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ePortfolio's Democratizing Potential May Be Quashed by IT Dark Side

Information technology can be used by people in liberating or democratizing ways--new connections, a global community, a flowering of creativity, new access to information--or it can be used to control people, to emphasize the perfection of the system over the needs of the individual. These are the two faces of IT. And a major test case of these two faces throughout education is the electronic portfolio: Will personal ownership of learning be expanded and defined by personal portfolios, or will portfolio systems evolve into a set of technologies that further control and define learning from the institutional perspective?

Or, in less conspiratorial terms: Will schools, colleges, and universities be wise enough to support both an institutional portfolio system and an individually defined portfolio experience? Will the institutions be enlightened enough to not only guard their system but support experimentation outside of their system?

This is not an idle question because this battle is going on now. I and others have written about this battle for a couple of years. Institutions need data to show that their students are learning, but students need the freedom to discover themselves at the fringes of the institution. Institutions need assessment management using portfolio data but students need personal portfolios to learn. Within one technology, portfolios, IT must show both the liberating and controlling faces.

What follows is a story from a real parent whose son is in high school and is using an ePortfolio system. The parent wants to be involved in his son's education and, as a physicist and IT entrepreneur, has a clear insight into the portfolio system his son is using.

"When my son, Jonathon, entered West Northland High [names have been changed], we were informed that his class would be the first to submit work to the new ePortfolio system and that the submissions and final presentation of that work would be required for graduation.

"He has now been submitting 'anchor assignments' since his freshman year and will present the work this spring as a junior. I asked him what he thought the goal of the ePortfolio submission process was and his reply was 'to pass.' As I have witnessed this process unfold, it is clear to me that this has nothing to do with student learning. It is another assessment process and in no way represents what I believe the original intent was.

"The ePortfolio system as it is currently constituted is an external hard drive that stores files. The process entails uploading files for three years and then meeting with a designated ePortfolio administrator who will help the student create a tour of the work. There is no ongoing learning process, no student ownership, no collaboration, no opportunity for student creativity, and very little opportunity for reflection. It is currently viewed by students as a burden. 

"I believe that the administration and faculty might actually feel the same way but I am not sure they would state that publicly. I do wonder if this is just the first stage of a much grander vision. If so, maybe my younger son, now in middle school, may be the beneficiary.

"Other tools include a separate system called i-parent which teachers are supposed to use to support an ongoing view to student progress/assessment. This system has many flaws that cause teachers to either not use it at all or update it infrequently. Additionally, individual teacher portals are available but have highly variable implementations. Most teachers have portals but some are never updated, some are updated but the information value is questionable, and a rare few actually use the portal as an integral part of the teaching method. We have found that those who are truly using the technology are creating new, interesting, and effective learning opportunities. As a parent who believes that I should be a collaborative partner in the child's education, I think there is significant opportunity for improvement."

This school system may eventually get the system working better. But we need to know that having a portfolio assessment system in place does not mean we have "done" ePortfolio. Students need to have their own ePortfolio space, or all the school has is half a system that will produce meager results. So, this story is, we hope, just the first half.

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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