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ePortfolio Technology

ePortfolios Meet Social Software

ePortfolios Meet Social SoftwareHybrids of ePortfolio and social software are becoming available for adoption after ad hoc experimentation and formal pilots. Here's why you should care.

Electronic portfolios are a good—even a great— idea, so why have they failed to gain significant traction in higher ed? Institutions with ePortfolio implementations routinely report high numbers of accounts on their campuses, but few believe that those numbers are a meaningful reflection of actual usage.

Change is in the air for the ePortfolio, thanks to the recent advent and grass-fire proliferation of so-called Web 2.0 technologies. Wikis, blogs, and especially social networks, which didn't even exist five years ago, are influencing the thinking of ePortfolio designers and potential users.

"There has been a lot of interest in what's going on with the Net Generation or digital natives," says Helen Chen, research scientist at Stanford University's (CA) Center for Innovations in Learning. "We're starting to ask: What are the characteristics of this type of ePortfolio user? What kinds of technologies are these users already utilizing that we could piggyback on? We're exploring things like MySpace and Facebook in this context, investigating how those kinds of online social networks are designed, what we might learn from them, and how those forms might be used in the design of ePortfolio tools."

Chen's current research focuses on the application of personal learning portfolio pedagogy and practices in engineering education. She's also involved in the evaluation of ePortfolios and social software tools to facilitate teaching, learning, and assessment. Clearly, she has a rich field of study: As of this writing, web trends watcher Technorati was tracking 100.8 million blogs and more than 250 million pieces of tagged social media.

"People are turning to online tools to organize their lives," Chen observes. "They're signing up for online photo sharing, they've got MySpace pages, they go online to look for jobs, and they blog like crazy. The question many of us are asking now is: Can we take advantage of some of these Web 2.0 technologies to create some sort of community that can support ePortfolio-related activities and reflective thinking?"

Epsilen: the Ultimate Hybrid?

The answer to that question, according to Ali Jafari, is a definite yes. Jafari is the director of research and advanced applications in the Office of Integrated Technologies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He's also the founder of the Electronic Portfolio Consortium, and as the conceptual architect for two groundbreaking technology solutions for education— Oncourse and Angel Learning— he's widely considered the father of the course management system.


"Students have begun to use [the ePortfolio hybrid] Epsilen for job hunting. Because it can house video clips of teaching episodes, students have used it to get teaching jobs in other states without having to travel to those destinations. I think I see the future here." —Milton Hakel, Bowling Green State U

Jafari also directs IUPUI's CyberLab which this month is set to unveil the first commercially available version of the Epsilen Environment, which combines a set of ePortfolio tools with a social networking framework. The result of six years of research and development, Epsilen is being billed as a new model for the next generation of lifelong learners and professionals. It comes bundled with an ePortfolio management system, global learning system, group collaboration software, object repository, blogging tools, wiki application, messaging capabilities, and resume writing software, among other tools.

Jafari, who served as Epsilen's architect and principal investigator, believes that the new ePortfolio/social software hybrid will provide the "stickiness" needed to expand the true adoption rate, and get people to use the technology.

"Conceptually, this is what has been missing from the ePortfolio," he says. "We have failed to make it sticky to the end users; there just hasn't been enough incentive for them to use it. But we have built Epsilen to the specifications of a new online culture, and there are a lot of goodies in there to encourage people to continue using and maintaining their Epsilen accounts."

BehNeem, the commercial entity IUPUI created to distribute Epsilen-based products and services, is already claiming 5,334 members from 414 institutions. One of those early adopters was Bowling Green State University (OH), which deployed version 1.0 of Epsilen about four years ago. The school implemented a pilot program on the recommendation of Milton Hakel, professor of psychology and Ohio Board of Regents Eminent Scholar in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Hakel had noted an Epsilen mention in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and sought out Jafari.

"I'm not a tech guy," Hakel says. "My concerns are around how you demonstrate accountability for student learning. Standardized testing just doesn't go far enough in providing useful and interesting information. ePortfolios provide tools that can replace standardized testing as a means of documenting accountability and learning, and of showing what people can do with what they've learned."

