Plenty of Portfolio Pitfalls

Plenty of Portfolio Pitfalls

November 16, 2018 0 By JR

I wasn’t sure I was even going to make an entry this week as it’s already Friday and I didn’t have a clear idea of something I wanted to write about. Well, thankfully Tom Woodward has inspired me yet again as I just read his post ePortfolios: Competing Concepts. I recommend you take a read through. The way Tom positioned the competing concepts really struck me:

  • Strategy (trophy case v. progress)
  • Audience (external v. internal)
  • Ownership (institution v. student)

Tom goes on from there to talk about VCU’s Rampages, and how they might address the aforementioned tensions (oddly Feedly cut off the second part, so again, click through and read Tom’s post).

Working with students in a variety of K12 settings, as well as working in ID and Ed Development in Higher Ed for years I have seen all kinds of portfolio initiatives come and go. Sometimes portfolios for students are a mission of an individual instructor, maybe they saw a conference presentation and were genuinely interested in the idea, or perhaps it was just something cool to try. Other times it has been entire programs/departments or even colleges/faculties that require a portfolio component to all courses (schools of education are an example here). I’ve seen portfolios managed by the school system that was basically record keeping of student activity (a giant checklist and time keeper), and portfolios that were a Hodge-podge of Mahara sites that were abandoned as soon as the requirement to use it dropped away.

One of the major pitfalls, as I see it, is that when portfolios are adopted in some way that the tensions Tom mentions, or even a purpose has not been thoroughly thought through. A portfolio in much of higher ed means something different to everyone. If you’ve talked with me in person about this you have already heard me rant about how artists and designers have the portfolio figured out, and it works really well for them, but thinking that can just transfer over to all other disciplines is short sighted. Listening to over a decade of Design Matters, you’ll hear stories of how designers started their work and lots of them mention portfolios. It works in that discipline. I hear the pitch that employers are looking at portfolios ever more, and therefore students need them, but I have yet to see a single job application that asks for a portfolio specifically (CV and cover letter still seems to be the standard). If a student included their portfolio in an application, I’d like to see the evidence that the reviewer is actually looking at those.

One underlying element to all three of the tensions that Tom outlined is portfolio curation (v. the shoebox method). What I mean by that is we might ask our students to start an ePortfolio site (e.g. Mahara) and to use it to upload different pieces of their work. Sometimes the requirement is all assignments in a course, other times one or two specific ones. Some portfolios become a shoebox of stuff students have done over time, that ends up not being especially useful for them or anyone else who is looking at it. The portfolio is kind of this after thought, this other thing. Recently I took a look through Kristin Anthony’s online course Go Design Something: Building Your Job Winning Portfolio. What I really like about Kristin’s approach is that the assumption is, hey you are working on some projects or have completed projects, so now lets think about how to talk about that work. The focus is on how to curate, write about, and manage the portfolio itself, which I think is an often overlooked piece of instruction.

A second tension could be format (webbased v. local digital or print). I personally don’t think that all portfolios need to be websites or even webbased. I can think of a few times where after many conversations with an instructor that what I nicknamed a z-folio (a zip file) was exactly what was needed. If the goal of having students work on a portfolio is to also familiarize themselves with writing for the web, then great. But if there is not going to be much if any support for the web piece, then why force it? You could simply leave it open to students to choose. I included print here as well because I think that’s still a very valid way to show your work. Bring it to an interview if that’s the purpose of your portfolio. If the purpose is to reflect on growth, maybe a journal is actually a better tool for the job.

I’m sure I could continue to just write thoughts here, but I’m more interested in hearing from you. What has your experience with portfolios been? Do you have one? Have you been considering making your own or asking your students to make one?


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash