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Here, There, & Everywhere

Electronic portfolios can follow a student beyond graduation into careers and other life pursuits-- but not if the university can't guarantee access, or if the data won't transfer from one system to another. A look at how ePortfolios can be true repositories of lifelong learning.

Here, There, & EverywhereHOW MIGHT ePORTFOLIOS live beyond a student's graduation? Margo Tamez, a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at Washington State University, provides the use case: A pending legal suit depends, in part, on the continued existence of the ePortfolio she has created, which resides on a server at the university. And even once that suit is settled, a community of international political activists whose cause is the subject of Tamez's ePortfolio still will rely on ongoing access to the site.

Tamez's situation, while unique, reflects the current debate on the future of ePortfolios: How are they evolving with the growth of Web 2.0? What are the right tools to create them? And do they have a role beyond the academic setting as part of a person's lifelong learning endeavors?

The outcome of that debate isn't simply an exercise in academic curiosity. The Obama administration has put the development of longitudinal data systems that track student progress from preschool through college and beyond at the heart of its education reform initiatives, and the use of ePortfolios could prove to be central to these efforts. Meanwhile, the growth of ePortfolios in higher ed continues unabated. Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project, which regularly canvasses higher education institutions on technology issues, says that nearly 40 percent of all institutions had implemented a student ePortfolio project by 2008-- up from almost 30 percent the year before. Public and private universities lead the way, with half reporting that they provide ePortfolio services through their campus websites. That represents a considerable technology investment, whether the ePortfolio is part of a broader course management initiative on campus or just a limited-scope project being explored, for example, by a school of education.

But like much on campus these days, ePortfolios are morphing to reflect the far-reaching trend in higher ed of relying less on technology delivered by the institution itself and more on the use of user-centric technology, including Web 2.0.

Compliance Doesn't Get Many Volunteers

At their most basic, ePortfolios provide an online repository for students to post their work and share it with others. "Collection, selection, reflection, direction, and presentation," is how ePortfolio researcher Helen Barrett sums up the ePortfolio experience. Once the student has collected a body of work and selected specific examples of it to share in the repository, he or she then reflects on how those pieces have facilitated learning and how that learning has evolved through the period in which the ePortfolio is maintained.

If students become disengaged from the process of maintaining their own identities as learners, ePortfolios become a compliance activity-- the death knell for continued usage of the ePortfolio after graduation.

At some point in the evolution of ePortfolios, however, those initial goals of reflection and assessment begin to feel "inauthentic, another hoop for the students to jump through," says Jayme Jacobson, learning design consultant at WSU's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT). The problem: "The professors don't always understand fully what they're asking of students... and students are becoming very disengaged from [the process] of maintaining their own identities as learners."

As a result, says Theron DesRosier, a design consultant and Jacobson's CTLT colleague, "The ePortfolio becomes a compliance activity." That in turn can spell the death knell for continued usage after the requirement for maintaining the ePortfolio-- for instance, graduation-- is met.

Barrett, who has been writing about ePortfolios since 1991 when she was a professor at the University of Alaska-Anchorage (she currently holds a courtesy appointment from the University of Oregon), shares a story from a university acquaintance in Seattle. For five years, she says, this school used a commercial ePortfolio system for assessment management in its teacher education program. During that time, her acquaintance revealed to her, he could count on one hand the number of students who asked how they could use this system once they got their own classrooms. "He said there wasn't any interest in trying to apply the ePortfolio process," she recalls.

In the last year, however, that same university dropped the ePortfolio program in favor of using blogging software from WordPress. This past summer, as he started teaching Word- Press to students, Barrett's colleague lost track of the number of students who reflected in their blogs about how they could apply the technology in their own classrooms. "To me that is a very telling story," she says. "Most of the ways we implement ePortfolios in higher education don't have real-world applications."

A "hodgepodge of standards" for structuring and storing the contents of ePortfolios "prevents the development of a healthy ecosystem for supporting the lifelong learner ePortfolio," observes a Gartner industry analyst.

Stretching the Notion of the ePortfolio

In Tamez's case at WSU, her ePortfolio has only too real an application to the outside world-- one with high stakes attached.

In 2006, she faced a dead end. She was ready to throw in the towel in her efforts to find campus support for her social science research into indigenous women who lived along the US-Mexico border. Then she took a phone call from her mother, whose property along the Texas-Mexico border was increasingly being threatened with eminent domain by the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, and the US Army Corp of Engineers, which wanted to put a border wall through ancestral lands. Suddenly, Tamez's dissertation research became highly and personally focused on a specific stretch of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Tamez urgently began publicizing the plight of her mother's community, which became an international call-to-arms for indigenous people all around the world who were facing the construction of border walls dividing their own lands. Closer to home, the university's team at the CTLT also heard Tamez's plea for help. DesRosier met with Tamez and suggested she consider an ePortfolio as a mechanism for creating and maintaining a living record of the struggles in which she was immersed.

Thus was born the Calaboz ePortfolio, built on Microsoft SharePoint and containing, as Tamez writes on the site, "languages, images, media, history, biographies, archives, documents, and structures [showing] the human rights struggles of a small indigenous community, in one of the poorest counties in the United States." The ePortfolio draws visitors from around the world and has become a community resource, Tamez says. She describes it as "a place for us to present in a more structured, traditional way our reports, our announcements, our denouncements, our data, our stats, our ongoing development."

Tamez's ePortfolio, which won first place in a campus ePortfolio contest in 2008, has become a repository for all the mail, e-mail, legal documents, PowerPoint presentations, press releases, pieces of research, and drafts of papers that have led up to the court case in which Tamez and her mother are now involved. (A jury trial in December will determine compensation and the impact of the border wall on Tamez's family.) It is those documents that Tamez wants to ensure will be warehoused indefinitely, even after her work with the university has ended, because she believes they'll continue to have value for future activists.