By the end of the first year of Bowling Green's Epsilen pilot, about 250 students and faculty members had created portfolios on the system; the system now hosts over 17,000 accounts, and the school plans to migrate to the new version in the coming semester. Hakel sees the popularity of social software in particular as a trend that is likely to accelerate the adoption of ePortfolio solutions that integrate those types of networking capabilities.

Smart Sympodium

AFTER SIX YEARS in R&D, Epsilen is the new model for next-gen lifelong learners and professionals.

"Students have begun to use the early version of Epsilen we've implemented, for job hunting, for example. Because it has the ability to house video clips, a number of students have used it to get teaching jobs in other states without having to travel to those destinations. The search committees simply go online and look at clips of teaching episodes the students have posted. Even in the second year of the pilot program, students were telling each other about getting internships or job offers based on things they were showing employers from their portfolios. I think I see the future here."

So does The New York Times. The Times has an equity stake in the Epsilen project, and is now opening its resources to users of the system. Epsilen account holders will have access to a library of Times content, including archives, multimedia, podcasts, and webcasts, explains Felice Nudelman, the media franchise's director of education. That's 166 years of Times content, available to be integrated into courses and research.

"I've seen faculty using Epsilen to put together student groups from different universities and develop ePortfolios around common interests," Nudelman says. "I've seen students translating their wiki to the ePortfolio. Unlike the overly complex software that's out there, this allows you to easily bring others into your workplace, to share information. You can have as much privacy and community as you want. It's the only online learning environment for which we are doing this."

Combining these kinds of Web 2.0 technologies with ePortfolio tools also could expand Epsilen's appeal as a tool for lifelong learning, says Jafari. He discloses that BehNeem plans to provide Epsilen free for life to all educators affiliated with a higher ed institution in the United States. "You can create an ePortfolio site and hold on to it for the rest of your life," he says. "If you switch colleges, go back to get your MBA, or move further into your professional life, you will always have the same account."

‘Own It for Life' Takes Off

The own-it-for-life model, though, isn't new: Stanford's Chen points to the state of Minnesota's widely reported decision to provide every citizen of that state with a free ePortfolio for life through a project called eFolio Minnesota. (eFolio Minnesota was recognized with a 2006 Campus Technology Innovator award.) She says the concept of lifelong ePortfolio ownership is a maturing trend in Europe. "The ePortfolio that can continue after college to support lifelong learning is definitely taking hold " she says.

Kevin Kelly, online teaching and learning coordinator for San Francisco State University (CA), has observed this as well. He manages teams that run SFSU's learning management systems, electronic portfolio solutions support, streaming media, and other technologies. "The question we most often get from students as they're working on their electronic portfolios is: Can I access this after I graduate?" he says. "So we asked if they are using social networking spaces, and if so, if they see a value in having them integrated with an academic electronic portfolio. To a person, they have replied ‘Yes!' As a result, our campus is now coming up with a social networking space for alumni. Until our academic technology unit can integrate that networking space with the electronic portfolios, we'll be hosting the portfolios on a website."

The SFSU campus is quite decentralized, Kelly reports, and the school's various departments are currently using five different ePortfolio solutions. During a recent needs-assessment survey, more than half of SFSU's 80-plus departments disclosed that, at the department level, the most important reason for using ePortfolios is career-bridging. Assessing student performance ran a close second; program assessment came in a distant third.

"SFSU students who are using ePortfolio solutions that have a presentation layer are reporting that employers are looking at their portfolios before they show up for the interview," Kelly says. "My favorite story is about a health ed student who showed up for an interview and saw her ePortfolio on the prospective employer's computer monitor. It was displaying a community health plan that she had put together for a real-life project. He said, ‘Before you say anything, we want to hire you, and we want to increase the pay and responsibilities, because we can see that you can do so much more than we thought.' And that's just one example."

