ePortfolios | Viewpoint

A Survey of the Electronic Portfolio Market Sector: Analysis and Surprising Trends

Since I published “ePortfolios Hijacked” in 2007 in Campus Technology, electronic portfolios have moved away from what I, then, considered an over emphasis on institutional tracking of student progress toward learning outcomes in a traditional curricular structure. Now, electronic portfolios offer a more broad-based and exciting architecture. They’ve moved from institution-centered to multi-centered; from assessment-centered to learning and assessment centered, from school-time limited to life-long and life-wide, from installed to SaaS, and from reinforcement of the status quo to supporting new learning and assessment designs. Electronic portfolios once again embody the potential to support education and learning practices that fit with the trends in education toward “high-impact educational practices” (George Kuh) and in life towards building a professional digital identity.

Electronic portfolios have dramatically improved in functionality and user interface since that article was published four years ago. The gold rush to accreditation management is over, and electronic portfolios now offer a range of services, support, and features that can excite those hoping for improvement in how education adopts technology.

At the same time, the market itself has sufficiently grown in capitalization and strength to influence how education at all levels evolves, not only in the U.S., but also globally. I think you’ll be quite surprised to see the trends that appear from the aggregate results of my three-month survey of the electronic portfolio industry. This is not your grandfather’s ePortfolio, so to speak, nor even the ePortfolio of four years ago. If you haven’t looked at electronic portfolios recently, read on and find out where this market sector is and where it is heading.

Based on my research and phone interviews with leaders of almost all of the major global providers of electronic portfolio technologies, the compilation of ePortfolio Technology Providers below shows the impressive growth of the ePortfolio technology market. This annotated listing will help you understand the strengths of each company’s technology offerings. It is a good place to start if you want to see the big picture in terms of ePortfolio offerings. Also, the listing is the evidence on which my comments in this article and my analyses are based. (Full disclosure: Many of the companies included in this article are also corporate affiliates of AAEEBL).

ePortfolio Market Analysis

Technology can be used to control or to free; these are the two faces of information technology. Without IT, our society could no longer function. The control (management) face of technology is crucially important to human society.

In education, management tools are mature and deployed. They support traditional business processes and many new processes such as customer relation management, business intelligence, or Web content management.

On the academic side, institutions have similarly deployed technology management tools that, perhaps unfortunately, support teaching and learning processes as they have been for a century. While the entire culture and the economy has changed because of information technology, education has been notably slow to use technology to keep in step with the culture at large or with the economy and the new kinds of work experiences of graduates.

Electronic portfolios are a case in point. Many advocates for electronic portfolios see them as the camino real toward appropriate and exciting educational transformation but others see them as a gold mine for new data to track student progress. There is tension between these two visions. The larger tension--how IT is used in our culture--is still playing out in the world of electronic portfolios: Who owns student data and how should that data be used?

The first move about eight years ago was to use electronic portfolios as management tools, reinforcing the existing curriculum through tracking outcomes based in most cases on the curriculum that already existed. However, the electronic portfolio academic community by and large instead favored using electronic portfolios to develop students’ critical thinking skills, to create a student-owned space within the institution, to provide a more integrated learning experience, to make learning more social, and to create a learning record at graduation based on evidence, not just grades.

The two functions, one institution-centered and the other student-centered, were and are incompatible. Using one platform for both functions does not produce the best product. However, this study revealed that a bifurcation is occurring in this once largely monolithic industry: Student centered portfolios, sometimes without an institutional reporting function at all, became the fastest-growing electronic portfolio applications in the world. In other cases, monolithic platforms became modularized so that the institution could determine which functions and which purposes the platforms would be used for. And, in a couple of cases, the company divided the original platform into two distinct products. The industry is beginning to formally recognize the underlying tension between education using electronic portfolios for management purposes and using them to open up learning options and to the creation of new learning designs.

