Why Web Portfolios?

Philosophy and Rationale for Maintaining Work on the Web

  • Demonstrating Coherence
  • Developing a sense for connections
  • Developing a habit of reflectiveness
  • Developing intellectual community
  • Connecting to other communities

One of the chief challenges in the design of an individualized major is demonstrating the coherence of the particular learning experiences included in a student’s plan.  Established disciplines, departments, and programs all vouch for the coherence of the courses that constitute major studies in their areas.  Thus it is institutional confidence in the collective good judgement of the chemistry faculty (for example) that assures us that the sequence of required courses for the chemistry major hangs together.  But what assures us that the courses in an individualized major hang together? 

Web portfolios are an important mechanism for discovering and demonstrating the principle of coherence behind each student’s major. Just as a paper portfolio may demonstrate the coherence of a body of work, simply by juxtaposing important pieces of it, a web portfolio places important pieces of work side by side in a digital folder.  But hyperlinks-the distinguishing feature of any web medium-exhibit the direct, tangible connections a student recognizes among the many parts of their work.  These connections may be imaginative, emotional, or informational.  They may link parts of the portfolio internally, or they may link the portfolio to other sites of meaning.  Not only do the portfolios nurture students’ consciousness of the interrelatedness of their own work, but by facilitating the recognition of links between different students’ work, the portfolios create a “web community” of learning among students pursuing individualized studies. 

Such a portfolio is both a documentary and a cognitive achievement.  As a documentary, it records and organizes significant work throughout students’ careers.  As a cognitive achievement, it both nurtures and records students’ efforts to understand the inner relationships of the work they have done.  It promotes meaningful retrospection on work completed, and meaningful anticipation of work yet to be done.  It encourages students to notice and cultivate connections within their work.  It helps them situate their work in the context of other sites of meaning and debate.  And it promotes the construction of translations between diverse modes of presentation and reflection (for example, through the links that could be built from humanities texts to reports of empirical research, or to visual representations). 

Besides demonstrating a student’s grasp of the central subject of their studies, web portfolios promote four goals of liberal learning: recognizing connections, being reflective about intellectual and personal growth, building intellectual community, and building bridges to communities outside the academy. 

First, by permitting students to build links among the several parts of their work, web technology can foster connected learning.   In trying to explain the power of metaphor, Aristotle referred to what he called the “genius” of recognizing similarity in dissimilars.  The liberal arts have always sought to develop the capacity for recognizing and interpreting unsuspected connections between apparently dissimilar phenomena; in the same vein we seek to remain open to connections among subjects or methods whose relationships may not be guaranteed by institutional structures like established departments.  For example, a student whose literature class reads Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might find herself thinking in an unexpected way about a unit on genetic engineering in a biology class-and vice versa.  Although the college makes no promise of coherence between literature and biology classes, students often discover meaningful connections of their own.  And web portfolios increase the likelihood that students will capitalize on such opportunities when they arise. 

Second, collecting and linking work from different stages in a student’s career  promotes a desirable reflexivity about the unfolding meaning of their education.  At its best, liberal arts learning always involves the experience of returning to something learned in the past to reexamine it in light of further learning.  Because they are a living archive, web portfolios promote this continuing reflectiveness about the progress of a student’s work. 

Third, the program of web portfolios  links all student portfolios in an intranet that allows students to read and view each other’s work, and to build links to other students’ portfolios into their own.  Maintaining web portfolios thus fosters intellectual community in important ways.   Because they situate their work in the context of their peers’ work, students take both their own and their peers’ work far more seriously.  Their sense of audience is augmented, so that they are no longer writing only to meet their course instructors’ expectations, but also writing to say something to a community of fellow learners. 

Finally, because web portfolios  include not only internal links, but also links to external sites of meaning and debate on the world wide web, they promote civic bridge-building.  A pressing challenge for proponents of liberal arts education is to demonstrate how discussions on our campuses relate to issues in the wider world.  For students, locating their work in relation to other public sites prompts valuable relationships between classroom experiences, and a wider array of personal and public opportunities.

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