Thwarting Fragmentation

The go-anywhere, own-it-for-life model seems likely to expand the ePortfolio into a kind of online professional, postgraduate space. But with that capability, it may also untie one of modern postsecondary education's knottiest problems, says Chen: the fragmentation of the undergraduate experience. "It used to be that you went off to college, decided on a major, and then all your courses were coordinated and laid out for you," she says. "It doesn't often happen that way today. Nowadays, students have a double major, or transfer from a community college, or take time off to work, or take some classes online. The result: a real lack of curricular coherence. Students have to take a greater responsibility for their learning, and for making sense of the various pieces of the process. ePortfolios can help them do that."

In fact, ePortfolios are being used as tools to help students make connections among the experiences that comprise their undergraduate education—inside the classroom and out, Chen says. She points to the Integrative Learning Project sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The two organizations selected 10 campuses to develop and assess advanced models and strategies to help students pursue learning in more intentional, connected ways.

Three of those schools pursued strategies involving ePortfolios. Salve Regina University (RI) was among them. Part of the school's overall goal was to develop and translate a core curriculum into an accessible ePortfolio. Salve used an ePortfolio solution from Xythos Software as a platform to support student self-assessment.

According to Jason Black, director of administrative and web services, the decision to work with Xythos, which already provided the school's file management system, was a natural choice. "The goal of our ePortfolio project was not a matrix-style assessment tool, but a more student-centered portfolio," Black says. "Our students can take ownership of the ePortfolio; they can use and move it. We've encouraged the social networking aspect of the portfolio, too."

Salve Regina is now moving into its second year of using Xythos as an ePortfolio platform. This year's freshman class bumped the number of ePortfolio accounts to 1,200.


"Students have begun to use [the ePortfolio hybrid] Epsilen for job hunting. Because it can house video clips of teaching episodes, students have used it to get teaching jobs in other states without having to travel to those destinations. I think I see the future here." —Milton Hakel, Bowling Green State U

Reflection and Tech Savvy

Once a student's disparate academic experiences are knit together, Stanford's Chen observes, he or she can then take advantage of the core benefit of a portfolio: reflection. And yet, if ePortfolio usage ever matches the buzz this technology continues to generate, faculty will be faced with the daunting task of interacting electronically with hundreds of students trying to sort and reflect on their academic artifacts.

"Scalability will become an issue," Chen says. "It would be impossible for faculty or a TA to provide feedback to individual students who are posting even just once a week. But the idea of reflection is integral to ePortfolios, and students really need to be taught how to do this. If they don't receive feedback on their reflections, they will simply tend not to provide any." One solution: Teach students how to collect, select, reflect, and present, and then provide them with a social network through which they can give and receive peer feedback.

And, "Just because the ‘digital natives' coming into our schools know how to surf the web, play video games, and set up a MySpace page, doesn't mean they don't have to learn how to use this [new ePortfolio] technology," says Kelly at SFSU.

Educators and administrators, too, need to make sure they understand the types of ePortfolio solutions they're implementing, Kelly warns. The current crop of ePortfolio offerings is designed along divergent paradigms, which—if your campus is as decentralized as SFSU, says Kelly—could create integration problems. The ePortfolio tools are either student-centered (which means that the students are in charge of showing what they want to show) or institution-centered (institutions use them as a way to aggregate data for things like accreditation or program planning). "Is there a one-size-fits- all solution?" Kelly wants to know.

"That's one of the reasons the earlier products have been so complicated," explains Bowling Green's Hakel. "They were purpose-built toward particular outcomes." An advantage of an ePortfolio solution like Epsilen, he points out, is that it is a much more generalized entity. It comes bundled with a variety of tools and capabilities that can be adapted easily to, say, program assessment, without being bloated by too many limited, task-specific tools. The result is a level of flexibility uncommon in ePortfolio solutions currently on the market. Hakel expects that to change soon, however.

The integration of such Web 2.0 technologies as social networks with ePortfolio tools seems like a trend with legs, says Chen, but she warns that it's a development that should be handled with caution, to protect students from making mistakes that might live online indefinitely:

"We hear about employers using Facebook to check out candidates, and finding inappropriate photos. Web 2.0 or not, students will need guidance about what's appropriate for their new ePortfolios."

::WEBEXTRAS :: Savvy educators are exploiting the use of ePortfolios to better assess learning and teaching performance. Turning to social networking to draw in both prospective and current students.

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