EAC2011 – is the ePortfolio dead?

Ok, pardon me for the dramatic opening line, but this thought has been rattling around in my head after Day 1 of the Australian ePortfolio Conference at Curtin University in Perth.

Perhaps dead is the wrong term too – “being faced with a potential life threatening illness” is maybe a better way of putting it. Here’s why I ask this.

Twelve months ago I came to this conference and got the feeling that we were on the edge of ePortfolio use becoming much larger in the Higher Ed and VET sectors in particular. I thought to myself that next year things would look a lot different from what they did back then. From the conversations I’ve had so far, I was wrong.

I’ve had many conversations over the last year where I ask what is happening within an institution around the use of ePortfolios, and while there are pockets of enthusiasm, the uptake seems to be slowed by at least two things:

  1. The ePortfolio being pushed to the back of the queue behind (typically) LMS and/or LCMS implementations, particularly given that there is inevitably a requirement for integration between the tools; and
  2. Institutions not being able to decide what an ePortfolio is, and consequently what an ePortfolio tool is meant to do.

I had a conversation yesterday with someone from a University of along the lines of ‘we knew ePortfolios were a good idea, so we started gathering requirements, and when it became clear that nobody could agree on what an ePortfolio was then we gave up’. Sound familiar?

I think this also accounts for the high instance of pilot roll-outs of ePortfolio tools I see around the place, irrespective of the tool of choice.

One particularly interesting thing in the ePortfolio space is the diversity of tools. Now I realise the LMS is dead (which I guess makes me head zombie curator for about 99% of my working life or something), but the main players in the space are, from a ‘tick the boxes’ functionality level, very, very similar. Sure, some do some things better or differently, but the space is (for now) stable in terms of what people expect and what they can get from the big players. Contrast this with the ePortfolio space, where yesterday while I had a quick nosey around at the other tools and was struck yet again by the different perspective that each tool takes. Some are more focused on assessment, some more on evidence gathering, some more on social networking and collaboration (I’d add Mahara to this list in terms of its strengths) and probably a bunch of other focal points as well, but they are all quite different in contrast to each other. If anything, this might make the choice of an ePortfolio an easier job – assuming an institution can work out what an ePortfolio is in the first place…

I also, yet again, get the feeling that the whole ePortfolio product space is constantly at risk of imploding on itself due to the very nature of individuals wanting to keep their own stuff in a range of different tools which have no relationship to their formal institution at all. I look at my own ePortfolio – and it is stored in my blog, LinkedIn, Flickr and YouTube to name a few, and no single ePortfolio tool would make me want to change that. Once again, this comes back to what it is an institution is looking to achieve by running an ePortfolio tool as to whether students will want to use it.

So what might be the driver for the ePortfolio space to move beyond its current ‘toe in the water’ feeling in many areas I seem to see? Sadly, for me, I think it will be the legislated need for reporting driven by external factors such as TEQSA. I say ‘sadly’ because although its probably good for the ePortfolio tool vendors, I worry that the reporting-driven requirements will end up turning the ePortfolio into something more of a compliance checklist rather than a place where learners can collect, reflect and share their learning experiences in a genuinely user-centric environment.

Then again, that’s only my view on what an ePortfolio is 🙂

18 thoughts on “EAC2011 – is the ePortfolio dead?

  1. I believe in the idea of eportfolios but like a lot of edtech I see it being subverted to a teacher centric model of education which is totally against what I believe is the intent of an eportfolio. I regularly see attempts to actually turn institutional eportfolios into assessment handling systems and even learning management systems.

    I have listened to academics talk about how much they prefer the institutional eportfolio tool because ‘it has a better WYSIWIG editor than the LMS’. My skin has crawled as they’ve described how they administer quizzes through the eportfolio tool oblivious to the fact that if there is one thing you might want an LMS for it would be for handling quizzes (at least for summative assessment).

    For a long time I believed that HEIs had no place even running an eportfolio and that the main advantage for the HEI would be institutional lock in. I wrote about this last year The PLE as a Single Tool and the Issue of Institutional Lock-in.

    I’ve modified my view and I’m happy for HEIs to run a basic eportfolio system but to allow the student to have a choice in the tool that they use. The HEI solution might be as simple as Google Sites such as Clemson University uses for its students. For some students it will be their public blog, for others Google, for others it’ll be the HEI but for most it will be a combination.

    What we’ve seen, yet again, is a good idea messed up through an inherent and systemic tendency to obfuscate and a lack of clear direction and guidance for academic staff.

    I’m worried that your last point may come true but I’m also hopeful that, eventually and after much wasted effort things will change for the best.



