Viewpoint

ePortfolios, Finally!

We’ve known for decades, long before portfolios became electronic portfolios, that portfolio practices in the right teacherly hands and in the right syllabus structure seem to improve student engagement and learning. Now, after a brief, five-year detour into irrational database exuberance when electronic portfolio systems became, mostly, tools for institutional re-accreditation and accountability, electronic portfolios are back at the center of consideration for re-architecting teaching and learning on a number of campuses in the United States and around the world. ePortfolio systems and associated portfolio practices finally are on track to become the centerpiece of educational transformation they always seemed destined to be.

Portfolio practices are theory-based teaching and learning practices supported by an electronic portfolio system and so are qualitatively different from course management systems that are just management systems with little or no pedagogical underpinnings; CMSes reinforce the status quo, whereas portfolio practices lead to learning that fits the learning ecology of the present age.

Many signs now point to a sudden explosion of electronic portfolio planning, adoption, and rapid market expansion. Yes, we’ve seen ups and downs in this market sector in the last 10 years, but the trends now show a broad and deeply considered movement toward adoption of electronic portfolios across all sectors, not just in education but in the larger economy. They’ve moved beyond the education market alone and are starting their ascension to culture-wide status. Learners at all levels of education in non-profit and for-profit educational institutions, employees in corporations, and even those not affiliated with any organization are using electronic portfolio systems.

Behind this market upswing is the return of academia to the learning values of portfolios based on a recognition that portfolio theory is a good guide for transformation of the academic side of the institution in this time.

Many indicators support our impression that academia has re-embraced portfolios. The association I direct that arose from the ePortfolio community has quickly gained members across the globe, including most of the largest ePortfolio vendors. We are seeing an uptick in number of campuses asking for guidance about a campus-wide adoption of electronic portfolio systems. We hear, in conversations with vendors, that their business is booming. In annual surveys such as the Campus Computing Survey, we find portfolio activity at nearly half of all institutions of higher education in the United States. AAC&U, at its annual meeting in January in Washington, DC, had a pre-conference all-day workshop [centering on portfolios] that was very much like a conference within a conference and enjoyed standing-room only attendance.

And, we have found, also, that electronic portfolios have broken out of the educational sector and are being adopted for employees in companies. ePortfolios are not alone as a technology originally identified with education that crossed the line to become a cultural phenomenon. Most commonly, general market technology applications have crossed the boundary from outside of education into education, but electronic portfolios are the rare exception where an application originally used in education is now moving out into the general culture.

In general, the distinction between education technology applications and popular technology applications is disappearing. Blogs and Wikis are both cultural and educational tools. In fact, many of the best educational Web sites are based on Wiki technology. Facebook has features that allow it to be an education tool. Though electronic portfolios are now marketed mostly through education institutions that become, in essence, the agent for the electronic portfolio vendor, this business model will not persist as the exclusive sales channel. The demand for life-long portfolios that are owned by individuals is just too great. FolioSpaces (built on top of the open source Mahara), for example, does not require that you be associated with an institution.

Back at the campus, we notice continually that colleges and universities are looking more thoughtfully at the annual bill for course management systems and wondering if such a large expenditure might not gain better returns if the course management system also had an easy-to-use electronic portfolio system as an integrated module.

There is also a strong trend toward open source CMSs such as Moodle and Sakai, both of which have integrated electronic portfolio systems (Mahara and OSP). Reputedly, Moodle is now the world’s most popular course management system; if not, it soon will be because it is being adopted rapidly everywhere around the world. With the Mahara ePortfolio system now integrated with Moodle, the attractiveness of Moodle will only increase.

The realization is dawning across academia that portfolio practices, as an educational process, is rewarding and engaging and fits the times--student owned, stays with student over time, produces additional metrics by which to assess and evaluate students, supports high-impact learning experiences outside of the classroom, helps create a strong resume, develops reflective and integrative thinking, supports life-long learning, and so on.

