The personal, the platform & the political
This paper examines issues surround the use of electronic portfolios for personal development planning (PDP) in sociology. These are now a common feature of many virtual learning environments (VLEs) across higher education institutions. However, whilst such an approach can be enabling for students in their learning there are tensions that emerge with such a focus on the individual student. These are often political issues concerned with matters such as (i) national, institutional or departmental PDP policies; (ii) access to PDP records; and (iii) academic or vocationally driven. These are issues which can become dissolved in the instantiation of PDP in terms of the overall focus on the individual and the need to get such a policy translated into action, and especially via the increasing reliance on VLEs. The nature of any VLE defines the nature of the learning process via provision of tools and templates for actions. All too often the learning process can be subtly moulded as an instrumental rather than a critical process. Learning in this context can become a process of managing information (including personal information) rather than discovery, insight and growth. Thus as some have suggested this has enabled a managerial model of learning to be surreptitiously substituted for the dialogic and critical model which characterises the ideal of learning in higher education. To borrow a phrase, “the personal is political”, and nowhere is this perhaps more apparent than the notion of the personal in PDP. There is a clear tension here for some between what they regard as the academic nature of personal development leading to personal growth and the concomitant contribution to an educated citizenry, and the underlying national imperative that requires knowledge linked to economic wealth creation. However, in an era of mass higher education it is often the latter that is a priority for governments. This political dimension to PDP can be lost when located inside the practical matters associated with education as an inner-directed process. It is somewhat paradoxical that in higher education the notion of widening participation and access has perhaps come at the expense of actual contact with other students and teaching staff. It is now individual students who must participate and learn by themselves as they engage in PDP, often mediated via a VLE. It is moot point to consider this distant and introspective form of ‘participation’ as the result of expansion of higher education to meet the demands of the knowledge economy without much in the way of an accompanying expansion of resources. One suggestion to overcome this issue is to make use of Web 2.0 as a platform for opening up reflexive personal development planning through the various tools that permit interaction. This paper consider this proposition in terms of reflexive learning in sociology.