Friday 12 April 2019

Five curricular changes to consider when teaching visual arts e-portfolios

Written for visual arts and design teachers who teach their students e-portfolio curation.

'Young black women curate visual arts e-portfolios: negotiating digital disciplined identities, infrastructural inequality and public visibility' was recently accepted subject to changes for a special issue of the Learning Media and Technology journal. Contributions whose perspectives challenge 'universal technological solutionism' were invited for the forthcoming 'Global technologies, Local Practices: redefining digital education with marginalised voices'.

My contribution foregrounded the key challenges that three young black women faced in creatively appropriating online portfolio software for showcase e-portfolio production. Each student had to negotiate (i) cultural and technical forms of exclusion, (ii) visibility versus privacy concerns and (iii) different forms of digital infrastructural inequalities. To reach the journal's 6,000 word limit for articles, I cut mine's initial visual arts e-portfolio curriculum recommendations, but cited this post. I trust its readers will find the recommendations below helpful, whether for reworking the visual arts showcase e-portfolio curriculum or refining similar curricula. Such changes may better accommodate young visual artists’ varied circumstances and creative aspirations:

Recommended changes when teaching visual arts e-portfolios

+1 > Provide examples of privacy protection that can address visibility risks
"Lesley Ann", "Melissa" and "Dina" all chose not to use their full first and last names for minimising risks of sexual harassment. Such measures were often not sufficient, since their full names were shown in their email addresses. E-portfolio curricula must guide students appropriately on how to protect their privacy by not sharing genuine identities. For example, a curriculum could include reflection of the potential negative consequence of presenting one's legal identity online, versus assuming that using one's genuine identity and legal name, as "the ('Modern gallery') artist" must be the norm. Alternative self-presentation strategies should be taught, particularly where vulnerable individuals would benefit from privacy protection.

+2 > Accommodate the roles in creative industry and digital identities that young people explore
Taken together, the case studies suggested a broader need for a more inclusive visual arts syllabus. South African visual arts pedagogy largely ignores the many and varied types of genres in visual culture that students may participate in. Despite affinity spaces in youth-, do-it-yourself and ethnic cultures potentially being valuable resources for young people's e-portfolio personas and projects, students reported exercising self-presentation strategies that hid participation in "unofficial", "illegitimate" genres. There was a missed pedagogical opportunity for challenging cultural exclusion and supporting greater e-portfolio differentiation by including teens' informal cultural interests. 

Educators could explore potential continuities between youth’s extra-mural affinities and the visual arts syllabus. This may better engage students’ interests, whilst also offering youth greater scope to share their varied personas. For example, presenting market-driven identities in creative industry proved a valued strategy for gaining economic capital amongst under-resourced students. E-portfolio curricula can also better house the existing social network and online content practices of students, which our curricular plans neglected. For example, the curriculum could accommodate students’ pre-existing digital portfolios by encouraging students to link link to theirs from within their e-portfolios.

+3> Cater for students who want to be seen as 'emergent creative pros', not "students"
An online identity as an arts student can be seen as undesirable to emergent visual creatives, who prefer to portray themselves as 'creative professionals' outside school. Examples of young creatives could be added to visual arts e-portfolio curricula for such students to learn from and experiment with.

+4> Foreground both process and product to make context explicit
My thesis revealed that students’ curation of disciplined digital identities and addition of other personas was strongly shaped by their levels of connectivity. In particular, under-resourced youth’s school and homes did not provide sufficient infrastructure for them to fully participate in e-portfolio design. The least resourced students were under-connected in lacking home internet access and having to share ownership of digital devices. Both were strong markers of class inequality. Under-connected students were at a severe disadvantage in being constrained to doing digital portfolio curation only in e-portfolio lessons. Youth with costly mobile internet access could workaround their computer lab’s slow internet speeds, but could not always work on e-portfolios at home owing to priorities related to mobile broadband costs.

The 'visual arts showcase' e-portfolio curriculum was taught as a capstone showcase exhibition project. This neglected sharing information related to students’ digital infrastructures. Their e-portfolios did not list the resources that each student used, which made it very difficult to compare the respective infrastructures youth used in e-portfolio curation. Teenagers from black, working class homes faced the greatest obstacles in accessing and using digital infrastructures. A danger lies in the increasing use of digital portfolios potentially serving as a new hurdle for these youth in accessing tertiary studies at elite institutions. This is allied to the rise of professional, digital self-presentation in spaces of creative production potentially serving as another gatekeeper to freelance projects.

+5> Provide workarounds for inequalities in digital infrastructures
E-portfolio teaching must accommodate the media ecologies of students who are under-connected to the internet. They should be identified and prioritised with classroom support, since other students can readily do such work at home. Our syllabi also neglected mobile technologies by focusing on desktop and laptop computer users. Resourceful teens used their mobile phones in class to continue e-portfolio curation and overcome school infrastructure constraints. Teaching should accommodate the mobile devices that students bring with them. Students must be encouraged to use these tools for creative production, as well as to make resourceful workarounds where there are problems with classroom infrastructure.

I trust these five suggestions will help teachers of visual creative e-portfolios to better accommodate young people’s different circumstances, repertoires and creative aspirations.

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