ePortfolios and Preservice Teachers: Governing at a Distance through Non-Human Actors

ePortfolios and Preservice Teachers: Governing at a Distance through Non-Human Actors

Peter O'Brien (Queensland University of Technology, Australia) and Nick Osbaldiston (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch012
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This chapter seeks to develop an analysis of the contemporary use of the ePortfolio (Electronic Portfolio) in education practices. Unlike other explorations of this new technology which are deterministic in their approach, the authors seek to reveal the techniques and practices of government which underpin the implementation of the e-portfolio. By interrogating a specific case study example from a large Australian university’s preservice teacher program, the authors find that the e-portfolio is represented as eLearning technology but serves to govern students via autonomization and self responsibilization. Using policy data and other key documents, they are able to reveal the e-portfolio as a delegated authority in the governance of preservice teachers. However, despite this ongoing trend, they suggest that like other practices of government, the e-portfolio will eventually fail. This however the authors conclude opens up space for critical thought and engagement which is not afforded presently.
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Electronic learning tools and technologies are almost a commonplace in social life today. Podcasts, instant messaging, digital repositories, and ‘voice over internet protocol’ are among the new categories of information and communication technologies, software and network architectures characterising 21st century life. One such technology gaining prominence at present is that of the electronic portfolio (ePortfolio). Used largely as a tool for building online records of one’s achievements and planning for career developments, ePortfolio use is becoming widespread in Australia and overseas (Hallam, Harper, McCowan, Hauville, McAllister and Creagh, 2008). Oftentimes, this is fostered by the policy objectives of regional and national governments (Hallam, et al. 2008). ePortfolios are now found in most sectors and areas of education, especially higher education and vocational education and training; in the workplace, particularly in fields such as nursing, teaching, engineering, medicine and academia; and even in the community where activities such as digital storytelling and blogging show potential for cross fertilization with ePortfolios (cf. Hallam et al., 2008; Knobel & Wilber, 2009). With the increasing uptake of ‘cloud technologies’ such as Web 2.0 and mobile social networking, it is suggested that ePortfolio activity will expand in the future (Knobel & Wilber, 2009).

The current increase in ePortfolio activity across a range of social domains caught our attention as researchers with an interest in the sociology of such learning technologies. Seeking to explore ePortfolio activity further, we turned our attention to the implementation in 2009 of an ePortfolio in a course of teacher education at a large Australian university. Our interest centred on the problem of how this technology came to be thought of as important for students in a course of teacher education and how, and with what effects, it sought to change the professional conduct of the students as preservice teachers. Our review of the domain literature in ePortfolios, however, unearthed an understanding of technology and society that we found to be limited if not entirely problematic.

Understandings of information technologies such as the ePortfolio and their social contexts tend to have much in common with more conventional accounts of technology and technological change in which explanations are often made in terms of the technology itself (Kendall & Wickham, 1999; Rose, 1999). In such accounts, technology tends to be accorded a primacy or a power which society is unable to resist. An example often cited in this respect is that of the advent and uptake of the electric refrigerator (e.g. Kendall & Wickham, 1999). Popular accounts have the electric refrigerator as the dominant form of this technology due to the inherent superiority of the electrical technology itself. Closer investigation has shown, however, that this is not the case. Kendall and Wickham (1999, p. 80), for instance, explain that early competitors of electric refrigeration, such as the gas fridge, were technically superior to their electric counterpart. These rival technologies, however, were unable to marshal the interest of consumers and the opinions of local authorities in the same way as the more aggressive and publicly active General Electric Corporation. Now there is little chance of going back. Accounting for ePortfolios is often done in the same way (e.g. Hallam et al., 2008). ePortfolios are held to shape and bring about change in education, teaching and learning through the power of the technology itself; decisions made in meeting rooms, lecture theatres, board rooms and parliaments in relation to the technology are often marginalised or ignored. We argue that such technologically determinist thinking needs to be resisted because it limits our understanding of technological innovation and change in society by reducing explanation to the technology itself.

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