Discussions of a higher education metaverse, a virtual space for students to connect via digital avatars, are becoming more common. In the words of Ray Schroeder, senior fellow of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, Inside Higher Ed blogger and former vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, “Display and networking technologies are approaching standards that enable a seamless virtual experience that can support mobile virtual and augmented reality. Complex simulations can be delivered that adapt to the learner’s needs.”
But while people hope that virtual reality can solve some of higher education’s actual reality problems, implementation of virtual reality learning requires careful consideration. Colleges and universities must think now about the practical steps they should take to prepare for such a new type of learning. One of many important considerations is teaching students how to cultivate virtual identities.
Virtual identities, like online personae, are shaped by social media posts, photos, comments and other digital artifacts across a range of technological platforms. One of the primary goals of any metaverse is to streamline platforms, activities and artifacts, creating an e-portfolio of one’s identity. But with streamlining comes visibility, and we have all heard the stories of people facing real-life consequences because of their virtual selves. Students increasingly require skills in curating aspects of themselves over time and space.
In fact, like other aspects of virtual reality, such as educational video games, results of e-portfolio use in higher education have been mixed for almost a decade. In other words, the e-portfolio demands renewed attention.
The authors of the Field Guide to ePortfolio lament that e-portfolios have “often been defined by the technology that puts the idea into practice.” They recommend defining e-portfolios “as an idea,” not just as a material form, but also as a concept and practice for teaching and learning—one that can work in multiple technologies. As a transferable pedagogy, Kathleen Blake Yancey argues for an e-portfolio approach that connects:
- Delivered curriculum or instructional design;
- Lived curriculum or prior knowledge; and
- Experienced curriculum or students’ engagement with instruction.
Undergraduate college students leave home, enter new communities, encounter new ideas and grow and alter their very identities. Directly inviting students to connect their lived experiences with content not only engages them in the learning experience, but it also communicates the relevance of content to the learners’ identities. Human beings make virtual decisions based on “lived curriculum” all the time, and it is one reason online avatars “give away more hints about your personality than you might think.” The metaverse offers us a place to be our honest selves while also imagining other possible selves. This is also what education offers and what e-portfolios document.
In general, a portfolio assembles artifacts that demonstrate successful skills, concepts and knowledge in different contexts to tell a story about who we are. Portfolio users creatively design e-portfolios, like a Wix website, to express a personal and social connection between the real with the virtual. The pedagogy surrounding e-portfolios can help chart the new world of learning in the metaverse.
Based on Yancey’s framework, we reviewed the literature for emerging themes that could act as a compass, despite the murkiness of multiple contexts and e-portfolio definitions. We reviewed studies into e-portfolios that prioritized students’ lived experiences, engagement with content and reflections on desired identities. What we found is that successful e-portfolio use requires:
- Shared ownership among students and faculty over the process and products, including critical and creative decisions;
- Practice reflecting so that students know how to choose artifacts for inclusion and evaluate how they fit within the particular context;
- A clear purpose for why and how anyone would use the e-portfolio; and
- Co-curricular support from multiple stakeholders to both collaborate on and support the development of students’ e-portfolios.
These themes, it turns out, also shape a successful metaverse. After all, at its core, the metaverse is a massive social network. So how can higher education assemble high-impact social networks that can easily translate to the metaverse?
It has been helpful to think of e-portfolios as assemblages, because they pull together so many different experiences, ideas, people and places. Assemblage is conscious ecology, “emerg[ing] through complex networks of interrelations, depend[ent] upon adaptation, fluidity, and the constant motion of diverse rhetorics and discourses.” E-portfolios are opportunities for students to connect with one another. Students might use e-portfolios to express their fears and challenges surrounding their coursework. Teachers, academic coaches or other students might constructively respond to e-portfolios, building support networks even as the e-portfolio takes shape.
Then, after successful coursework completions, students could revisit those artifacts and reflect on the strategies that helped. Those strategies would demonstrate the students’ strengths to potential employers, while also serving as a guide for other students. The more social e-portfolios become, the more likely they will be engaging. Perhaps the same psychological forces that influence us to Instagram our food before eating might also encourage reflection of our learning before submitting assignments.
In other words, e-portfolios should encourage an assemblage of artifacts that can be composed to tell a digital story of the learning self. Several institutions are already using e-portfolio approaches for this purpose, helping to provide virtual connections across time and space, the foundation of the metaverse. The University of Waterloo provides helpful examples of the potential of e-portfolio pedagogy. These examples, while serving different purposes, all showcase a reflective identity, as well as evidence of learning. They are also assembled for a public audience, making learning visible for important stakeholders beyond a teacher.
LaGuardia Community College hosts a virtual e-portfolio showcase, providing opportunities for students to present their achievements as well as interact with authentic audiences. This initiative reinforces the importance of ecological support that provides explicit instruction in creating an e-portfolio as a reflective process and as a particular technology. At LaGuardia, e-portfolio templates are custom made for each major, allowing expertise from each discipline to share in the ownership. Advisers use e-portfolios to help students plan their degree and career choices. Technological support is also easily accessible.
The University of Mary Washington offers an open-access Digital Storytelling hub in which students learn how to assemble various texts and media into an e-portfolio. Because it is an open-access hub, students from anywhere at any time can begin assembling a digital story to meet their creative or professional needs, perhaps in connection with another course or project.
Before waiting for the metaverse to be operating in full gear, social networks and processes should be put into practice. Universitywide collaboration is what leads to critical and creative thinking in students. Instilling an e-portfolio pedagogy culture is central to the success of students understanding not only the purpose and value of e-portfolios but also the process and presentation of their virtual selves through them. Without collective buy-in, students lack necessary support and become less likely to value the skills and knowledge that come with e-portfolios.
Indeed, successful e-portfolio design and presentation can help carry higher education into its virtual future. Educators might consider examining diverse departments across their university and how collaboration among them might better support students in creating their e-portfolios, especially as they look to form desired student identities—in both the real and virtual worlds.