time, Peter argues that it is up to us to subvert any damaging policy trends. We have the power to shape personal development planning for good if we act now. It's been done before.

Nor, he continues, is it all that difficult to roll out. It is a generational thing: young lecturers easily see the benefit of reflection on learning development and integrate the tools in their practice with little trouble.

Rounding up the proponents' stint, Peter calls on all to consider what personal development planning can do for learners and empower them.

Andrew Charlesworth quickly tries to take the wind out of that argument by accusing the proponents of being over-optimistic and hinting about what happens when utopian visions are combined with actual policy. Particularly when the policymakers are national, never mind European.

Seeking to exploit a weak point, Andrew moves on by pointing out that the has seen no evidence of actual learners being consulted or showing an interest in the whole development. A point somewhat deflated later on by the fact that a good many show up in the audience. Quite a few of whom are the kind of lifelong learners for which personal development planning is intended.

Alluding to a lack of buy-in to the process from the upper echelons, Andrew continues by decrying a worrying lack of knowledge (or care) among key stakeholders. Particularly those who will have to manage and deploy the actual PDP supporting systems, such as vice-chancellors or heads of IS departments. In short: we live in the real world and it is time for a reality check.

The audience

Of the various arguments, it was the perceived lack of buy-in that chimed with one part of the audience. Also in such practical matters as getting examination board inspectors to accept electronic rather than paper evidence.

Other than that, some people object to the yoking together of the formal transcript of grades and qualifications ("useless pile of paper in electronic form") with the much more interesting and effective personal development planning side. Separating the former from the latter would address many of the objections.

Other concerns focus on the technical format that a lifelong learning format will take: quite a few practitioners fear that a standardised ePortfolio will not be able to adequately support their existing practice. Some even wondered what a standardised format would offer over more freeform technologies such as plain vanilla HTML homepages or even IMS Learning Design.

On the more directly positive side, it was felt that if a standard ePortfolio is to be rolled out, "we need to bite the bullet and provide the trained manpower".

Directly from the proponent camp came the one rebuttal of the cannon fodder argument: "I'd rather people think that I'm my record than my degree class"

Conclusion

In the final salvo, the proponents chose to point to the opponents' lack of alternatives or solutions. Time to move on, and solve those issues, they concluded.

The opponents last stand was exactly on those unresolved issues; particularly the scope for abuse of a national learning record by those in power.

To no avail, though, as the result of the final vote was 23 for against 19. The motion is carried.

Resources

All the presentations of the debate and much more besides is available from the Pedagogy Forum pages.

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