The Riipen team met Tracy Penny Light at the annual conference of the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) which Tracy (as Board Chair) was hosting at Capilano University last July.
This has become one of our favorite conferences and we can’t wait for next year’s event! Why do we get so excited about ePortfolios and experiential learning? Because ePortfolios are an amazing way to capture and convey student experiences. They’re equally powerful for educators.
Tracy’s long-standing love affair with ePortfolios is emblematic of how this idea has become mainstream over the past two decades. Schools and universities across North America now offer ePortfolios as the norm for their students, but it wasn’t always that way.
When Tracy first started working on ePortfolios in 2003, based at the Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence (where she did her PhD), the response from instructors was often “we don’t really do that.” Experiential learning was limited largely to co-op, and portfolios were only used in a few disciplines, like architecture.
The innovative group at Waterloo, led by then-Director of the Centre for Learning and Teaching through Technology (LT3) Thomas Carey, dove deep into ePortfolios as a means of rethinking teaching itself. ePortfolios differ, Tracy was keen to stress, from co-curricular records, which are often a list or checklist on a piece of paper (similar to a transcript). While ePortfolios allow students to document their learning in both curricular and co-curricular contexts, their main affordance is that they foster folio thinking, a reflective practice that encourages students to integrate their learning experiences to develop their intellectual and social identities (Penny Light, Chen, & Ittelson, Documenting Learning with ePortfolios, 2012).
Folio thinking led Tracy and her colleagues to ask different questions about learning. “We asked ourselves questions almost no one else was asking,” remembers Tracy. “What does it mean to teach and learn in a discipline? For example, what does it mean to think historically and “do” history in the age of the internet?”
Experiential learning was a natural fit with ePortfolios, and through ongoing experimentation at Waterloo, Tracy tried out different approaches, like bringing ePortfolios into Waterloo’s renowned co-op program in order to close the loop between co-op and the classroom experience. Her group also tested ePortfolios in various disciplines, like accounting, where they used experiential learning to help accounting students develop and demonstrate more soft skills.
Then, the lightbulb went off. Tracy remembers: “Gee-most of our students work! Maybe we should ask them what they have learned, and where else they were learning! Maybe they could take that learning into the classroom and vice versa!”
Closing the loop between the campus and the bigger world out there was now a possibility. So, too, was a vision of integrating learning and classroom experiences across our entire lifespan.
Across North America, other innovators were experimenting with similar ideas. Enter AAEEBL, which is the professional development community for ePortfolio aficionados. AAEEBL brings together a wide diversity of portfolios (the “learning” portfolio versus the “showcase” portfolio, for example). But a shared commitment is the demonstration of folio thinking (reflective thinking): a hallmark of experiential learning.
As Tracy puts it: “AAEEBL leaders always ask: “What did you learn from this? How can you take this away into other contexts? This is about process as well as products, and about both being and doing.”
AAEEBL members walk the talk. Most have their own portfolios (in fact, Tracy has multiple portfolios, including her yoga teacher portfolio!). They also mentor students by sharing their ePortfolios, and coaching the leadership at educational institutions as they bring ePortfolios to their communities.
Tracy now coordinates the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Thompson Rivers University. Through her work with AAEEBL, she helps students and instructors around the world develop ePortfolio programs, which are the norm on many campuses.
“Not everyone needs to engage in experiential learning or have an ePortfolio but we do need to scaffold this kind of thinking into every single program at university. We’re really failing them if we don’t do that.”