I also found a new and surprising trend beyond the bifurcation I just described: an assessment system whose data structures allow it to be used to formally include all student experiences while in college as evidence of progress toward outcomes. Rubrics now exist to help educators evaluate a wide range of evidence that students present to show progress toward formal outcomes. The evidence does not have to be associated with a formal course. Most institutions for the moment will use this assessment system to, perhaps, broaden the scope of assessment to include more kinds of learning experiences that are related to a course, but a few might see an opportunity to broaden the scope of certification: a combination of formal and informal learning opportunities towards a degree. And a few others might see the opportunity to make the student almost entirely responsible for her own learning progress with mentoring, guidance, and in-process assessment along the way.

Another trend in the industry is to sell electronic portfolio accounts not only to institutions, but to individuals. A student could arrive on campus as a new student already owning an electronic portfolio. Reinforcing this growing trend toward selling individual accounts is the fact that electronic portfolios are now almost exclusively SaaS--they are offered as a subscription-based technology service through the Web and are served by the provider. Electronic portfolios as cultural tools? Maybe the trend is already underway.

A decade-long vision of many in the electronic portfolio field (it is a field now that it has its own professional association--AAEEBL--and its own scholarly journal--The International Journal of ePortfolio) is of electronic portfolios enabling an imaginative and exciting trend toward more varied and authentic learning experiences for young learners. After a brief detour in the industry toward only assessment management or mostly assessment management, the industry is fully back on track as one of the primary movers for positive change in education and in professional identity management for life.

Other Trends in the ePortfolio Industry

Almost none of the vendors listed in the ePortfolio Technology Providers listing below sell to the corporate market yet, but corporate HR interest is emerging. And what had been primarily a higher education market space in the U.S. has expanded into K-12 in the U.S. and primary and secondary (similar to K-12 in the U.S.) in other countries. In addition, community colleges have emerged as among the most ambitious and enlightened leaders in implementation of electronic portfolios. The same is true of further education and vocational training in other parts of the world where the government funds these functions.

An area of technical functionality needing more attention: how individuals manage their evidence or artifacts over time. Generally speaking, I asked in vain for extensive descriptions of metadata schemes or semantic search. Since learners need to create capstones or resumes (presentations) from their ePortfolios throughout life, and the number of artifacts keeps growing, learners need an easy way to find, organize, and cull their artifacts/evidence continually. What a great way for students to learn how to manage data! This is an aspect of ePortfolio technology begging for innovation.

The electronic portfolio market and academic field has become intensely self-aware of its promise. In the next 12 months, AAEEBL alone will hold four conferences and co-sponsor two others in the U.S. while also co-sponsoring two others internationally. Academia may not have moved as quickly as the culture and the economy to embrace new portfolio technologies, but it now appears to be moving in a very promising direction, supported by an industry and by a coherent and engaged community.

The opinions I have expressed above are based on the results of my survey, but they are exclusively my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the corporate representatives I interviewed nor of AAEEBL.

ePortfolio Technology Providers

The following listing includes brief notes on companies providing electronic portfolio platforms, support services for open source platforms, or learner-oriented management tools that help users develop artifacts for their ePortfolios. This is not a review but a compilation of information noted from interviews and research; the claims made in each case come from the company and not from the author. All companies included in the listing below were interviewed based on 20 standard questions asked of each interviewee. Company contact info where provided is for convenience.

FolioTek, Columbia, Missouri, ePortfolio launch in 2001. Sells in U.S. with interest in expanding globally. Provides weekly upgrades. Pearson serves as a FolioTek reseller. Can keep account after graduation. Has an iPhone app. Contact Rita Wheeler, rita@foliotek.com; 888-365-4639 X 308.

Distinguishing value: Easy entry point. Start with “presentation” module and then easily “graduate” to other modules.

Livetext, LaGrange, IL, founded in 1998. New product: Field Experience Module. Smart phone app: iPad, iPhone, Android. Mostly U.S., but expanding in South America and the Middle East. Easy tie-in to accreditation agencies and their standards. Individual accounts. New release start of 2012. Started in K-12, moved focus to higher education, now exploring K-12 once again, starting with teacher education. Contact Katie Kalmus,

Distinguishing value: Robust outcomes assessment, does reporting, “fewest clicks to get started.” Measures learner growth. User-friendly interface.

