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The Electronic Portfolio Boom: What's it All About?

The term "electronic portfolio," or "ePortfolio," is on everyone's lips. We often hear it associated with assessment, but also with accreditation, reflection, student resumes, and career tracking. It's as if this new tool is the answer to all the questions we didn't realize we were asking.

A portfolio, electronic or paper, is simply an organized collection of completed work. Art students have built portfolios for decades. What makes ePortfolios so enchanting to so many is the intersection of three trends:

  • Student work is now mostly in electronic form, or is based on a canonical electronic file even if it's printed out: papers, reports, proposals, simulations, solutions, experiments, renditions, graphics, or just about any other kind of student work.
  • The Web is everywhere: We assume (not always true, of course) that our students have ready access to the Web. The work is "out there" on the Internet, and therefore the first step for transferring work to a Web site has already been taken.
  • Databases are available through Web sites, allowing students to manage large volumes of their work. The "dynamic" Web site that's database-driven, instead of HTML link-driven, has become the norm for Web developers.

We've reached a critical mass, habits have changed, and as we reach electronic "saturation" on campus, new norms of work are emerging. Arising out of this critical mass is a vision of how higher education can benefit, which is with the ePortfolio.

We seem to be beginning a new wave of technology development in higher education. Freeing student work from paper and making it organized, searchable, and transportable opens enormous possibilities for re-thinking whole curricula: the evaluation of faculty, assessment of programs, certification of student work, how accreditation works. In short, ePortfolios might be the biggest thing in technology innovation on campus. Electronic portfolios have a greater potential to alter higher education at its very core than any other technology application we've known thus far.

The momentum is building. A year ago, companies I talked with had not even heard of ePortfolios. But at a focus session in October, sponsored by Educause's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (, we found out how far this market has come: A number of technology vendors and publishers are starting to offer ePortfolio tools. The focus session helped us all see the bigger picture. I came away saying to myself, "I knew it had grown, but I had no idea by how much!"

ePortfolio developers are making sure that their platforms can accept the full range of file types and content: text, graphics, video, audio, photos, and animation. The manner in which student work is turned in, commented on, turned back to students, reviewed in the aggregate over a semester, and certified can be—and is being—deeply altered and unimaginably extended.

This tool brings to bear the native talents of computers—storage, management of data, retrieval, display, and communication—to challenge how to better organize student work to improve teaching and learning. It seems, on the surface, too good to be true.

ePortfolios vs. Webfolios

Since the mid-90s, the term "ePortfolio" or "electronic portfolio" has been used to describe collections of student work at a Web site. Within the field of composition studies, the term "Webfolio" has also been used. In this article, we are using the current, general meaning of the term, which is a dynamic Web site that interfaces with a database of student work artifacts. Webfolios are static Web sites where functionality derives from HTML links. "E-portfolio" therefore now refers to database-driven, dynamic Web sites, not static, HTML-driven sites.

So, What's the Bad News?
Moving beyond the familiar one-semester/one-class limits of managing student learning artifacts gets us into unfamiliar territory. How do we alter the curriculum to integrate portfolios? How do we deal with long-term storage, privacy, access, and ongoing vendor support? What about the challenge of interoperability among platforms so student work can move to a new campus upon transfer?

In short, how do we make the ePortfolio an enterprise application, importing data from central computing, serving the application on a central, secure server, and managing an ever-enlarging campus system? Electronic portfolios have great reach in space and time so they will not be adopted lightly. We've seen how extensively learning management systems such as WebCT, Blackboard, and Angel can alter our campuses. ePortfolios are much more challenging for large-scale implementations.

Still, ePortfolio implementations are occurring on dozens if not hundreds of campuses. Schools of education are especially good candidates, as they're pressured by accrediting agencies demanding better-organized and accessible student work. Some statewide systems are adopting ePortfolio systems as well. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota system have ePortfolios. Electronic portfolio consortia are also forming. The open-source movement, notably MIT's Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI), has embraced the ePortfolio as a key application within the campus computing virtual infrastructure.

Moreover, vendors, in order to establish themselves as the market begins to take shape, are already introducing ePortfolio tools. Several companies, including BlackBoard, WebCT, SCT, Nuventive, Concord, and McGraw-Hill, are said to either have or are developing electronic-portfolio tools.

