What are threshold concepts?
A 2003 ETL (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses) Project Report by Jan Meyer and Ray Land described and explored threshold concepts in Economics. Meyer and Land found that “certain concepts were held by economists to be central to the mastery of their subject.
These concepts, Meyer and Land argued, could be described as ‘threshold’ ones because they have certain features in common.” Glynis Cousin, Higher Education Academy Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences Subject Centre. An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet. GEES (Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences) Number 17. December 2006.
Threshold concepts can be considered as, ‘akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. They represent a ‘transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress’.
The transformation that Meyer and Land talk about may ‘represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).’ Jan Meyer and Ray Land – Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses (ETL Project) Occasional Report 4, May 2003.
Threshold concepts are likely to have many of the following characteristics:
- Transformative: a threshold concept, once it is understood by the learner, can change the student’s perspective on the discipline
- Troublesome: in that it can be difficult for learners to accept and understand when it appears, as Perkins (1999) describes it, counter-intuitive, alien, or incoherent. Perkins, D. (1999). The Many Faces of Constructivism, Educational Leadership, Volume 57, Number 3, November
- Irreversible: Once a perspective has been changed it can be very difficult for the learner to forget or unlearn it
- Integrative: Threshold concepts can make obvious, links to other areas that had previously appeared unrelated
- Bounded: in that the threshold concept will sit within a demarked conceptual space
- Discursive: Meyer and Land describe how threshold concepts lead ‘not only to transformed thought but to a transfiguration of identity and adoption of an extended discourse’. Jan Meyer and Ray Land -Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Volume 49, Number 3 / April, 2005
- Reconstitutive: This may entail a change in subjectivity for the learner over a range of perspectives
- Liminality: “Meyer and Land have likened the crossing of the pedagogic threshold to a ‘rite of passage’ (drawing on the ethnographical studies of Gennep and Turner in which a transitional or liminal space has to be traversed); “in short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult'; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain. (Cousin)”. From Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development: A short introduction and reference list.
How does this relate to an understanding of an e-portfolio?
Threshold concepts exist in all bodies of knowledge. In the e-portfolio area, it can be suggested, they are particularly troublesome in that understanding of the area is emerging from technological, pedagogical, organisational, lifelong and lifewide learning perspectives.
Because of this the field engages a range of different stakeholders (with different cognate backgrounds and professional interests) who need to understand the e-portfolio area. This is evidenced by the following findings in Jisc reports and related literature:
- It is difficult to agree on a definition for an e-portfolio. For some it is a system, for others part of a learning process, for others a presentation, and for others an archive of assets. Or is it all of these things?
- Many educators who are actually involved with e-portfolio processes tend not to use the term at all
- Purposes seem almost endless and so choosing where in the learning process and when to implement them can seem confusing
- Current e-portfolio systems/tools do not seem to fit well to all purposes
- Even with guidelines and case studies of exemplars those implementing e-portfolios seem often to reinvent the wheel, make really ‘obvious’ mistakes compared to those who have a deeper understanding of the area
- Understanding of e-portfolios seems to develop with experience and over time suggesting that there are key issues to understand
There seems to be a paradigm shift in understanding when this knowledge is aggregated. For example, once a stakeholder understands that an e-portfolio is disruptive, because it tends not to fit exactly within existing systems, then assumptions about implications of implementation and use become obvious.
There is evidence, however, of shifts in this understanding depending upon the perspective of those involved in the implementation, for example, only anticipating the need for scaffolding for students and not staff or only anticipating the need for technical support and not pedagogic support. Seeing the benefits of an e-portfolio will not reveal the implications for implementation though of course this set of knowledge is important too so that use can match the chosen context. The benefits themselves are not a threshold concept but they relate to one – e-portfolio purposes, i.e. the alignment of purpose to context will reveal benefits, misalignment will not.
Why are they important?
They are important because of the recognition that stakeholder perspectives will need to develop so that they not only intellectually engage with the threshold concepts and anticipate the issues that arise because of them but experience them. Threshold concepts recognise that developing understanding is a developmental journey but that once the threshold is achieved the perspective of an area is changed forever. Thus guidelines/guidance will only make sense to a stakeholder if the threshold concept is understood and the misconceptions or preconceptions resolved.
Is this why the wheel has been invented so many times? There is evidence that e-portfolio implementation can be like a game of snakes and ladders where initial rapid progress can suffer major setbacks due to a poor understanding of the nature of e-portfolios, i.e. lack of understanding of the threshold concepts.