RCampus, produced by Reazon Systems, Santa Ana, CA. Software development started in 1999, incorporated in 2003. RCampus has modules that can be turned on or off: RCampus LMS, RCampus Eportfolios, iRubric, RCampus Outcomes, RCampus eCommunities. Region: North America. Individual accounts available. In addition to education: corporate training and compliance. iRubric is licensed to Sakai as a plug-in; RCampus licenses TurnItIn. RCampus emphasizes authentic assessment; encourages creativity; higher ed and K-12 about 50-50. Subscription model. Partners with Google Apps. iPhone app in development; has metadata scheme for artifact management. Contact Katie Rossomano at (949) 222-2266

Distinguishing value: Company run by academics, software determined by feedback from educators, colleagues, and students. Software allows for authoring within the system itself; produces accreditation reports; provides K-12 standards.

Desire2Learn, Kitchener, Ontario also Baltimore, MD, with offices around the world, founded in 1999. Sells worldwide, latest release for the electronic portfolio (ver. 3.5) was in August 2011. Electronic portfolio and the D2L LMS are bundled; each leverages functionalities from the other. ePortfolio moving to hosting service and individual accounts soon. Smart phone app: Blackberry, iPhone, Android. Contact info at http://www.desire2learn.com/contact/.

Distinguishing value: Provides both LMS and ePortfolio within one platform and the two “projects” share functionalities. System itself can serve as a multimedia file generator (audio now; video later). Active user group.

Digication, Providence, RI and Palo Alto, CA, founded 2002. Is in partnership with Google Apps. Individual accounts; institution keeps assessment data; individual keeps ePortfolio functionality. Through Google Apps: free digital accounts with Digication (no assessment management functions with these accounts). “Three or four clicks and Digication is enabled.” Almost daily updates. Smart phone app: IOS and Android. Contact jyan@digication.com.

Distinguishing value>: Ease of use and flexibility. Expressive and free-form but “mapped” to meet accreditation needs. “Do what you want,” but you will also end up with a data structure.

Learning Objects, producers of Campus Pack, in Washington, DC, with employees around the world, founded in 2003. Markets internationally, around 400 institutions around the world; strong use in the U.K. In Campus Pack: portfolio and PDP (personal development plan); allows use of social media apps; has Social Assignments and Activities module to incorporate these apps; Social Network and Academic Commons module networks institution; cross-department collaboration using social media; creates co- and non-curricular community. Used in corporate, government, and non-profit sectors. Individual accounts: basic functionality now, more later. Contact 202-265-3276 or info@learningobjects.com.

Distinguishing value: Student engagement out of classroom, social media incorporation; institution can decide how “open” Campus Pack modules are. Integrated with Pearson Learning Studio; complies with IMS standards. Learner focused; assessment is the persona created in Campus Pack. Seeking to make true Web 2.0 portfolio.

TaskStream, New York City, organized 1998, founded 2000, markets internationally, versions available in a variety of languages. Offers separate platforms, AMS (Accountability Management System) and LAT (Learning Achievement Tools); each is multi-component. TaskStream collaborates with institutions to develop their new processes: “vendors must partner with institutions.” Use in corporate sector, training and HR purposes (performance assessment). Configure software for customer; claims “largest provider” of this kind of software. Offers individual subscriptions. Smart phone app, and iPad. Contact learnmore@taskstream.com or 800-311-5656.

Distinguishing value: Through ongoing collaboration with customers, ensures their success; with institutions, work with understanding of vision, roles, experience, and data types. Focus on whole context but also the group level. Collaboration built into software. They continue as partners over time.