Why Should We Believe?
Let's look in detail at how three groups—students, faculty, and administrators—may benefit from ePortfolios.

Students seem most interested in the ways ePortfolios can flesh out their resumes, both before and after graduation. If internship interviewers or potential employers can see an online resume that includes views of a student's actual work, that student may be more likely to obtain the position. Students also want to see where they are in their college career regarding requirements. ePortfolios can facilitate this.

When students study for a test, they can review their own work and read the instructor's comments on their work. ePortfolios will make this easier to do, especially over multiple semesters. If a student wants to transfer, the ePortfolio data may ease the process of articulation with another college or university. After graduation, having their work still available to them in a university-supported environment will provide ongoing value and help sustain the relationship with their alma mater.

Faculty members also have a vested interest in electronic portfolios. Just as students do, professors can use such a tool as their own resume builder, providing more teaching data in their promotion and tenure reviews. Adding access to the work students have done in the faculty member's classes can better make a case for teaching excellence, an area of review that has been historically under-documented and not sufficiently objective. When a student shows up in their office asking for a letter of reference two years after the pertinent course ended, the ePortfolio can both help jog memory and provide a link in the letter of reference.

Of course the primary benefit for faculty is to provide a tool to better manage, review, reflect, and comment on student work. For this purpose, an ePortfolio is a major step forward.

Even administrators may see the value of ePortfolios, especially when they realize their potential for:

  • Creating a system of tracking student work over time, in a single course, with students and faculty reflecting on it.
  • Aggregating many students' work in a particular course to see how the students as a whole are progressing toward learning goals.
  • Assessing many courses in similar ways that are all part of one major and thus, by extension, assessing the entire program of study.

Ultimately, all of these benefits provide administrators highly useful data for accreditation. Further, they may discover how to:

  • Integrate courses with new methods, orienting syllabi and curricula around learning goals.
  • Encourage continuity of student work from semester to semester in linked courses (History 101-102, English 101-102, or prerequisites in a major, etc.).
  • Have a more fully informed and dynamic, constantly updated view of student progress in a program, which is very helpful in formative assessment.

Finally, administrators in some fields already know that ePortfolio tools are very useful in organizing curricula around professional standards.

This is only a list of potential benefits to improving academic business as it's currently performed. Each person encountering ePortfolios has myriad uses in mind. That's because the movement of students' work onto the Internet has implications for higher education that we believe to be so far-reaching, it's difficult to comprehend all the possibilities.

Let's Do it
Phil Long, chief strategist of the Academic Computing Enterprise at MIT, has said that academia is now in the "tribal discussion" phase of ePortfolio development on campuses. How far is it from tribal discussion and brainstorming, to stable implementation of ePortfolios on campuses? What rewards are there for proceeding, and what challenges do we face?

Despite a general recognition of the usefulness of an ePortfolio, the key to success is how well the campus population is prepared for using this new tool. It's not a simple add-on to existing courses; if it is, students may not see the value. Indeed, if ePortfolio tools become just a simpler way to log student work, we've missed the boat.

Experience on one campus shows that, even though 100 percent of the faculty in a program have adopted ePortfolios, students still may not see their value because the faculty have not re-thought their courses to accommodate electronic portfolios. Unless they do, the standards initiative in that program may be undermined.

  • Storage: This may be the key problem. If all student work is stored in ePortfolios for perpetuity, considering the size of multi-media files, how can universities manage the volume of data? If they can, how will universities maintain accessibility over the years as file formats change? There is only a questionable history of this capability with digital technologies: Data on floppy disks, used only 16 years ago, would be difficult to access today.

    How useful will electronic portfolios be, for assessment and re-accreditation on campuses, if implementation is spotty or non-standardized? For implementation to work, years of preparation may be necessary within a department, program or college.

  • Security: Can we maintain a high level of security for personal information transmitted over the wires or stored in a server on campus?

    In other words, how do we make an ePortfolio platform an enterprise application? An enterprise application keeps personal data secure from end-to-end, requiring coordination and support from central servers and data folks. A laissez-faire approach to electronic portfolios on a campus may expose the data to hacking, and the university to a law suit.

  • Certification: Should institutions of higher education attempt to certify student work, stored in campus-based ePortfolios, as authentic? Namely, should we include this work as part of the official transcript?

