The Electronic Portfolio Boom: What's it All About?
The term "electronic portfolio," or "ePortfolio," is on everyone's lips. We
often hear it associated with assessment, but also with accreditation, reflection,
student resumes, and career tracking. It's as if this new tool is the answer
to all the questions we didn't realize we were asking.
A portfolio, electronic or paper, is simply an organized collection of completed
work. Art students have built portfolios for decades. What makes ePortfolios
so enchanting to so many is the intersection of three trends:
- Student work is now mostly in electronic form, or is based on a canonical
electronic file even if it's printed out: papers, reports, proposals, simulations,
solutions, experiments, renditions, graphics, or just about any other kind
of student work.
- The Web is everywhere: We assume (not always true, of course) that our
students have ready access to the Web. The work is "out there" on the Internet,
and therefore the first step for transferring work to a Web site has already
- Databases are available through Web sites, allowing students to manage
large volumes of their work. The "dynamic" Web site that's database-driven,
instead of HTML link-driven, has become the norm for Web developers.
We've reached a critical mass, habits have changed, and as we reach electronic
"saturation" on campus, new norms of work are emerging. Arising out of this
critical mass is a vision of how higher education can benefit, which is with
We seem to be beginning a new wave of technology development in higher education.
Freeing student work from paper and making it organized, searchable, and transportable
opens enormous possibilities for re-thinking whole curricula: the evaluation
of faculty, assessment of programs, certification of student work, how accreditation
works. In short, ePortfolios might be the biggest thing in technology innovation
on campus. Electronic portfolios have a greater potential to alter higher education
at its very core than any other technology application we've known thus far.
The momentum is building. A year ago, companies I talked with had not even
heard of ePortfolios. But at a focus session in October, sponsored by Educause's
National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (www.educause.edu/nlii/), we found
out how far this market has come: A number of technology vendors and publishers
are starting to offer ePortfolio tools. The focus session helped us all see
the bigger picture. I came away saying to myself, "I knew it had grown, but
I had no idea by how much!"
ePortfolio developers are making sure that their platforms can accept the full
range of file types and content: text, graphics, video, audio, photos, and animation.
The manner in which student work is turned in, commented on, turned back to
students, reviewed in the aggregate over a semester, and certified can be—and
is being—deeply altered and unimaginably extended.
This tool brings to bear the native talents of computers—storage, management
of data, retrieval, display, and communication—to challenge how to better organize
student work to improve teaching and learning. It seems, on the surface, too
good to be true.
ePortfolios vs. Webfolios
Since the mid-90s, the term "ePortfolio" or "electronic portfolio" has
been used to describe collections of student work at a Web site. Within
the field of composition studies, the term "Webfolio" has also been used.
In this article, we are using the current, general meaning of the term,
which is a dynamic Web site that interfaces with a database of student
work artifacts. Webfolios are static Web sites where functionality derives
from HTML links. "E-portfolio" therefore now refers to database-driven,
dynamic Web sites, not static, HTML-driven sites.
So, What's the Bad News?
Moving beyond the familiar one-semester/one-class limits of managing student
learning artifacts gets us into unfamiliar territory. How do we alter the curriculum
to integrate portfolios? How do we deal with long-term storage, privacy, access,
and ongoing vendor support? What about the challenge of interoperability among
platforms so student work can move to a new campus upon transfer?
In short, how do we make the ePortfolio an enterprise application, importing
data from central computing, serving the application on a central, secure server,
and managing an ever-enlarging campus system? Electronic portfolios have great
reach in space and time so they will not be adopted lightly. We've seen how
extensively learning management systems such as WebCT, Blackboard, and Angel
can alter our campuses. ePortfolios are much more challenging for large-scale
Still, ePortfolio implementations are occurring on dozens if not hundreds of
campuses. Schools of education are especially good candidates, as they're pressured
by accrediting agencies demanding better-organized and accessible student work.
Some statewide systems are adopting ePortfolio systems as well. The Minnesota
State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota system
have ePortfolios. Electronic portfolio consortia are also forming. The open-source
movement, notably MIT's Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI), has embraced the ePortfolio
as a key application within the campus computing virtual infrastructure.
Moreover, vendors, in order to establish themselves as the market begins to
take shape, are already introducing ePortfolio tools. Several companies, including
BlackBoard, WebCT, SCT, Nuventive, Concord, and McGraw-Hill, are said to either
have or are developing electronic-portfolio tools.
Why Should We Believe?
Let's look in detail at how three groups—students, faculty, and administrators—may
benefit from ePortfolios.
