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Review of Portfolios in Higher Education: A Flowering of Inquiry and Inventiveness in the Trenches

The Executive Director of The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL.org), the professional association for the world portfolio community, presents a preliminary report on the current status of global portfolios, the development of a new portfolio-inspired field of inquiry, and the surprising variety of uses academics are discovering for portfolio technology.


The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL.org) conducted a survey of its 100 institutional members in five countries this year and found 61 distinct uses of portfolios among the 20 institutions that responded. After ten years of work with portfolios in higher education, I never would have guessed that we would find so many different uses on just 20 campuses! When so many people become this inventive with a technology, we can assume the technology has been institutionalized.

AAEEBL 2010 Survey Reveals Wide Range of Portfolio Applications

It’s only when we look at the variety of uses reported in our survey [preliminary report] that we truly get a sense of the strength of the portfolio movement:

Not surprisingly, we found portfolios being used most inventively in graduate programs such as in nursing, dentistry, medical education, and teacher education, in most cases to document practicums but also for ethics reflection. One program in medical education reported using a portfolio for students to reflect on professional behavior. One teacher education program requires a video portfolio.

In undergraduate programs, one use was especially notable: a chemistry major program requiring that all undergraduate majors use portfolios to demonstrate their research skills, collecting evidence of their work in the portfolio, and analyzing results in writing in the portfolio.

A program in social geography uses its portfolio requirement to develop project-working skills in its students. Another program in fashion apparel design has its students use their portfolios in the traditional way: collecting photos of various stages of the design.

Many of the reported uses also stressed the value of students learning to communicate in writing about their work. (At Clemson, all learning outcomes include communication skills, as educators at Clemson and elsewhere respond to the new awareness of how poorly U.S. college graduates write.) Portfolios are frequently used at the reporting institutions to document experiential learning and, in one case, to document its “undergraduate research summer.”

A surprising number of programs reported they had introduced a new portfolio course specifically tasked with integrating knowledge from the various courses in the program. Several programs have added a capstone or culminating portfolio requirement, encouraging students to integrate and synthesize their work over the full program.

The New Scholarly Field of Portfolio Studies

The founding of AAEEBL in 2009, along with its subsequent broad acceptance in academia, is in itself a signal that a field of portfolio studies is emerging. The Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) has funded two portfolio projects this year, another strong indication of systematic inquiry and interest surrounding portfolios.

At the same time, the number of vendors providing portfolio products stands at around 30 to 40 world wide, a large number for a technology and market that is not yet mature and may not be for years to come. Not everything online is a portfolio. A portfolio is (almost always, now) a digital repository that is used to develop reflective and integrative critical thinking skills. Happily, the field of portfolio studies is beginning to coalesce not only into associations and affiliations, but also into a scholarly field that can provide guideposts amid all the development.

Scholarly affiliations surrounding portfolios are clearly on the rise and peer-reviewed publications in the field are emerging. This academic year at least two peer-reviewed scholarly international journals will be launched in our field--watch for announcements. Another great resource, the Inter/National Center for Electronic Portfolio Research (ncepr.org) has been working with cohorts of institutions, both in the U.S. and abroad, for five years or more--visit its site for a list of publications. And a global portfolio network is in the works. AAEEBL and its collaborators world- wide hope to finalize this network in mid-2011.

Searching the World for Portfolio Wisdom

I was lucky enough to travel over 30,000 miles between July 1 and November 19 to portfolio events around the world: London, Boston, Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia, Clemson, SC, and Worcester, MA. London: focus on the control of one’s digital identity, ownership of your own life-long portfolio. Boston: a world gathering of the portfolio community over four days. Australia: using portfolios to facilitate “recognition of prior learning” or RPL, a government supported effort to develop the Australian workforce. Clemson: students from Clemson University and Virginia Tech University showing their own portfolios with pride and excitement. Worcester: portfolios for faculty development, on behalf of annual review and an institutional portfolio of resources to help faculty do their jobs.

As colleges and universities in the U.S. find myriad uses for portfolios, governments and universities in other countries find uses that are appropriate to their culture, needs, and support systems.

Moving Ahead

Portfolios will not settle into as defined a set of functions as have the course-management systems. One reason is that portfolios support new practices that are emerging in this century. Also, course management systems, no matter the name, usually are defined by and focused on a course, which has a beginning and an ending. Portfolios are instead most often identified not with a specific course but with the learner over time.

The learner-centered century is just now underway. As the years go by, we will continue to see a proliferation of uses of portfolio technologies. But, at the same time, formal study of portfolio uses is intensifying and a scholarly field is emerging. More resources and collaborative opportunities will be available, in fact are available now.

Portfolio technology has improved remarkably in the last few years. For those of you who looked into portfolios 5 years ago, or even 3 years ago, if you look now you will find that the portfolio world has become much richer and more vibrant. The portfolio bubble may have seemed to burst in 2007, but, like the Internet bubble of 2000, real solid growth and invention began after the bubble.

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