Pedagogy Before Portfolios: Part One

It’s easy to be distracted by shiny new toys. Post-secondary instructors are no more immune to the latest and greatest in digital learning tools than their students are to the latest iPhone release or social media platform. But be warned – slick interfaces and pretty graphics are just fancy wrappings over an empty box if sound pedagogy is not contained within.

By Gillian Sudlow and Dr. Teresa Swan, Kwantlen Polytechnic University

Well-presented professional development events can make new digital learning tools appear all the shinier. Attendees leave feeling inspired and eager to adopt, or rather shoehorn, these new tools into their practice without full consideration of the pedagogical practice needed to make them effective. Such hastiness can quickly lead to trouble whereby the tool becomes an obstacle to teaching and learning rather than an aid. 

If you plan to adopt a new digital learning tool, be careful not to become consumed by how it looks and ignore the bigger question of how it can help students achieve prescribed learning outcomes. If this happens, abandon the adoption. If, however, the answer does relate to student success in meeting outcomes, then consider the adoption but not without careful planning and putting pedagogy first. Penny Light et al. put it simply yet emphatically: “pedagogy MUST lead the technology” (Light, Chen, and Ittleson 2012, 3).

Case in Point: ePortfolios and Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) Access Programs

In fall 2020 KPU implemented PebblePad as an institution-wide digital education strategy to enhance student-centred experiential learning opportunities. As part of the launch, the Teaching and Learning Commons delivered the PebblePad Rollin’ Stones Tour, introducing folio thinking as the pedagogy that informs the use of ePortfolios and discussing how it was supported by the PebblePad platform.

With the pivot to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty in KPU’s Access Programs joined the Rollin’ Stones Tour series with the intent of including ePortfolios as a capstone project in an upcoming class. They eagerly learned what the tool had to offer and how to use it but didn’t allow themselves the time to develop a fulsome learning strategy that included folio thinking or why PebblePad was a good tool to put into their practice.

The lack of attention to pedagogy resulted in instructors using ePortfolios intermittently as a way to store artifacts rather than as an engaging reflective process for the students. Some of the insights learned from this teaching and learning experience include the following:

  • Take time to understand the pedagogy that informs the tool, and consider how this approach aligns with your teaching practice.
  • Practice, practice, practice: complete your own ePortfolio so you can share the pros and cons with students.
  • Keep the process of constructing knowledge at the centre of the learning.
  • Make sure students understand the benefits and risks of using the tool with the goal of connecting learning strategies between their classes, showcasing skills when looking for employment, and protecting themselves in a digital environment.
  • Consider the social and cultural context of students by building on their identities as learners: How can students develop a better sense of themselves as learners? How can this experience prepare students for lifelong learning?
  • Challenge assumptions about the learner competencies that surround technology use – ensure students are clear on the expectations of assignments and that instructions are presented in manageable steps.

Now What? Folio Thinking Moving Forward

As recommended by Dr. Alison Egan, “Technology should not be introduced to an educational environment if the pedagogical reasons for it are not clear” (Egan 2020, 43). In the case of adopting ePortfolios and the PebblePad platform into KPU’s Access Programs, the importance of folio thinking was placed front and centre. To ensure pedagogy remains the primary focus, faculty have collaborated with the Teaching and Learning Commons to include folio thinking as a pedagogical strategy for ePortfolio adoption in a program revision project that will enhance student learning by developing new skills, scaffolding learning, and acting as a catalyst for institutional change.

Lessons learned by KPU Access Program faculty could be transferred to the adoption of most digital tools. So the next time something new and shiny catches your eye, consider the following recommendations:

  • Leverage institutional-supported technology tools to ensure faculty and student support, resources, and privacy concerns.
  • Go slow; integrate the tool where it will make the most impact for teaching and learning.
  • Participate in ongoing training; one professional development session does not make you an expert. Get support from your Teaching and Learning department.
  • Test and gain proficiency with the tool before you introduce it to your students so you can predict and troubleshoot potential issues.
  • Dedicate class time and resources to support learning as a process; scaffold when and where needed.
  • Engage in dialogue and feedback with students throughout teaching and learning process.
  • Engage in a process of staged implementation and reflective practice (deploy and reflect; adapt and adjust; re-deploy, reflect, and add on; and repeat).

Despite challenges to initial implementation, Access Program faculty learned more about the value of ePortfolios and folio thinking for their programs and students — so much so that it has become a focus of their program revision in a much more purposeful way going forward. More on this in an upcoming post.


Egan, A. (2020). A Review of Technology in Teaching and Learning. Education International,

Light, T. P., Chen, H. L., and Ittelson, J. C. (2012). Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Authors

Gillian Sudlow and Dr. Teresa Swan work at KPU. Gillian Sudlow teaches English Upgrading in the Faculty of Academic and Career Preparation and is an educational consultant for learning design and ePortfolio advancement with the Teaching and Learning Commons. Dr. Teresa Swan is a faculty in the Access Programs, Adult Special Education.

The featured image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by eric anada from Pexels