Beyond Campus Boundaries ePortfolio Transforms into 'Cultural Application'

A brief conversation with Trent Batson, Director of Information and Instructional Technology Services, University of Rhode Island.

C2 asked Batson about the state of adoption of ePortfolios in the US.

I was a professor of English, so I’ve used ePortfolios myself in my own teaching. And I’ve been involved with new initiatives in academic computing for over 20 years now. There are times when something comes along that everyone talks about, something that really changes things. ePortfolios, of course, is one of those things, but it’s different in its very nature. What’s happening with universities in this knowledge age is that the boundaries between the university and the rest of the world have pretty much dissolved. We are now a learning culture, or a knowledge culture.

ePortfolios are not a higher education application. It’s not a K-12 application. It’s a cultural application. It’s being used now, or will be used in Europe, Australia, Canada, and also in the state of Minnesota for workforce development. It’s something that whole countries are offering to their citizens to store things related to their work, over a career or over the time when they are developing their career. And it’s especially good for people who are in the workforce and may be doing things that are related to something they are studying at the community college. ePortfolios can authenticate what kind of work people do in between the times when they are at the community college studying formally. So, it bridges the gap between informal learning and formal learning. Various states in this country, Canada, the UK, places in France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and India have recognized the workforce development aspect of ePortfolios.

What we focus on in this country is more the traditional higher education view of ePortfolios; how it is really great for developing reflective thinking in students, because they can reflect on their own work over time. They have a record of their own; they can see their own development. But what’s driving the market in the US is assessment management. Any school that is coming up for re-accreditation or an interim visit from the accreditation team is being asked, “Do you have these kinds of reports from a system that will show how you are addressing student progress toward learning outcomes?” That’s the question that every place is being asked. So universities—especially schools of education around the country—are rushing to implement ePortfolio systems so that they can do the kind of reporting the accrediting agencies are asking for. So that, right now, is really driving the market in the US for ePortfolios.

But that is not potentially the big market. The big market is going to be everyone having an ePortfolio, whether they are in college or not in college. K-12 systems are now rapidly adopting ePortfolios. My own state, Rhode Island, just officially chose the ePortfolio system for the whole state, the Open Source Portfolio. And of course I, having been on the board of the Open Source Portfolio Initiative for a number of years, feel very good about that—my own state choosing something I feel very strongly about.

The point is that people will be using ePortfolios for their own purposes. It’s not just something that they’ll be told to use in a formal educational setting. One key factor: People like to collect things. They like stuff that is media-rich that they can put in their portfolios. So, young people will choose to use ePortfolios in their leisure time; to use them for fun. Which you would almost never do with a CMS—I suspect almost no one chooses to use a course management system on their own time for fun. It’s something that you do within a class setting. The CMS is very useful, and revolutionary, but ePortfolios are potentially going to dwarf the CMS market.

And student ownership is an important point about ePortfolios. The more engaged, the more time on task, the more that a person puts into something, the more they learn—this g'es along with all the data I’ve seen over the years. The challenge has always been, how do you engage students? You can use multimedia in the classroom to engage them—and that works for a couple days, but then the engagement slips away. So, there’s got to be something else to engage them. And that’s ownership.

What higher education needs to realize is, using ePortfolios is not a choice that you make because you can prove that it’s educationally valuable, or that it works. There is not really a choice here: The return on investment is staying in business. Do you want to stay active and viable as an institution of higher education? It’s a critical thing to recognize that the focus now is choosing the right platform in this highly volatile market, and getting started with it.

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