Longsight, based in Ohio with offices in NY, IN, OH, WI, and CA, founded in 1978, a service provider for open source solutions. Supports both the Open Source Portfolio (OSP) and Sakai, within which OSP is embedded.. Customizes Sakai for each customer, using the community release version, meaning that customers always have the latest version. For the moment the version is Sakai 2.8 (a new release is in beta right now). Other Sakai service-providers: Three Canoes, rSmart. Contact Scott Siddall at siddall@longsight.com or 866-224-5751, ext. 801.

Distinguishing value: Open source is free code only, not free support. Most institutions need help deploying Sakai and Longsight has a well-established reputation for strong support in customizing Sakai for each customer. Has an MOU with Three Canoes, another Sakai service provider.

Chalk & Wire, Ridgeway, Ontario, Canada; all employees are educators; formed in 1995. Once user has an account through an institution, can continue subscription. Does not sell directly to the public, however. Market in U.S. primarily but also in Australia and New Zealand, in higher education and to organizations. One product that is “multi-variant.” IOS and Android mobile apps. Contact ask@chalkandwire.com or 1-877-252-2201.

Distinguishing value: Flexibility and ease of use. Training is minimal. Keeps learner at the center but can also produce reports for accreditation review. They limit number of new clients to 15 per year to maintain the level of service they are known for.

NobleHour, produced by TreeTop Software, in Lakeland, FL, founded in 2011 (preceded by SweatMonkey), not an ePortfolio provider, but NobleHour supports community-based learning, helping students engage in “folio thinking” (cf. Helen Chen of Stanford), active, self-initiated, independent learning that results in authentic (real-world) experience. Contact info@noblehour.com; beta release of NobleHour this month (current users of SweatMonkey will be migrated to NobleHour). Web-based; sold to institutions for student use, both K-12 and higher education.

Distinguishing value: So much of education software has been institutionally-centered; NobleHour is student-centered. Though NobleHour is purchased by the organization, the intended user is the student. NobleHour helps students engage in what George Kuh at IUPUI has called “high-impact educational practices” shown to have a high impact across all segments of education (http://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm).

Sherston, Tag Developments, the assessment division of Sherston Software, Ltd., providers of Red Pen Tool: http://www.maps-ict.com/redpentool.mov, of LiveAssess: http://www.maps-ict.com/liveassess.mov, and of MAPS 3: http://www.maps-ict.com/maps3.mov. Located in Lambeth, London, U.K., with an office in the U.S. Red Pen, an online annotation tool, and LiveAssess, a student project support system resulting in a storyboard record of the project are incorporated into MAPS 3 but can be purchased separately. Contact support@mapseportfolio.com.

Distinguishing value: The three Tag tools provide unusual and valuable additional functionality for portfolio activities. Short videos available for more information. Some development for Tag in collaboration with Goldsmiths University in London.

PebblePad from PebbleLearning, in Telford, UK, with office in Australia, founded in 2003. Most popular ePortfolio in the U.K. and Australia, interest in expanding geographically, new version in spring designed for U.S. market. Individual accounts; often used by educators themselves; emphasis on personal ownership--software requires user to agree to personal data being used in institutional reports; iPhone app. Published book called Pebblegogy: ideas and activities to inspire and engage learners, 2011. Digital version on Amazon. Contact enquiries@pebblelearning.co.uk. [note spelling of “enquiries”].

Distinguishing Value: Users work with PebblePad to author artifacts instead of creating artifacts with other programs and uploading to PebblePad. Personal space is private: no “sense of surveillance.” The separate gateway allows the user to share artifacts and make them available for assessment and aggregate reporting. Emphasis is on good learning design.

Symplicity, in Arlington, VA, offers an electronic portfolio (http://www.symplicity.com/reflection) but it is only one among dozens of products that Symplicity offers--all of them are management tools for higher education (see http://www.symplicity.com/products). Good example of separating products to support a single function.

