While using electronic portfolios (or eportfolios) in the teaching of my composition courses at Utah Valley University, I began to wonder about their significance in the “grand scheme” of, well, technology. Being a student of technology studies as well as a student of composition, I noticed that there were many significant connections between sociological theories of technology and eportfolios. Likewise, there were many complexities surrounding this modern educational solution and many unanswered questions. Two questions, in particular, had a definite resonance with me: If technologies had definite theories surrounding them, even general theories, then how did these theories apply directly to eportfolios? Finally, what could we learn from recognizing these theories?
After collating these questions and carefully considering the body of theory surrounding technology, I arrive at the following preliminary conclusions: First, eportfolios are forms of technology beyond the text within them. That is, they are separate from the writing within them, which is already considered a technology (Bolter, 2001, p.14; Ong, 1988, p.81; Emig, 1977, p.123). They are tools, subject to the same theories which apply to other technologies and independent of the medium or materials in which they exist and/or the technologies which create or sustain them. Being tools, they are “labor-saving,” like any other tool (or machinery) and subject to theoretical concerns. Second, eportfolios, like most technologies, can be found in a “standing reserve” state, as well as being an integral part of a larger structure, such as a network (computerized or pedagogical). Third, eportfolios, as a technology, are subject to the same complex metaphors used to describe other technologies, which may account for our inability to effectively assess them. Fourth, the use eportfolios is governed through temporality, formed by a temporal techne (time-based/restricted system of production leading to an inevitable product). Students begin as “designers” and become “technicians” using a variety of methods or “techniques” along these stages. Fifth, eportfolios are, at first, instrumental, but, then, substantial, existing as tools for our use but then helping us to create new cultural systems. Finally, eportfolios, as technologies, are subject to rhetorical contextualization, which may help us to explain the types of larger structures where they are located.
In this work, I examine the individual notions above as well as explain the use of electronic portfolios as seen through the lens of technological theory, using prominent theorists such as Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Michael Pollan, Jacques Ellul, Andrew Feenberg, and Carolyn Miller. Further, I ask the questions: What can we learn from their technological concerns, and how can we apply their theories and definitions of technology to eportfolios?
To start, what are eportfolios? Cara Lane (2009) defines them well:
There are several popular definitions of eportfolios. In technical terms, "an eportfolio is a digitized collection of artifacts including demonstrations, resources, and accomplishments that represent an individual, group, or institution' (Lorenzo & Ittelson, 2005). more basically, an portfolio consists of 'evidence of curricular and cocurricular achievement and reflection' (Johnson & Dibiase 2004). (p.150)
Miles Kimball (2005) defines them in a more postmodernist way (positing a lack of "absolute form" in its products, but more of a form in its purpose and pedagogy):
I recognize that the term portfolio lacks distinct boundaries. There is no single definition; many thoughtful people have honestly disagreed on what a portfolio is or is not. Portfolios have been explored for so many years and in so many different contexts that it would be difficult to find two programs with identical approaches --and in fact, scholars have argued for the localized and situated nature of portfolios as a primary characteristics of the approach [noted by Callahan (1997) as a highly personalized pedagogy kept deliberately separate from formal assessment and grading... as a desirable vehicle for assessing individual proficiency (p.67)]. But, despite differences, portfolios do share a more or less consistent center, based on the rationales of pedagogy more than on the characteristics of its products. (p.436)
Amalgamating the definitions of Kimball and Lane, we find that eportfolios are composed in many different ways using a variety of different software and approaches. Fundamentally, eportfolios serve different purposes (e.g., accreditation, assessment in a classroom, etc.), but their pedagogy remains the same.
So, what are theories of technology (and, why do they have relevance to eportfolios and their pedagogy)? Beginning with Karl Marx and derived from the concerns of industry, social critics and engineers “turned humanists” have put forth technological theory, which examines the symbiotic relationships between man and machine in an attempt to understand the complexities of this relationship (Feenberg, 1991, p.3). This theory has been very practical in answering both modernist and postmodernist concerns with relation to technology as well as allowing theorists from many disciplines to have a critical lens for observing the practices and products of their disciplines. The aim of these technological theories, I believe, is to fully account for and anticipate the uses and misuses of technology in many human traditions and specifically within different cultures, from practices as simple as basket weaving to something as sophisticated as producing artificial intelligence. To explain why such activities demand complex explanations, examining their cultural significances and significance within economic and industrial complexes, we must turn to technological theory and negotiate with the accepted wisdom someone such as Karl Marx describes in the “Machinery and Modern Industry” sections of Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.
Technological theory also offers us more than just a means from which to view symbiotic relationships; technological theory offers us a “reading” and means of contextualization for technologies. These theorists define technology on many levels, usually with regards to intent, which helps to situate their contexts within larger systems. And, there are many different views of technology. For example: Economist, Karl Marx defines technology clearly as an apparatus for reducing the "labour" of the workers (a definition found parallel to his discussion of machinery). Philosopher, Martin Heidegger defines technology as a form of revealing through instrumentality. Author, Michael Pollan defines technology as making humanly manageable the complexities of nature (through an allusion to agriculture). Philosopher, Jacques Ellul defines technology within the act of making (e.g. techne) explaining the “techniques” we use to produce, claiming labor has been entirely replaced by machines, and the technicians that maintain them. Finally, rhetorician, Carolyn Miller (1978) defines technology as the manipulation of the contingent and local to achieve material results. Using these definitions, we may steadily apply these conditions to formulate a deeper understanding of the practice of teaching and using eportfolios in the writing classroom. In a sense, we can attempt to develop a technological theory of eportfolios.