On Portfolios

This reminds me of my several attempts at a portfolio over the years. Our school division requires portfolios by teachers that, for the most part, end up as 3-ring binders (we supply the dividers, so why not?). For my masters degree in 2005, I developed an interactive PDF portfolio which was organized by AECT standards (Design, development, utilization, management, evaluation, etc.). It emphasized visuals and focused on a more immersive experience.

Yet today – I agree that a blog platform makes a great portfolio because of the format. The database “backend” of the blog makes the chronological organization easy. My best professional portfolio is my blog from work. But I sometimes question whether or not this is of ultimate utility to an audience other than our own eyes.

Case in point –

Let’s say we have three years of blog posts, artifacts, and more to show. These will probably reflect not only our experience as graduate students – but also as professionals during the same period.

Who’s the audience? I know if I did a good job – and collected good stuff – then I can pick and choose from this “pile” of stuff. I might reflect back on my thoughts from year 2. Or benefit from having everything collected in one place – my papers, etc.

But who might use this later?

A future employer? Okay, but if folks are looking at 10 candidates, that would be a lot of content to look through if they each provided portfolios. One reason I believe e-portfolios are popular now is because they are not mainstream. An e-portfolio/blog/website is not the norm, and you’ll stand out for having one. Until, of course, they do become mainstream.

The reason I started my own website years ago was to have an online presence. I wanted to be easy to find, and to have my professional accomplishments and “schooly” thoughts all together in one place. I regret now starting this portfolio for the EdD program as a separate enterprise.

Yet now the blog I started years ago is long in the tooth. How do I highlight my best work for potential viewers?

The article doesn’t address what I’ve heard expressed through our face-to-face encounters – and that’s the very public nature of one’s thoughts online. These might include our artifacts from classes, our response to something in the news, our personal teaching philosophy, etc., as mentioned in the article and blog post. There are a lot of reasons for feeling this way, and I’m not about to judge why any of us might feel this way. We can boil it down to say that not everyone feels comfortable with exposing their learning for the world to see.

And here I am, confident perhaps, posting my thoughts through blogs, writing thoughts both serious and not so serious on Twitter, etc., and I’m trying to make the case for privacy.

For one, I might go back to the issue with three years of blog fodder. It won’t all be good. It won’t all be our best work.

Longtime career blogger Jason Kottke (whom I have been following for about as long as he’s been writing) used to have a feature on his blog I loved. It was a page with some of his favorite posts, as an effort to give new readers an idea of what his blog and writing interests were all about. Now, he’s gone to a random page of blog posts instead which really only works because he’s prolific (you get variety that way), and the quality of his blog is high.

So, we could cull from the many posts our best work. It could be part of our front pages, or even artifacts. The thinking here is you’d choose your best content from the sea of fodder. And maybe you’d choose the things you’d feel more confident with sharing.

But now we’re back to the public vs. private issue again. Should your learning be a public spectacle? I think that’s a personal decision. I think personal reflections in a blog-style is an awesome way to help your own metacognitive journey through the doctoral program. But despite Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt telling us privacy is all but gone today, I’m interested in finding a happy medium here. How can we be blogging to highlight not our growth, but our leadership? That changes the game, just a little bit.

Full disclosure: I’ve been blogging for long enough that I’ve made some mistakes along the way. I’ve left out articles (a part of speech, that is), I’ve goofed up HTML tags (when they were still required), and I’ve linked to media that later went off line. But I’ve also done worse: I’ve posted stuff I’d later regret.

That was a learning experience for me, for sure, and I’m game to our professors in encouraging us to go through the same experience. So far, so good.

But what’s the purpose behind reflecting on a writing class? I’ve read quite a few posts from folks that followed this format:

  1. I was apprehensive about writing scholarly articles.
  2. The class helped me a lot, and I enjoyed the peer feedback.
  3. I’m better prepared to go forward in this program. I have confidence.

We can’t blame anyone for writing this. It’s probably everyone’s experience, and it proves the course was designed well enough to get us along that path. And after all, we were asked to write reflections.

I personally debate whether or not this is portfolio fodder. I think about this not because I have any say in this program’s blogs, but because I work with a lot of teachers on their own blogs, and using blogs as a portfolio platform for teachers.

At the end of the day, if I’m hiring, I want to know that you can do something I need someone to do (in this case, maybe, write). I wouldn’t terribly be interested in how you got to becoming a gifted writer. And maybe I’m unique in my thinking here.

But if we were focusing on leadership over the learning process, we could change the entire tone of the blog post. And my guess is we’d have a far more valuable artifact to be included in a portfolio.

