Last week I was fortunate enough to attend the first ever joint AAEEBL and CRA conference, hosted in Edinburgh between 6th – 8th June 2016. For those who don’t already know AAEEBL is a US based global portfolio organisation, it stands for the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence Based Learning. CRA is a very similar UK based organisation, with it’s name standing for the Centre for Recording Achievement. So, as you can imagine this was a portfolio conference.
I must pause here to note that one of the nicest things was that this was a portfolio conference and not a tool specific conference. That will be reiterated when I start to look at some of the key themes.
It was a wonderful three day event, that had an unusual but very beneficial structure to it. The first day everyone was together, with a single strand and there were lots of session that focused on getting us to talk in small groups or rotate around the room going to different discussions and making notes on table cloths. The second day was a more conventional conference day, with a joint keynote in the morning and then multiple strands (5 strands in fact) running through the day. The third and final day then brought us all together again in a single strand with more opportunities for collaboration. This meant that everyone had a different conference experience and so we could contribute different things to discussions on the last day, based on the sessions we had seen the day before. It was a very conversational conference, and although there was not much time to chat in between sessions the workshops and even presentation were delivered in such a way that it facilitated further discussions and thoughts.
To avoid this post being too long, I am going to move swiftly into the key themes that came out of the conference for me, so that I can then explore each of these in some more detail. For me there were 3 key themes, that kept popping up in presentations and discussion and these were:
Structure/ scaffolding/ frameworks
Process not product
Cultural shift/ change
Let’s dive in and look at these in a bit more detail, starting with Structure/ scaffolding/ frameworks. When talking about portfolios it can be easy to get carried away in their potential for creativity and exploration. However it is important not to forget, that anecdotally at least, students can find this openness very overwhelming. Indeed staff might also need some guidance in how to utilise this learning format. Therefore it is very important to provide some scaffolding, to at least get people started with using portfolios. At the conference there was some talk about templates, as well as frameworks for developing effective portfolios both for single assignments and for on-going holistic learning.
The next one might be my biggest take away from the event, and that is the idea of ‘process not product’. By this I mean that it is important we focus on the process of portfolios and not which product we might be using the facilitate them. In my experience it is all too easy to become distracted by making sure you are using the best possible system. But whether it is Mahara, PebblePad, WordPress or Weebly, the important thing is the process of creating a portfolio and all of it’s learning benefits. Moving forward I intend to take this as good advice and start work on a framework for portfolios that looks at practice and just refers to tools guidance in the footnotes when required. At the end of the day, most of the tools do very similar things and it is about ensuring the pedagogy and practice are applied effectively.
The final theme, but perhaps the hardest thing to tackle is the need for a cultural shift, for a change. This is hard to achieve. It struck me whilst discussing this at the conference that portfolios can often surface a lot of insecurities, both on the path of the students (having to be so open and conscious about their learning) and the staff (changing their practice and possibly highlighting weaknesses). Therefore it would seem that a possible step towards this change would be by surfacing and recognising existing practice. It is easy for us to get carried away with the potential for portfolios, especially when we have been talking about them for so long, but it is important to remember that although the conversation is old for us it is new for some others. We should not run into academic’s offices and tell them they have to change the way they work. This is scary, intimidating and quite frankly off-putting. Instead we might want to go in and highlight stuff they are already doing that is ‘portfolio-like’ or maybe even just informal portfolio work. By highlighting and praising this existing good practice you are more likely to make people feel positive and encourage them to expand upon that existing practice. It might be easier to teardown a building and start again, but that can take a lot of work and often isn’t practical. Instead you need to work with what you have, but eventually you can completely transform a space, without having the tear it down.
I will finish this post with a last analogy, and this one is not mine. This analogy was used by Trent Batson at the conference and I think it is helpful. He was talking about the American automobile and how it took 35 years to become fully part of US culture. First they invented the automobile and it opened up a lot of possibilities, such as people being able to commute more easily for work. But even after this it still took time to build all the roads, parking spaces and petrol stations needed. The idea was proven but it took a lot longer for the infrastructure to become part of daily culture.
I use Twitter to take my notes and then archive them, and all the Twitter interaction I had afterwards via Storify. So if you’d like to see what I was thinking and sharing during the conference please see my AAEEBL/ CRA 2016 Storify.