At the same time, a parallel realization is dawning that tracking student outcomes toward learning goals, while a useful and necessary exercise, does not yield as much value as we had thought: Such a process does not add much information about individual students, does not fit easily into a syllabus; nor does it generate student (or faculty) interest and, in the end, perhaps does not provide the kind of data that accrediting agencies are looking for. Mostly, developing an accountability system has provided rewards to faculty and student painfully insufficient to warrant the work such development requires.

One can have complete and strict accountability (i.e., quality control), but, if the assembly line is not working well, accountability is useless. Besides, we are no longer in the assembly line educational era.

Was this “irrational database exuberance” largely a waste, then? Probably not. In fact, if campuses identified learning goals, developed rubrics, and engaged faculty in looking once again at their courses to specify what learning outcomes they expected of their students, this effort resulted at least in moving thinking from content delivery to learning outcome. It changed the terms of the whole enterprise: It is not enough to think just of exposing students to content, you must, as a teacher, bring about a change in students’ behavior. That’s a major re-orientation.

And now using portfolios to bring about the changes in student behavior is the logical next step. Looking back, you’d think we had a plan, in the words of a dean at MIT.

On the other hand, what are now called, variously, learning management systems, personal learning environments, or course management systems--Blackboard and Moodle and Sakai, for example--have dominated the campus academic computing strategy for a decade as the one academic campus-wide system every campus had to have. That decade is finished, and along with the end of the decade comes the end of strategizing so heavily around course management systems alone.

Electronic portfolio systems are more and more the new center of campus strategic thinking about learning and technology.

Electronic portfolios are quickly becoming the new standard that not only every campus has to have but that every person has to have. As I’ve stated, around half of all higher education institutions use electronic portfolios, along with most, if not all, for-profit universities, and they are now spreading into the corporate sector where employees use them for a record of their work.

Growth in ePortfolio use is now month-to-month; new companies providing electronic portfolios are popping up constantly. Electronic Portfolios that have been used internationally but not in the United States, such as PebblePad (U.K. and Australia) and Mahara (New Zealand), are beginning to penetrate the American market. Mahara, in particular, is enjoying its recent integration with Moodle. FolioSpaces, a free electronic portfolio built on Mahara, is making inroads. And traditional electronic portfolio companies such as Digication, Pearson, TaskStream, Desire2Learn, Blackboard, Chalk and Wire, Epsilen, and FolioTek are enjoying a very good year, indeed. Adobe has entered the electronic portfolio market and in terms of authoring and providing standard file formats brings a lot to the ePortfolio market. Other companies that have not been in the spotlight, such as Remote-Learner, which has just become the second North American partner for Mahara after Serensoft, have suddenly come to the forefront.

The market is exploding. In recent campus visits in Rhode Island, New York, and an upcoming one in North Carolina, we have found that the issue is how to deploy ePortfolio systems across campus, but, unlike in the past, in a thoughtful and lasting way. A few years ago, I would have been talking with individual departments or the faculty development office. Now, the Provost, VPAA, Dean, or CIO are leading the efforts.

Summing up, learning management systems, as campus-based, course-based, professor-controlled extensions of the traditional classroom, are facing a rapidly changing market. Those LMS companies that have an electronic portfolio component must re-think their strategy: The ePortfolio component, if it can become Web 2.0 in essence, will extend the market for the supplying company, whereas the LMS component will not. The LMSes have reached their ceiling: They will remain as a necessary management tool, but growth will be slow. Higher education institutions are wondering if the price-point is justified. At this point, it seems that electronic portfolios may supply more bang for the buck.

Electronic portfolios, after seemingly running into a dead end a few years ago, are again a robust growth sector and a path to educational transformation. It’s about time.

Author's note: For this article, I’ve created a Web site with ePortfolio resources that may help those of you who wish to discover more: www.eportfolio-source.org. This is a free site that I will maintain for readers of this column. It is a starting point.

[Photo  by Trent Batson]

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