  2. You raise some interesting points in your post Mark and seeing as we’re at the same conference #EAC2011 and hearing the same stories, it’s good to have some conversation here on your blog. You last point is one (and I agree with Mark S on this) that we need to take care that ePortfolios aren’t used (hijacked) solely for compliance and reporting purposes. It’s too easy for these pressures (such as accreditation & TEQSA) to force a narrow sighted view of ePortfolios as a solution to a problem. We have a responsibility to educate and inform leadership that while ePortfolios might go some way to helping with compliance and measurement – they are, and can be, much more. I also agree that there is a range of understandings of what an ePortfolio is and maybe that’s OK as we continue to explore the affordances the tool can provide.

    Our mission, if we wish to accept it, is to make enough noise to raises the potential of ePortfolios to the level (and above) of that of the institutional ‘points of pain’ (reporting, compliance, etc.). This ‘noise’ is evidence of improved learning outcomes, meaningful and purposeful assessment activities, demonstration of attainment of skills and capabilities, and the development of students who are work ready and life-long learners, amongst others. Yesterday’s Q&A Panel Session (which included students) at #EAC2011 demonstrated that we need to recruit student voices to help us make that noise. If implemented properly, students will create the demand for authentic, embedded use of ePortfolios in units/subjects and across programs.

    The other comment I wanted to make was about the structure of an ePortfolio. You mention that your ePortfolio is stored in a number of places/services depending on the type of artifact/item. I agree that this is appropriate, but I’d suggest that while these are a disparate collection, an (institutional, or not) ePortfolio tool could you bring those together within a framework that can provide a presentation to a range of stakeholders such as teacher or supervisor (for assessment), peers (for review and comment) and maybe even a prospective employer (for critique or evaluation).

    There’s still many questions with regard to how an institutional ePortfolios might be managed, and I guess that there will be a variety of ways this will work and we need to maintain the conversations as work out best (appropriate) practice.


  3. Quite a few of the people I have talked to about Implementing Mahara see it exactly as you say “a compliance checklist”

    one view/page per competency, or criteria
    need extra reporting
    want Grading

    If these are the common requirements, then perhaps a new solution within Moodle?

    Which really could exist in moodle, just needs some creative integration pehaps?

    I was wondering, if it would be a good idea to have a database field type of “mahara view” (showing a dropdown of views to select from), so you could build your competency lists in the database and submit the views per item….

    Or perhaps a new activity where it is a competency list (pulled from outcomes db), and against each you select a view and provide a grade / scale / outcome value on each point….

    Or perhaps, have a submit to group variant in Mahara which is a submit to Moodle?

    Or perhaps creatively use the wiki in Moodle

    Teacher creates a multi-page wiki of the “competency framework” and student fills it in, just need good grade/outcome options there..

  4. Oh yeah, Enovation Solutions (www.enovation.ie) who I used to work for had a nice Moodle addon called Student Diary pro. (cant find it on their site now)

    The institution configured a competency framework and then the students added diary entries (proof) and self selected the competency the felt they had achieved, and then their mentor confirmed it, and it was exportable as a report etc.

    just as example..

  5. As has been hinted at above, the main issue for me with ePortfolios (other than the frankly hideous name) is that we are all terrified of stuff that we don’t know. Universities are desperate to turn ePortfolios into something, anything, that they can quantify – preferably with a checklist of what needs to go in it so they all look the same. If we let students determine what their portfolio is, where it is and what it consists of (which, ironically, is exactly what Mahara seems to be designed to do), presumably all hell will break loose because then an ePortfolio could be anything at all and that’s just a whole pile of crazy.

  6. An ePortfolio (whatever/wherever/whenever it is) should be the student’s own (& owned by them) as well as private till they are prepared to share parts of it. In my presentation yesterday at #EAC2011 I talked about ePortfolio as being both process & product. The process will be the messy, a ‘whole pile of crazy’ as Sarah suggests, & a personal creative space. The product could be many things (assessment, report, resume, etc.) and will be the presentation developed by the student appropriate to need. No way should we mandate what an ePortfolio should be, or how it should look. Students might need scaffolding to help them learn how best to use such a tool as well make decision on how best to represent themselves.

  7. I’m not at this conference (though I’ve been combing through the tweets), but is anyone talking about the implications of Facebook’s Open Graph platform for ePortfolios? What seemed profoundly obvious to me during the Facebook F8 conference this year was that a Learning Management System could easily tap into it to generate ePortfolio-suitable content directly onto a Facebook profile.

