Independent Educational Portfolios

Continuing the subject I ended with last time (“What is college for?”), traditional answers to that question include:

  • College is a time for intellectual exploration (and even indulgence)

  • College offers young people a rite of passage between the end of adolescence and young adulthood

  • Completion of a college degree provides a credential that can be used to achieve further goals (such as getting a well-paying job)

Today, the first goal can be achieved by doing something other than enrolling in a brick-and-mortar institution (for example, by making use of the online learning tools being described in this blog).  And while the second goal probably resonates with anyone who left home to attend a residential college between their late teens and early twenties, we need to keep in mind that many of the people enrolled in college today are experiencing it as commuters, distance learners, or participants in other forms of non-traditional learning.

It can be argued that only a residential college experience combines all three purposes (giving young people a place to grow intellectually and socially in a free but safe environment, with a valuable credential as their reward upon completion).  But if these components are separable, I’d like to focus on the last one since colleges and universities are increasingly using the value of their diplomas to justify (among other things) the skyrocketing costs of higher education.

No doubt someone with a diploma from an Ivy League college will have a better time in the job market than someone without such a document.  And the latest figures indicate that someone with a college degree still earns more over their lifetime than someone lacking one.

But these stats have traditionally compared college graduates with people who move right from high school into the job market (where they would likely be getting into lower-paying career paths).  But the new class of students who are independently building their own higher education experience is probably too new to be included in calculations of long-term earning potential.

For these types of independent learners, the looming question is how to demonstrate one’s achievements absent a piece of paper from an established institution?

Enter the educational portfolio.

Portfolios are nothing new in education.  Anyone who has attended K-12 in the last 20 years (or has kids enrolled in Elementary, Middle or High School) will have been exposed to either physical or online portfolios where students aggregate their work over the course of a year (or even several years).

The key components of a portfolio are artifacts (samples of student output, such as research papers, tests, written assignments, digital video or other work products) and reflections (commentary on how those work products fit into an overall learning “story”).

Portfolios have even been used as the basis of assessing student achievement, with artifacts and reflections tied to rubric-based scoring mechanisms (much like the ones MOOCs use to score peer-graded assignments).  And the portfolio concept has made its way into other fields, including employment.

Social network sites like LinkedIn provide job seekers the means to aggregate their achievements in one online location, and to add commentary (i.e., reflections) to those achievements to create a portfolio that reflects their entire education and work history.  And people looking to take the employment portfolio concept one step further can sign up at sites like these that let you aggregate work samples (such as proposals or videos of professional presentations) to appear alongside an online resume.

I’ve recently used LinkedIn’s ability to supplement educational experience with courses taken from any party (such as iTunes U or one of the major MOOC providers).  But a couple of recent startups are taking innovative approaches to help independent learners do far more than they could with a generic resume site.

I’m in the process of creating up-to-date portfolios with the two providers of lifelong learning portfolios I’ve stumbled across so far (Accredible and Degreed) and will be offering my own reflections on these and other systems as I get more familiar with what they offer.

So far, I’m intrigued by Accredible’s ability to let students organize work products into an educational-portfolio-like structure, and I’m curious as to how Degreed comes up with is system for assigning “Mastery Points” to different courses I’ve completed.

I’m also intrigued with how the ultimate audience for these types of transcripts/portfolios (employers) will react to these high-tech replacements for the traditional college diploma.

Having spent two decades working in the employment industry, I can attest to the innate conservativism of employers with regard to accepting non-traditional documentation of achievement.  At the same time, I’ve seen some industries (such as IT) evolve to the point where certificates (achieved by passing IT certification exams) count for far more than a college diploma in terms of job placement.

Anyone who has successfully completing a massive online course has already been rewarded by the pride associated with a job well done.  But if the free learning resources I’ve been immersed in are ever to move into the mainstream, we need to convince not just those that teach, but those that hire that they add up to something worth paying attention to.

Next – The MOOC Credit Paradox

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3 Responses to Independent Educational Portfolios

  1. Dan Companion April 18, 2013 at 1:34 pm #

    If the private sector could start to participate in the process of translating courses needed for particular job skills, I think this would go a long way in help to bridge the gap of education and skills gap we are hearing about in the market place.

    Here is a basic idea of the concept:

    General Manger (Retail Company)

    Job Skills Curriculum:

    Accounting I (Coursea)

    Marketing (MIT Opencourseware)

    Logistics (Harvard)

    and as corporate participation takes hold I would imagine that courses would evolve further and maybe even new courses would be developed.

    MOOCs can provide so many avenues towards an educational experience, I think it would be great if some of these concepts could translate into immediate success for those searching for employment.

  2. David Blake April 22, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

    Let us ( know your suggestions as you go. We are cheering you on.

  3. Danny King April 24, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Hi Jonathan, great post – we’re all rooting for you!

    You make a great point about conservativism of employers and that certainly is a barrier to self/informal learners. However a large chunk of the economy are small & medium companies that I think are a lot more flexible with job requirements and focus more on what you can actually do than where you learned to do it.

    Looking forward to seeing your Certs! We just redesigned our whole user interface so hopefully they will look even more beautiful for you. Check out the gallery at if you want inspiration.

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