    If so, then a system would need to be created in which faculty can easily close off student work at the end of the semester. When grades are submitted, the work at that point is certified as the authentic work of each student. After that, students would have access only to the unofficial version of the data and would no longer be able to alter their work in the official version.

  • A question for the industry: How can universities commit to an ePortfolio tool that is in its first release and not yet established in the market? How can we count on a small vendor remaining in business over the years? How do we select from among a large array of unproven "solutions?" There's a great disparity between the huge commitment universities may be contemplating over time and the just-emerging state of the business: We have commitment on one side and experimentation on the other.

Tribal Discussions
ePortfolios have arrived, sort of. Oddly, universities have hyped ePortfolios during the past year, while vendors are racing to catch up, instead of the other way around. One interesting tip for us all: English departments and writing programs have been employing portfolios for 25 years or so, and using "Webfolios" (or ePortfolios based on HTML links), since the inception of the Internet in the mid-90s. Writing programs have a history with implementation that could be helpful on your campus.

Here's how I've used portfolios in my writing classes: Over the course of a semester, students would collect their graded papers in a folder. At week 10, I'd offer the students the option of re-writing three papers of the 10 they'd written, receiving a second grade on the assignment to average in to their score. Most students seized the opportunity. The educational value was their reflection on their own work, in becoming engaged once more in revising their papers.

At the end of the semester—week 15—their last project was a second review and reconstruction of their portfolio: The students could "throw out" two of their papers. Secondly, they were required to write a paper about how they've changed as a writer, using their portfolios as a resource.

The University of Rhode Island now has four ePortfolio initiatives going with three different platforms. Our School of Education was the pioneer, developing its own tool and disseminating ideas on campus. Our College of the Environment and Life Sciences started their initiative this fall. In both cases, extensive programmatic work either precedes introduction of the ePortfolio tool, or is ongoing now that the tool is in place. As always, technology is just a potential. People energize that potential. And the tribal discussion continues.

ePortfolio Tools and Resources

Within the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative is a group called The Electronic Portfolio Action Committee (EPAC). EPAC has been led over the last year by John Ittelson of Cal State Monterey Bay. Helen Barrett of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, a leading founder of EPAC, has been investigating uses of ePortfolio tools for years. MIT's Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) has provided leadership and consulting for the group, along with its OKI partner, Stanford University. The Carnegie Foundation has been active within EPAC, as have a number of universities.

What follows is a list of ePortfolio tools now available or in production:

· Epselen Portfolios, IUPUI,

· The Collaboratory Project, Northwestern,

· Folio Thinking: Personal Learning Portfolios, Stanford,

· Catalyst Portfolio Tool, University of Washington,

· MnSCU e-folio, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities,

· Carnegie Knowledge Media Lab, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching,

· Learning Record Online (LRO) Project, The Computer Writing and Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, contents.html

· Electronic Portfolio, Johns Hopkins University,

· CLU Webfoil, California Lutheran University,

· Professional Learning Planner, Vermont Institute for Science, Math and Technology,

· Certification Program Portfolio, University of Missouri-Columbia and LANIT Consulting, https://portfolio.c'

· Technology Portfolio and Professional Development Portfolio, Wake Forest University Department of Education,

· e-Portfolio Project, The College of Education at the University of Florida, www.c'

· PASS-PORT (Professional Accountability Support System using a PORTal Approach) University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Xavier University of Louisiana,

· The Connecticut College e-Portfolio Development Consortium,

· The Kalamazoo College Portfolio, Kalamazoo College,

· Web Portfolio, St. Olaf College,

· The Electronic Portfolio, Wesleyan University,

· The Diagnostic Digital Portfolio (DDP), Alverno College,

· E-Portfolio Portal, University of Wisconsin-Madison,

· Web Folio Builder, TaskStream Tools of Engagement,

· FolioLive, McGraw-Hill Higher Education,

· Outcomes Assessment Solutions, TrueOutcomes,

· Chalk & Wire,

· LiveText,

· LearningQuest Professional Development Planner,

· Folio by eportaro,

· Concord (a digital content server for BlackBoard systems),

· iWebfolio by Nuventive (now in a strategic alliance with SCT),

· Aurbach & Associates,

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