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The Portfolio Enigma in a Time of Ephemera

There are more ePortfolio vendors in the United States than learning management system (LMS) vendors. This is surprising since few people in academia could explain what an ePortfolio is while almost everyone knows what a learning management system is. Perhaps it is this very confusion about what an ePortfolio is that prevents any one vendor from finding the silver bullet that would lead to growth and eventually to consolidation in the market space.

The problem is that portfolio is a learning approach and not a technology. It can also be seen as a communication genre with its own "grammar."

Another problem is that the word ePortfolio has been belatedly attached to assessment management systems, which adds enormously to the confusion. We have two completely different kinds of functions using the same label.

Different campuses also use learning ePortfolios in different ways, for discrete courses, for advising, for student showcasing of their own work, or incorporated into the larger assessment management system. It is a shape-shifting technology supporting many different purposes.

The resulting confusion does not serve anyone well, not institutions, not vendors, and not teachers and students. There is no one right way to do portfolio or assessment management. But it is important to know what you want to do, very precisely, based on a number of conversations, before you start kicking the tires of different ePortfolio tools. Amidst the confusion, pick one path.

As part of your consideration as you start investigating ePortfolios, re-start investigating ePortfolios, or carry out a formative assessment of your ePortfolio initiative already in operation, you should consider a very basic question: What is the value of keeping artifacts for a long period of time in this digital world? Print artifacts, because they were expensive and hard to produce, distribute, and store, had value and we all learned that the bigger the library, the greater the prestige. The more stuff, the greater the learning. It's a hard habit of mind to break.

But is that true today? Is the portfolio, created centuries ago for carrying drawings or music or writing or blueprints now just a vestige of the age of print? Do we still need to have a bunch of stuff to be smart? Or, is truth now in the conversation and not in the archive? This is the enigma of ePortfolios: Why use technologies to keep artifacts over time when the culture now deals in ephemera and not permanence?

Remember that for almost all human history, we lived and learned through oral means--spoken language, what Walter Ong called "orality." After thousands of years, we learned to create written symbols and eventually a secondary form of spoken language called writing. We had moved from orality to literacy. Different values, different knowledge values, attached to orality and literacy. Authority was both in the person and in the person's work. The authority could experience disagreeing with himself as he outgrew earlier ideas that had made it into print. Books tended to take on the magic aura of truth; "if it's in print, it must be true."

In 2009, however, we say "if it was printed last year, it's obsolete." We've become experts in the evanescence of knowledge: What is considered true today may not be so tomorrow. We are in a new age of hybrid orality: We have returned to the garrulous humans we always were where knowledge changes much more quickly than it appeared to do in the age of print.

Keeping the new nature of knowledge construction--we only have rough drafts--in mind, consider what things a student would want to keep in an ePortfolio (assuming we decided they are not the digital versions of obsolete ideas). It is not in the total quantity of artifacts in the ePortfolio that a student learns the most or benefits the most. Part of the value is in the student perceiving the delta between earlier work and current work. But seeing the delta might be impossible amid the clutter of a pack rat's ePortfolio collection.

So, a certain amount of sloughing off, of discarding, deleting, sorting, or combining must happen. The ePortfolio is not a closet but a revolving door. In the short term, over a semester or two, keeping everything related to current courses might be necessary, but the essential nature of an ePortfolio for learning is not as a repository but as a place for reflection.

We have a super-abundance of information and new knowledge in this time, so the literacy impulse to save everything is an anachronism. The challenge now is sorting through the super-abundance. One place to sort is in the ePortfolio; ePortfolios are not a dumping ground, but a place for processing a flow of artifacts.

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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