Students seem most interested in the ways ePortfolios can flesh out their resumes,
both before and after graduation. If internship interviewers or potential employers
can see an online resume that includes views of a student's actual work, that
student may be more likely to obtain the position. Students also want to see
where they are in their college career regarding requirements. ePortfolios can
When students study for a test, they can review their own work and read the
instructor's comments on their work. ePortfolios will make this easier to do,
especially over multiple semesters. If a student wants to transfer, the ePortfolio
data may ease the process of articulation with another college or university.
After graduation, having their work still available to them in a university-supported
environment will provide ongoing value and help sustain the relationship with
their alma mater.
Faculty members also have a vested interest in electronic portfolios. Just
as students do, professors can use such a tool as their own resume builder,
providing more teaching data in their promotion and tenure reviews. Adding access
to the work students have done in the faculty member's classes can better make
a case for teaching excellence, an area of review that has been historically
under-documented and not sufficiently objective. When a student shows up in
their office asking for a letter of reference two years after the pertinent
course ended, the ePortfolio can both help jog memory and provide a link in
the letter of reference.
Of course the primary benefit for faculty is to provide a tool to better manage,
review, reflect, and comment on student work. For this purpose, an ePortfolio
is a major step forward.
Even administrators may see the value of ePortfolios, especially when they
realize their potential for:
- Creating a system of tracking student work over time, in a single course,
with students and faculty reflecting on it.
- Aggregating many students' work in a particular course to see how the students
as a whole are progressing toward learning goals.
- Assessing many courses in similar ways that are all part of one major and
thus, by extension, assessing the entire program of study.
Ultimately, all of these benefits provide administrators highly useful data
for accreditation. Further, they may discover how to:
- Integrate courses with new methods, orienting syllabi and curricula around
- Encourage continuity of student work from semester to semester in linked
courses (History 101-102, English 101-102, or prerequisites in a major, etc.).
- Have a more fully informed and dynamic, constantly updated view of student
progress in a program, which is very helpful in formative assessment.
Finally, administrators in some fields already know that ePortfolio tools are
very useful in organizing curricula around professional standards.
This is only a list of potential benefits to improving academic business as
it's currently performed. Each person encountering ePortfolios has myriad uses
in mind. That's because the movement of students' work onto the Internet has
implications for higher education that we believe to be so far-reaching, it's
difficult to comprehend all the possibilities.
Let's Do it
Phil Long, chief strategist of the Academic Computing Enterprise at MIT, has
said that academia is now in the "tribal discussion" phase of ePortfolio development
on campuses. How far is it from tribal discussion and brainstorming, to stable
implementation of ePortfolios on campuses? What rewards are there for proceeding,
and what challenges do we face?
Despite a general recognition of the usefulness of an ePortfolio, the key to
success is how well the campus population is prepared for using this new tool.
It's not a simple add-on to existing courses; if it is, students may not see
the value. Indeed, if ePortfolio tools become just a simpler way to log student
work, we've missed the boat.
Experience on one campus shows that, even though 100 percent of the faculty
in a program have adopted ePortfolios, students still may not see their value
because the faculty have not re-thought their courses to accommodate electronic
portfolios. Unless they do, the standards initiative in that program may be
- Storage: This may be the key problem. If all student work is stored
in ePortfolios for perpetuity, considering the size of multi-media files,
how can universities manage the volume of data? If they can, how will universities
maintain accessibility over the years as file formats change? There is only
a questionable history of this capability with digital technologies: Data
on floppy disks, used only 16 years ago, would be difficult to access today.
How useful will electronic portfolios be, for assessment and re-accreditation
on campuses, if implementation is spotty or non-standardized? For implementation
to work, years of preparation may be necessary within a department, program
- Security: Can we maintain a high level of security for personal information
transmitted over the wires or stored in a server on campus?
In other words, how do we make an ePortfolio platform an enterprise application?
An enterprise application keeps personal data secure from end-to-end, requiring
coordination and support from central servers and data folks. A laissez-faire
approach to electronic portfolios on a campus may expose the data to hacking,
and the university to a law suit.
- Certification: Should institutions of higher education attempt to
certify student work, stored in campus-based ePortfolios, as authentic? Namely,
should we include this work as part of the official transcript?
If so, then a system would need to be created in which faculty can easily
close off student work at the end of the semester. When grades are submitted,
the work at that point is certified as the authentic work of each student.
After that, students would have access only to the unofficial version of the
data and would no longer be able to alter their work in the official version.
