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Standards to Take ePortfolios Outside the Institution and into the Future

A conversation with Phil Ice about ePortfolio standards

Your students have created ePortfolios that reflect their academic progress and offer samples of their work. But how can you be sure a potential employer will be able to access the ePortfolios? And will the information survive future technology changes? CT asked Phil Ice (at left), American Public University System director of course design, research and development for his thoughts on ePortfolio standards.

Phil Ice: As institutions have strived to develop ePortfolios, there's been no common format that they've used. If you take a look at some of the more prevalent ePortfolio programs in the marketplace that are out there in schools today, those are intended for students to display artifacts, and they are really not much more than server space with links. When a student uploads an artifact that they've developed--for example, in the teacher education space, a lesson plan, or a video of themselves in practice, or some type of diagram--there's been no real preferred way or mechanism to present that information.

Having been involved with teacher education for a while, I've seen what can happen. A student may develop a very elaborate project--say in one of the concept mapping programs--and they upload the file to their ePortfolio, but then only a recipient with that same program can view it. Most of the faculty in house viewing the ePortfolio will have the same software, so that's fine. But when the student sends the ePortfolio to an outside employer, there's no assurance that will be the case. And when I talk to my colleagues in health sciences and other fields, they say they have the same problem: Content area-specific software will generate file formats that are not readable by a more general audience, even potential employers. This all becomes very problematic for the students and I believe that we have to move towards having a standard way to present ePortfolios, or at least an industry standard across education institutions. At least, those institutions should adopt a format that is common enough that the information would be accessible by most potential employers.

CT: What's an example of a standard format that ePortfolios could use?

Ice: When I was a beta tester for the Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro Extended edition, I saw that the ePortfolio tool in it converts any type of media into a format that can be accessed simply by using Adobe Acrobat Reader. This could be a glimpse into what the future may hold. It's a way to consolidate accessibility and overcome some of the problems we've had in the past. There are some other solutions just beginning to appear that go in that direction, but I was really happy to see this one now, because I think it's an area that we haven't paid enough attention to. To this point we've taken for granted that what students are producing will last them a lifetime, when in fact that is not necessarily the case.

CT: Are students being promised that their information is going to live on into the future in their ePortfolios?

Ice: I don't think that anyone at any institution that I'm aware of is making an explicit promise to students that the ePortfolio will be there forever, but I believe that there's an implied expectation that whatever a student has produced--be it in an MBA program, a teacher ed program, a class in the arts with visual media--will be accessible. The student has spent some number of years developing the content and expects to be able to continue to utilize it and add to it in the future. I think that our students tend to believe that, though I don't think we've expressly promised them that.

At institutions across the board, we need to point out to students that information is susceptible to changes in technology. I think back to when I was an undergrad, and I had some papers typed up, plus some artifacts that I had placed on a lovely 5.25-inch disk. I'm not really sure how you'd go about accessing them at this point in time. It may seem like the technology should remain accessible, but really, there's no guarantee after 15 or 20 years that a student can go back and just pull something up. Of course, this problem goes beyond ePortfolios and is a problem about information in general. There are permanent storage mechanisms and data preservation initiatives out there, but I think this is a problem we need to look at and address specifically in the context of ePortfolios.

CT: What are some of the key technologies that might be used in the context of ePortfolios to address this problem?

Ice: While I don't think there's any way we can give a 100 percent guarantee into the future, I do think that one thing we can do is go with what seems to be industry standard and has the most chance of being accessible in the future. For example, though right now Flash seems to have captured a large portion of the video market, we might look toward PDF/A for students to archive everything--video, Word docs, whatever. They can put all their files into that same container that will render them all readable in Adobe Acrobat Reader. I think that's a large step towards the type of consolidation of content and exposing everything through one view layer. And because we don't have agreement among institutions at this point I think it's important for us, even at the program level, to look at those solutions that have the highest level of market saturation and provide for significant amounts of aggregation of formats. I don't see anything else in the marketplace right now that gives us that capability, so that's the direction I'd head in.

Phil Ice is the director of course design, research and development for the American Public University System.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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