Blackboard, the major LMS player in the world, has gathered 3 or more ePortfolio systems through acquisitions and its own development. In interviews with representatives from Blackboard Learn, I could not be certain about how Blackboard figures or will figure in the ePortfolio world. Blackboard now offers the Blackboard Content System for ePortfolio functionality.

eFolioWorld, technology from Avenet, the Minnesota Colleges and Universities portfolio system, is now extended to the University of Minnesota system as well. Developed in 2001, serves both institutional assessment management and individual student ePortfolios; Avenet Web Services now providing business services for eFolioWorld; SaaS. Contact efolioinfo@avenet.net, in Minneapolis.

iWebFolio, from Nuventive. Also known for TracDat, marketed since the 1990s, Nuventive founded 2000. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, sales office in CA; most clients in the U.S. or primarily in the U.S. iWebFolio can be customized, includes templates and AAC&U VALUE rubrics, a library of donated materials from the community. Student ownership of portfolio, has user conference each June, new release out soon; Web-based. Can continue account after graduation; individual accounts; at some institutions, students buy their own iWebFolio accounts; does have institutional reporting capability. Contact Courtney Francis at cfrancis@nuventive.com.

Distinguishing value: Student can see who looks at submitted evidence, has an array of management tools for student; strong community; student-centered.

Adobe, San Jose, CA, with offices throughout the world, began as PostScript in 1982 but now has large array of well-known products. Sells to all market segments including K-12 (primary and secondary) and higher education. Included in this list because Adobe apps can and do author portfolio artifacts, the artifacts can be organized using Adobe’s proprietary metadata set, can create files in U.S. government and universally recognized standard file types, can produce publication-quality artifacts, and because Adobe has shown interest in electronic portfolios. Some applications are moving to SaaS (see Acrobat.com).

Distinguishing value: As the market for electronic portfolios expands, and expectations for quality and standards-based digital publishing increase, Adobe is able to provide the tools to meet those expectations. Adobe Acrobat (and the PDF file format it creates), Photoshop, Creative Suite, Flash Player, AIR, Shockwave, Digital Publishing Suite and more, used on behalf of building high-quality personal portfolios may be the future of the electronic portfolio market sector. All file types can be embedded in a PDF document: The significance of that should be apparent to all who are interested in electronic portfolios.

Epsilen, The Epsilen Environment, majority owned by the New York Times; SunGuard is re-seller and technical partner; located in Indianapolis with users in 130 countries (an “Epsilen global network”), free accounts to individuals, but a fee charged for institutions; heavy focus on community. Epsilen designed to teach; has links within it; is an enabled learning environment; K-12, higher education, corporate sector. IOS, Adroid apps; iPad soon.

Distinguishing value: Access to New York Times Knowledge Network, moving toward functionality to help students find and manage internship experiences; incorporating Web 2.0 tools, goal is to become a cultural tool. Can serve LMS needs.

Mahara, claimed by some to be the world’s fastest-growing electronic portfolio system, is open source and easily used in conjunction with Moodle (both created in New Zealand). Support companies: Synergy: http://www.synergy-learning.com/mahara/mahara_support.php--U.K.; Lambda Solutions: http://www.lambdasolutions.net/mahar-support--Canada; Remote Learning: http://www.remote-learner.net/mahara_story--U.S.

eLumen, an assessment enterprise system for outcomes-based learning. An example of how assessment, unbundled from ePortfolio, can evolve into a platform for new forms of learning. Located in Minneapolis. Founded in 2003, arising from the portfolio “breadbasket,” Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MnSCU), provides platform for institutions to install that “talks to” any or all core enterprise management systems; a new approach to outcomes-based assessment carrying the idea to the logical next step; 30 institutional clients; can generate grades based on meeting outcomes; an alternative to course structure. Assessment can be based on evidence in ePortfolios. Contact info@eLumen.info.

Distinguishing value: Designed to incorporate the future, to support either assessment as-is, or as it could be in an outcomes-and-evidence-based learning design; and/or, the university or college as is, or how it could be.

[Editor’s note: AAEEBL, ePortfolio California, and EPAC are producing a webinar series, “Exploring ePortfolio Technologies: Reviewing Platforms and Approaches for Teaching, Learning, and Beyond” that examines ePortfolio platforms. For more information see http://www.aaeebl.org/eport-webinar.]

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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