- A question for the industry: How can universities commit to an ePortfolio
tool that is in its first release and not yet established in the market? How
can we count on a small vendor remaining in business over the years? How do
we select from among a large array of unproven "solutions?" There's a great
disparity between the huge commitment universities may be contemplating over
time and the just-emerging state of the business: We have commitment on one
side and experimentation on the other.
ePortfolios have arrived, sort of. Oddly, universities have hyped ePortfolios
during the past year, while vendors are racing to catch up, instead of the other
way around. One interesting tip for us all: English departments and writing
programs have been employing portfolios for 25 years or so, and using "Webfolios"
(or ePortfolios based on HTML links), since the inception of the Internet in
the mid-90s. Writing programs have a history with implementation that could
be helpful on your campus.
Here's how I've used portfolios in my writing classes: Over the course of a
semester, students would collect their graded papers in a folder. At week 10,
I'd offer the students the option of re-writing three papers of the 10 they'd
written, receiving a second grade on the assignment to average in to their score.
Most students seized the opportunity. The educational value was their reflection
on their own work, in becoming engaged once more in revising their papers.
At the end of the semester—week 15—their last project was a second review and
reconstruction of their portfolio: The students could "throw out" two of their
papers. Secondly, they were required to write a paper about how they've changed
as a writer, using their portfolios as a resource.
The University of Rhode Island now has four ePortfolio initiatives going with
three different platforms. Our School of Education was the pioneer, developing
its own tool and disseminating ideas on campus. Our College of the Environment
and Life Sciences started their initiative this fall. In both cases, extensive
programmatic work either precedes introduction of the ePortfolio tool, or is
ongoing now that the tool is in place. As always, technology is just a potential.
People energize that potential. And the tribal discussion continues.
ePortfolio Tools and Resources
Within the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative is a group called
The Electronic Portfolio Action Committee (EPAC). EPAC has been led over
the last year by John Ittelson of Cal State Monterey Bay. Helen Barrett
of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, a leading founder of EPAC, has
been investigating uses of ePortfolio tools for years. MIT's Open Knowledge
Initiative (OKI) has provided leadership and consulting for the group,
along with its OKI partner, Stanford University. The Carnegie Foundation
has been active within EPAC, as have a number of universities.
What follows is a list of ePortfolio tools now available or in production:
· Epselen Portfolios, IUPUI, www.epsilen.com
· The Collaboratory Project, Northwestern, http://collaboratory.nunet.net
· Folio Thinking: Personal Learning Portfolios, Stanford, http://scil.stanford.edu/research/projects/folio.html
· Catalyst Portfolio Tool, University of Washington, www.catalyst.washington.edu
· MnSCU e-folio, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, www.efoliomn.com
· Carnegie Knowledge Media Lab, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement
of Teaching, www.carnegiefoundation.org/kml/
· Learning Record Online (LRO) Project, The Computer Writing and Research
Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~syverson/olr/
· Electronic Portfolio, Johns Hopkins University, www.cte.jhu.edu/epweb
· CLU Webfoil, California Lutheran University, www.folioworld.com
· Professional Learning Planner, Vermont Institute for Science, Math
and Technology, www.vismt.org
· Certification Program Portfolio, University of Missouri-Columbia and
LANIT Consulting, https://portfolio.c'e.missouri.edu/
· Technology Portfolio and Professional Development Portfolio, Wake Forest
University Department of Education, www.wfu.edu/~cunninac/edtech/technologyportfolio.htm
· e-Portfolio Project, The College of Education at the University of
· PASS-PORT (Professional Accountability Support System using a PORTal
Approach) University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Xavier University of
· The Connecticut College e-Portfolio Development Consortium, www.union.edu/PUBLIC/ECODEPT/kleind/conncoll/
· The Kalamazoo College Portfolio, Kalamazoo College, www.kzoo.edu/pfolio
· Web Portfolio, St. Olaf College, www.stolaf.edu/depts/cis/web_portfolios.htm
· The Electronic Portfolio, Wesleyan University, http://portfolio2.wesleyan.edu/names.nsf?login
· The Diagnostic Digital Portfolio (DDP), Alverno College, www.ddp.alverno.edu/
· E-Portfolio Portal, University of Wisconsin-Madison, http://portfolios.education.wisc.edu/
· Web Folio Builder, TaskStream Tools of Engagement, www.taskstream.com
· FolioLive, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, www.foliolive.com
· Outcomes Assessment Solutions, TrueOutcomes, www.trueoutcomes.com/index.html
· Chalk & Wire, www.chalkandwire.com
· LiveText, www.livetext.com
· LearningQuest Professional Development Planner, www.learning-quest.com/
· Folio by eportaro, www.eportaro.com
· Concord (a digital content server for BlackBoard systems), www.concord-usa.com
· iWebfolio by Nuventive (now in a strategic alliance with SCT), www.iwebfolio.com
· Aurbach & Associates, www.aurbach.com/