    A sense of ownership has always struck me as key to the success of an ePortfolio system. Pushing verified content to an external profile (like Facebook, for example) has always struck me as the best way to keep people invested in their portfolio. I know I personally wouldn’t put any time into a portfolio under a institute’s domain, but if that institute allowed me to take the content across to where my real online identity lives? Sounds way better to me.

  8. We’ve been slow to implement eportfolios, but that’s because we wanted the faculties to figure out for themselves what they might do with them, rather than handing down a series of approved uses. So far there has been a smattering of the compliance-type uses (mostly from professional faculties), but also a few other uses: one of the schools in science is trialling the student use of eportfolios as lab books, including a reflection on how each session went. Another large faculty is trying to encourage student uptake by supporting the eportfolio use with an ecommunity that has a big module about careers, including info about what you’d need to enter them. They’re trying to get students to think about how to record their own University experience as they go. This isn’t teacher-centered; the staff will never see the results.

    Sure, people aren’t quite sure what to do with them, but with some creative input at the local level some interesting ideas are slowly emerging. There’s not dead here; I’d say they’re about to reach toddler stage.

  9. I think one of the barriers to adoption is the conflict between providing the right amount of structure and direction and allowing the e-portfolio to be personalised and flexible. In order to develop the metacognitive skills required to effectively use an e-portfolio, institutions really need to look at providing frameworks and, at subject/faculty level, scaffolded models. This really requires a review of objectives and competencies and finding a way to flexibly incorporate these into the model.
    Another huge barrier is the argument for interoperability. Whilst it’s undeniably important that users have an e-portfolio for life to facilitate learner autonomy and the motivation to invest their time, the idea of institutions providing an ever expanding repository has worrying financial implications.
    Clearly we have a lot of work to do to ensure the e-portfolio (or PLE) becomes the centre of the learner journey(s), pulling everything together, making everything relevant. Just because we haven’t got it right yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t work!

  10. Almost everything has been said above, and I totally agree with Sarah’s and Colin’s posts to give students more freedom to be creative with their portfolios. We must never forget, that an ePortfolio is student-centered and is owned by the student alone … so let them alone with all these faculty restrictions and considerations about assessment and reporting before they can even get started with their portfolios. If ePortfolios are struggling to survive then it is not the fault of the ePortfolio but of administrations, faculties, teachers, IT departments, all of them wanting to put everything under control! One example is the way MAHARA access is handled. If an institution has both Moodle and Mahara, they tend to use the SSo to access MAHARA, which basically is fine. But what happens once the student leaves he institution where he was rehgistered not with his own email account but with an institutional account. How will he/she be able to have access to the MAHARA where all his work is stored nad which will be needed after having studies finished for example to apply for a job? This is absolutely the opposite of what ePortfolio was meant to be and is one of the main concerns of students. If they go to WordPress or Blogger, they can be certain that their access is not blocked by an institution that has again misunderstood the way learning
    happens. To make noise we need the students to defend their own learning!

  11. Funny Colin should use the term ‘hijack’ – yes this is the problem – that different sectors, even faculties or even individual staff, have their own preconceptions of the elephant in a darkened room.

    Some five years ago I presented a paper to various audiences in the UK and on the continent: http://issuu.com/efoliouk/docs/who_is_hijacking_our_e-portfolios in which I argue that too many ‘authorities’ argue for their own particular model. Research students are still quoting authors whose work is now some 10 years out of date as if the findings based on old pedagogies and Web1.0 technologies were somehow true.

    I try to cover many of these points in my blog at: http://www.efoliointheuk.blogspot.com

    Ray T

  12. ePortfolios like all learning needs a combination of good teaching ie what can it be used for ( not just assessments), how to use it and the time and freedom to play. I am in my 3 rd year ofvePortfolio use only twice has it been used in a subject. It is My Space and much of what I have there never leaves the sanctuary of being private – it could if I chose to but I don’t it is where I learn and record my learning. I am thinking of starting one that shows what I have achieved in the last three years – academically, professionally and for me what I am learning about myself – some I may share if the need arises – others no.

    To me ePortfolios are for personal learning and not about assessment although they may have a role for this. It is My Personal Space My Story to share as I desire or not.
    My institution uses PebblePad and all students have access regardless of whether it is being used as part of a course or not. PebblePad is both my playground and a tool for sharing when I choose.

  13. Another huge barrier is the argument for interoperability. Whilst it’s undeniably important that users have an e-portfolio for life to facilitate learner autonomy and the motivation to invest their time, the idea of institutions providing an ever expanding repository has worrying financial implications.
    I know I personally wouldn’t put any time into a portfolio under a institute’s domain, but if that institute allowed me to take the content across to where my real online identity lives? Sounds way better to me.

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