ePortfolios, Durability, and the Black Binder Test

photo-0097-777243.jpgMy wife has an interview tomorrow for a position at the public high school. Tonight, she is preparing by flipping through giant black binder.

What’s in the binder? A lot of stuff. Lesson plans from her student teaching days. Photographs from an inner city school activity she helped direct. The curriculum she developed for her curriculum class, with teacher’s notes. Peer reviews. Evaluations of clinical experience. Projects from most all of her upper level classes. Work from students she’d taught. Certificates of accomplishment. And tying it all together, explanatory text describing the significance of these artifacts.

photo-0101-701838.jpgShe put this together as part of a required senior “capstone” portfolio project in Spring of 1997. I remember her assembling it, printing sheet after sheet off of floppy disks from her different coursework, flipping through dog-eared folders of past classes to find her most representative work, tracking down reviews and evaluations and lost projects, and smoothing over the rough edges and lacunae by writing up explanatory notes.

That was ten years ago. Today, she is returning to the black binder for a variety of reasons. After college, she didn’t go into public school teaching. Instead, she has made a living as a practicing artist, art blogger, and teacher of adult classes.

photo-0100-766849.jpgSo tonight, she needs to refresh her memory on the difficulties of designing a public school curriculum. She’d like a couple examples of her student work to show. She’s been told to bring lesson plans, and so she wants to raid her old student teaching ones for ideas. She’s got a recommendation from the teacher who she assisted with the inner city school project: a couple pictures from that might make what they did there clearer to the interviewers. And perhaps most importantly, she wants to show how her current work relates very directly to what she learned student teaching.

As she flips from page to page that story becomes clearer.

photo-0001-778702.jpgSo here is the great testament to the power of portfolios. It’s been ten years since she put this black binder together. And yet, this week, that binder might make the difference between her being the newest hire and her being an also-ran. And whether she gets the job or not, the activity of flipping through this binder ten years later has reintegrated her college experience into the narrative of her professional life. That’s powerful, powerful stuff.

And, here, I’m afraid, is the great disaster of ePortfolios.

photo-0098-738066.jpgBecause do we really believe that in 10 years time any student we set up will be able to access any of their work? Will students really be able to log into Blackboard, Sakai, Moodle, or Elgg and retrieve artifacts in the year 2017?

We all know the answer to that. It’s not pretty.

So it’s worth asking this question: How can we make our ePortfolio implementations pass the Black Binder Test of Durability?

[on a related note, check out Jon Udell’s larger piece on the need for durable, centralized digital assets.]