Cynthia Davidson, Stony Brook University
Those who are experienced enough with virtual environments, looking back to the days of Multi-User-Dungeons and Multi-Object-Oriented virtual societies (MUDs and MOOs), might well wonder what the current VW societies have to gain from an association with ePortfolio learning. One of the greatest appeals of virtual worlds, especially to its most prolific and creative participants, is the lack of fixed structure. Could other assignments allow for “creating, evidencing, connecting, and reflecting” in the same ways as vPortfolios? I think the answer to this is yes, they could. In fact, they must. ePortfolios do not generate assignments on their own--no more so than Facebook, a blogging site, or a web design program such as Dreamweaver—so why not use these, or allow students the freedom to pick their own orientation to digital composing? ePortfolios may, in fact, take any of the forms these programs allow. While a university may provide a program or platform that users are encouraged to adopt, doing so may not be any more of an encouragement to ePortfolio learning than adopting Blackboard is an encouragement to better course management.
ePortfolios are not a program or a platform; they are a concept in learning that comprises a series of approaches and activities on the part of learners. However, divorcing conversations about ePortfolios from programs and platforms is difficult and not necessarily sincere. As Kathleen Blake Yancey wrote in 2009:
Although e-portfolios are not themselves about technology, any technology—be it the common tool, the open source software, the homegrown system, the commercially available e-portfolio tool, or the Web 2.0 social network—is a “structured system” (Johnson 2009) and will permit or support certain kinds of activities and preclude others.
Yancey recounts the example of a Clemson student, Josh, who was asked to recreate his award-winning portfolio in Blackboard and found that the structure interfered with his ability to be creative (Weaver cited in Yancey). He was asked to do this because the non-templated Web portfolios he had designed were more difficult to assess. One of the items reported by Josh was that he felt “a loss of multiple contexts in the template approach” and he “claimed to have learned less” due to the sense that he was “regurgiat[ing] the assignments of the past semester” rather than “show[ing] that I indeed did learn something” (cited in Yancey). Yancey produced other examples of students making similar observations that the value of the ePortfolio was for them indeed in making connections among the things they had learned and demonstrating this in one place; creating the portfolio became less valuable to them as they found that they were unable to do this. Barbara Cambridge at Florida State University asserts that “Movement between [contexts] is the site of invention,” and the ePortfolio program at FSU has fostered this by creating a “matrix to organize work from multiple domains” so “students ‘translate’ their experience from one context into a larger context” (Yancey). I include these examples because the vPortfolio includes yet another context (or domain) for students to connect with what they have learned in other contexts; as well, they can integrate what they learn in the virtual world (any kind of knowledge, creative, social, etc.) back into the rest of the learning contexts.
The Burn2 exhibition by Nana is a good indication of the potential of the moving between contexts. She was making connections between several contexts of her life—there was the “stressor” part of life, with artifacts presented in the “paintings” of her gallery in the virtual environment; there was the “present moment” of the build, which demonstrated her competency at creating a multimedia environment in which to “destress” from the cares of the past; and there were her metacognitive remarks that she shared with me about the purpose of the build. What this shows me is that Second Life, in itself, could serve as the technological basis for an ePortfolio, as could a MUD or MOO—and indeed, these probably have served that purpose, whether or not their users labeled them as such. An individual who created a space in a MOO such as Lambda Moo and presented this space, created by words, as an extension of their identity with the intentions of making connections between activities in that space and their projects in other contexts would be using it similarly to an ePortfolio.
However, it does not seem likely to me that most users would want to create an ePortfolio strictly within a virtual world—either graphic, like Second Life, or verbally-constructed, like a MOO. An ePortfolio would likely need an interface outside of the virtual environment, and this is already the case with many projects that occur primarily within Second Life. (At the end of this essay, I introduce Avatrian, a company that creates artifacts for others within virtual worlds, but uses a website as its main advertising hub. The website is, in fact, their business’ ePortfolio.)