Here’s another method for accomplishing a similar goal of reflection, but in this case, we’re taking our authority as a better writer to shine. To wit,

  1. I read a lot of research to formulate my position about the effect of social media on school leaders.
  2. One author who seemed to know quite a bit about social media’s impact on society right now is a NYU faculty member named Clay Shirky.
  3. He sees positive effects with regards to social media for group forming without traditional, “structural” constraints, to coin a Bolman & Deal concept.
  4. I’m wondering what barriers might exist in utilizing social media to inform and exchange ideas with other school leaders. What obstacles do you see?

This is a completely different take, but why is it better? First, you document something others might want to know you can do – use research to your advantage. Second, you name a source you found helpful. You’re “sharing the wealth,” so to speak, and other might find the guy’s writings helpful. Third, you take the research into context, and then invite others to weigh-in. Great blogs are conversations, according to David Weinberger. You need to whet our appetites. Draw us in. Engage us.

That’s certainly an example of leadership to me – the ability to engage others to think. To debate. To form consensus. An educational leader who can use a social media tool (your blog) to lead discussion and communicate professionally is an excellent artifact to show off. It shows you know something, you’re thoughtful, and you’ve got something to contribute to the field.

You might not agree, but I think the second scenario makes for better reading. I’m not yet sure this solves the privacy conundrum, however. Yeah, it’s still demonstrating your learning. But it is less vulnerable. It’s framed in such a way that you,

  1. State a fact about your activity.
  2. You share the authority of another that may well be a well-respected or even well-known authority.
  3. You share information you have learned. (Instead of stating you are learning.)
  4. You pose a question to your colleagues for input.

So, one of two things will happen as this process continues of blogging for portfolioing.

  1. You get over your privacy concerns (if you had them to begin with).
  2. You don’t go public.

I’m guessing most people will go after #1. I’m still wrestling with why I think maintaining a “private portfolio” ought to be an option, but I keep getting caught in one of my mind’s feedback loops. I think eventually you have to take it public, even though while you’re “in progress” with it, it might be okay to do it privately.

Let’s make a quick list of leadership qualities required for the twenty-first century. Think education leaders, especially. I’m really just making this up to illustrate my point – I’m sure you’ll agree with a few of these.

  1. Transparency.
  2. Vision.
  3. Good communication.
  4. Organized.
  5. Respectful.

Now, these are likely universal qualities, so what’s so 21st century about them? Because the tools and venues we take advantage of today may be very different. Because the world is different today.

I still believe in privacy – but transparency is not the lack of privacy. It’s being accessible, unrestricted, and not hiding. In “computereeze” terms, it’s putting your text out on a page that’s Google searchable, not buried in a graphic that can’t be searched.

Good communication includes articulating our vision. And it looks like it’s our intercession assignment, too. So I’ll go on to #3: good communication. It’s a conversation. We will have to meet folks in the venues they naturally find themselves open for communicating with us. I hate to admit it, but it might mean engaging parents in Facebook or through Twitter. (If you’re reading this 5 years from now, list another popular social virtual venue.)

Organized. Are you tagging your blog posts? (If not, this young man gives us some tips on how to do just that.) (Or, if you prefer, a video for it using WordPress.)

Respectful? Show people you’re considering a lot of options. That you can listen. That you value all viewpoints and will make the best decisions for the best impact on the most number of students. We can show respect through our writing, but also through our actions and personal conversations made face-to-face. I agree with the Chronicle piece, showing folks a piece of you in action with a video isn’t a bad idea for us to show off many leadership qualities, including our respect for students and those on the same organizational chart.

So, here’s my conclusion. Thanks for making it this far. I think the more you blog the better we all get at doing it. It takes tiny leaps of faith to get started. But I know after doing this for now over 10 years that articulating my ideas and questions and even sometimes fears online has been a mostly positive experience. I get better at it over time. I don’t have any reason to believe that the experience won’t benefit others, too. So, I’ll end with a few tips.

  1. Make it matter. Blog posts are a little more important than status updates on Facebook or Twitter. Take your time and give the post an opportunity to make you look great.
  2. Your real name isn’t of the utmost importance right now. I don’t go out of my way to advertise my real name for some of my online activities. If it works better for you, blog with a handle now and add your real name later.
  3. Focus on demonstrating your abilities as a leader.
  4. Be authentic. Write for you, and be the real you.
  5. Be confident. The most successful leaders are real people, but they are typically confident on their best days.

If you don’t ever think you can be public with your thoughts online, then reconsider what traits a leader should have in this day and age. Part of our beliefs will be shaped by different cultures we are a part of, including our work culture. But I am one who believes if we are to make progress in the field, we must take our conversations into more visible, open spaces. I think if the portfolio process is to be really successful, we’ll take the experience and turn it into not something I had to do back in 2005 for my masters, but a continual repository – our own personal affinity space for collecting not only our current artifacts, but our lifelong ones as well.

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