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The ePortfolio Hijacked

The idea of the electronic portfolio in higher education in the US has transmuted from a focus on learning to a focus on accountability. In the latter part of the last millennium, portfolio advocates talked of students reflecting on their own work and thereby developing critical thinking skills. Portfolios showcased student work, making them proud of their achievement. They helped students believe that they owned their own academic work.

So, when portfolios became digital in the mid-1990s, these advocates saw the sun rising on a new day of learning engagement. Instead, electronic portfolios became, on many campuses, a boon for the "management" people. Even before faculty or administrators fully understood the concept of "ePortfolio," the path toward ePortfolio as assessment management system was underway. A learning idea had been hijacked by the need for accountability.

The Proposition

There is nothing wrong with accountability as a necessary part of higher education. The issue is not with accountability, but with conflating traditional assessment management systems and traditional ePortfolio approaches to teaching and learning -- replacing a learning tool with a management tool and believing the two are the same. These two tools have behind them different cultures, traditions, discourse, and purposes. While assessment management systems are similar to other modules of an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system such as Oracle or Banner, traditional learning portfolios are closer to such tools as mind-mapping software or Web authoring tools in their invitation to creativity and thinking outside the box.

Rather than think of these two instantiations of the portfolio idea as a duality, however, let's separate out "ePortfolios" by their purpose and function: learning portfolios, advising portfolios (or student development portfolios), student showcase portfolios, assessment management systems, and other varieties of portfolios such as patient portfolios used in specialized situations. "ePortfolio" is the de-facto umbrella term but should not be confused with any one of the varieties of ePortfolio uses. ePortfolios are many things. And, at the same time, let's get the learning portfolio movement back on track: Just because there's one kind of ePortfolio on campus doesn't mean the job is done.

One Way to Do It

Accrediting agencies are driving the push for accountability in higher education. During an accreditation visit, the team will expect to see reports on student learning outcomes. And, they expect them to be based on data collected on student work. The rubric matrix used to collect this data rationalizes the curriculum so that each course and most course units are aligned with the overall programmatic learning goals or standards. This type of assessment system, in theory, is a quantum shift from the traditional grading system.

Colleges and universities have no choice but to participate in assessment management in one way or another and to a different degree, depending on which professions are represented at the school. Given this necessity, assessment management systems will most likely be a part of campus life from now on.

But don't call them "ePortfolios." They are assessment management systems, or what a friend said really should be called "accreditation management systems," and most likely they are not designed to support the learning values traditionally associated with portfolios.

Therefore, to live within this reality, but to revive the learning portfolio interest on campus, think of having multiple kinds of ePortfolios, managed in different ways, and with different constituencies.

A faculty member could use a learning portfolio in class and still enter results from that portfolio into the campus assessment management system.

The learning portfolio -- emphasizing student ownership of their own work over their time in college -- will find champions in writing programs, art departments, schools of architecture, music departments, and others. Student development offices or advising centers have also shown great interest in ePortfolios. Medical schools now have patient portfolios. ePortfolios can be applied in many fields and administrative offices. The days when we all talked about a single ePortfolio platform are over.

And let us hope that the days of confusing the term "ePortfolio" with "assessment management system" are also numbered.

[Editor's note: Trent Batson will be the editor of "Web 2.0," a new e-newsletter from Campus Technology. Watch for the first issue in mid-January, 2008.]

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, 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: E-mail: [email protected]

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