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The Right Data for ePortfolios

Accountability has become the judge’s gavel that silences all discussion in higher education. Those using the term seem to think that higher education has never, until now, been accountable. So, to be re-accredited, many colleges and universities and many programs within the colleges and universities have looked to electronic portfolios for help. I think most people involved in these efforts would say the results have been, at best, mixed. They might say that the results were not worth the effort. And it seems that accrediting agencies may be wondering the same thing.

It may be well worth while to pause in this push toward accountability and ask: What are we doing now in higher education to see changes in students over time and how do we represent those changes so that both the student and other interested parties understand those changes? ePortfolios have been seen as the way to accomplish this task, but the potential is still unrealized because the wrong data is being entered into the ePortfolio.

The data being entered in most, or nearly all, cases is the assignment itself. Is that the best data--as assignments are constructed now--the most revealing of change in a student’s learning ability over time? Some campuses, instead, are focusing on the student’s response to faculty comments as a reflective piece. In fact, some say the reflective piece is all that they keep in the ePortfolio.

As strong an advocate for ePortfolios as I am, I think perhaps collecting student assignments, as they are generally constructed now, in electronic portfolios is the wrong approach. It may be that we have been too simplistic in our thinking.

Here’s why: Will the work itself, with comments on the work by instructor and replies by the student (in some cases), in the aggregate help anyone develop a picture of the student or, as importantly, a picture of the kinds of change that the student went through while doing the work? How do we manage this data, this student work that varies from math solutions to English papers to engineering drawings? How do we do queries that provide useful information about an individual student? How does a student use a bucket full of her work to get a job? Who, except for experts in the field, are able to judge the work?

If we are talking accountability or if we are talking creativity or employability--no matter what orientation we have--we want to know what value the student received from the education, and, to help keep adjusting our educational approaches, we want to know which experiences during the educational journey were most significant in producing the learning value.

What data would convey answers to these questions? Simply linking student work to overall learning goals for the program or the whole curriculum, no matter the complexity of the rubric, is not much better than our current grading system. This is tracking and management, not getting at the essence of the learning experience.

Where to look? Someone told me recently at a conference that she often wished she could hand in a “cover letter” with her assignments because she wanted to explain something about the effort to complete the assignment: couldn’t find that citation, tried a new approach, went another tack, this was the best work she had done yet, noticed a connection with some other work she was doing in another course, and so on. When the work is just completed, thoughts about the work abound. This is the untapped data we are missing. We need to look for the student to submit this second piece, this “cover letter” about the assignment.

Now, remember that electronic portfolios can associate various artifacts with each other. So, though it would have been arduous for the teacher if a student turned in two pieces of work with each assignment on paper, it is easy in the digital world.

This “cover letter” contains the real gold mine for the student, for assessment folks, for the teacher, for accreditors, employers, institutional research folks, program planners, deans--in short for everyone. Because, in this “cover letter,” the student is conveying what the assignment meant to him or her. Identifying meaning is what all learning is about. The grade takes care of assigning external value to the work; the cover letter conveys the inner meaning and the inner value.

Now, if students are handing in the assignment plus the cover letter (written in response to prompts) and also--this is another benefit of digital technologies--tagging the cover letter using a standard set of tags (which the student learned in a newly required course segment about organizing information) then we have in this “cover letter” a qualitative statement linked to a limited code statement which can then be searched later, and then these searches can be aggregated, and various queries of the electronic portfolio can then develop different learning profiles of the student over time, benchmarked by semesters or terms. We are putting better data in and therefore getting better data out.

Voila! We can then see change, students can see their own change, we can link the change to specific experiences, we can constantly reshape learning experiences based on cohorts, and our accreditors and the politicians will wear smiles because we’ll be able to see the actual learning taking place over time.

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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