Viewpoint

ePortfolio: There's No 'There' There

Many educators and administrators have caught the ePortfolio bug. But where does this bug lead them? It leads, seemingly, in many different directions. And here's why: ePortfolios mean differing things to different people.

For some, an ePortfolio is an open education approach to learning. For others, it's the technologies that support open education. For others, it's the learning artifacts students create and structure. For still others, it's a way to assess student progress toward learning goals. And, finally, for others, ePortfolios are a way to record a person's professional achievements over time.

Monday morning, 4 am, shoveling a foot of snow out of the driveway so I can catch the Acela to Manhattan to meet an administrator from Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Over lunch, we talk about plans for Curtin to undertake an ePortfolio initiative. During the past decade, I've had many such conversations with educators and administrators over how to "do" ePortfolios. The conversations involve a lot of questions on my part. I need to find out which "face" of ePortfolio I'm seeing before I can offer any comments.

There was a series of commercials on television a few years ago that made the claim, "We don't make many of the things you use, but we make them better."  This is true of the ePortfolio idea as well.

Innovations in learning over the past few decades have sought to increase student engagement based on observations that engagement seems to correlate with learning. So, academic institutions have tried to become more "student centered." They have devised ways for learning to be active or problem-based or experiential. Educators want students to take responsibility for their own learning, and these alternate ways of learning are designed to invite a sense of ownership.

Other examples of active, student-centered learning are service learning, internships, field experience, even a semester abroad. But, what general umbrella term describes this general thrust to hand the baton to learners? Recently, a book from MIT Press called Opening Up Education, (Kumar and Iiyoshi, eds.), used the term "open education" to describe the various instantiations of the impulse toward student engagement. Open education can mean being open to whatever approaches it takes to facilitate learning.

This book, which has gained quite a bit of attention in the past few months, looks at how technologies are "making better" various open education practices. ePortfolio technology is one of those. (Note: A technology doesn't have to be called an ePortfolio for it to be used as an ePortfolio.)

Why are ePortfolios making open education initiatives better? If we are indeed moving toward using more open education approaches, then students are learning outside the (traditional) box. Once you move from lockstep learning and introduce variations in how learning goals are met, then you need some mechanisms to help track and process the variations. Perhaps teachers judge the comments that students make about their learning, with evidence to back those comments or illustrate those comments. Students can follow various paths to learn what you want them to learn, but they must in the end show that they can talk about that learning in ways that others can understand.

Without some way for students to manage their learning evidence and tie their comments to that evidence, the variations would overwhelm the teacher. But, with digital evidence and some aggregating tools, the variations can indeed be handled.

In other words, let students follow the paths that are most comfortable and productive for them, be it artistic or text-based, research, synthesizing, oral argument, video production, coordinating a team, etc. But ask them to keep evidence of their work along the way. And ask them to explain what they learned.

ePortfolio, then, is about open education but, as a technology, supports open education. It is about students owning their own work and about connecting that work to the curriculum. It is also about longitudinal learning. It is many things, but in fact is perhaps primarily the core cluster of capabilities and attributes that enables education to flower in this century.


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