Tamez needn't worry that her portfolio will go poof! after she graduates. WSU has no policy or procedure in place to delete a student's SharePoint mySite (where her portfolio resides) after graduation, but after 12 months the site becomes read-only unless the graduate makes a specific request to have management access restored.

Nonetheless, her situation raises some thorny questions: If a school sets up an ePortfolio system and serves as host for its contents, does the school own the materials and can the school cut off support post-graduation? If so, what does that say about an institution's commitment to the goal of lifelong learning? In the event that a college or university puts lifelong learning forward as part of its mission, should an ePortfolio, at a minimum, last for the duration of a person's life?

The ePortfolios of the future will look like blogs and wikis, says WSU CTLT Assistant Director Nils Peterson. "They definitely will not be walled gardens run by universities. An ePortfolio isn't a place or a thing; it's a practice."

The Necessity of Standards

Right now, that would be challenging, says Trent Batson, columnist for and executive director of the newly formed Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL), a professional association for the ePortfolio community. Batson believes that a key component holding back broader adoption of ePortfolios beyond academic requirement is the lack of standards for the data being maintained in the ePortfolio repository.

"We have to think about what data we're putting into ePortfolios. Just collecting all the work isn't good data," he says. "It's just throwing everything in there."

Batson hopes to enlist 15 to 20 campuses around the world to develop a standard ePortfolio format and tagging conventions so that the contents of ePortfolios could be searched in different ways. That would provide two benefits, he believes: It would help researchers identify trends and do analysis about ePortfolios, and it would be useful for potential employers. "If you're looking at somebody's physics experiments and you're not a physicist, it's not going to be of much value for you to see a specific experiment. But if a student says, ‘The reason I solved the problem this way is because...' then employers can read through the different reflections to see how the student thinks."

Baton's concerns are echoed by Jan- Martin Lowendahl, a higher education sector research director for Gartner, who confirms that "there's a hodgepodge of standards out there" for structuring and storing the contents of ePortfolios. He's advising campus technology leaders to monitor standards efforts, because those will facilitate the original intent of the ePortfolio "to provide a place where you store your stuff, regardless of employer or institution. That part doesn't exist today." Without coherency, vendors and others go in a multitude of directions to address customer needs. That, he says, "prevents the development of a healthy ecosystem for supporting the notion of the lifelong learner ePortfolio."

Furthermore, without those structures in place, and without the ability for a person to control what materials are accessible by others, the ePortfolio loses its usefulness for employability, says Casey Jackson of the Human Resources department at Wolseley/Ferguson, an international wholesaler of construction materials and a major recruiter on campuses. She also was one of the judges who evaluated Tamez's ePortfolio for the contest at WSU.

Jackson is concerned that reading unfiltered digital materials from a candidate can get prospective employers into trouble. "As employers, we have to be careful legally with information we can know and not know about applicants. We can't hire based on any personal attributes-- anything related to background, race, age, gender." But standards are as much for the protection of students as for employers, she maintains. While Jackson considers ePortfolios "a great way to show what you can do versus telling someone what you can do," she also views them like any other form of digital presence. "It's almost like social networking. Students want to be careful about what they include and don't include," she says.

The issue of employer access to student ePortfolios is of prime importance to AAEEBL director Trent Batson. "Employability is a big concern around the world," he says. "Here we talk about assessment and learning [applications for ePortfolios]. [But] ePortfolios should be for employability-- and for personal development," he insists, and that won't happen without standards.

Roadblocks to Wide-Scale Adoption

In Gartner's latest analysis of the ePortfolio category in its publication, "Hype Cycle for Education, 2009," the IT research firm suggests that ePortfolios are beginning to move out of the infamous "trough of disillusionment" and estimates that mainstream adoption will take two to five years. During this time, users will discover the true value of ePortfolios, enabling them finally to reach the "plateau of productivity."

But first, a few roadblocks stand in the way. In addition to the need for standards discussed above, the Gartner report lists two other obstacles that inhibit the widespread use of ePortfolios: cost and what Gartner calls "identity and access management."

Institutions haven't figured out how to support the cost attached to a lifelong learner ePortfolio, says Gartner's Lowendahl. Beyond the expense of licensing the application itself (which can be eliminated with the use of an open source solution), ePortfolios involve outlays for storage and IT administration. That's where free cloud services such as Google Apps or Microsoft Live@Edu could, Lowendahl believes, play an important role. "Today they already are offering a number of services free of charge for students, to get as many eyeballs as possible to their services and their brands and ads and all that kind of thing," Lowendahl says. "It would make sense for them to develop an ePortfolio in the same manner."

The issue of identity and access management is, to Lowendahl, the biggest hurdle, and not just in the arena of ePortfolios but also for much else in the internet realm. Without the ability to know who is behind a given internet identity, there's no way to assure accreditation. "A grade is only valuable as long as somebody can back it up," he points out. The same could be said for a research project, work samples, or other materials that might end up in a lifelong ePortfolio. All of these types of content allow the user to show proof of what he or she has accomplished, achieved, and learned in life-- but are only valid if the identity of the student and the institution are verifiable.

"If we solve this more basic problem of the identity ecosystem, then the field is really open for the Web 2.0 type of functionality to do ePortfolios," Lowendahl says. "What does an ePortfolio do? It stores blobs, binary large objects. It adds metadata of some sort. Sometimes it adds some workflow for grading purposes." All those components, he adds, can be found in other applications on campus, such as learning management systems. "Some smart person could add specific processes and workflows to more generic tools and get them to work for this particular task."

The Portfolio Community

The cloud referenced by Lowendahl is where researcher Barrett believes success in ePortfolios for the lifelong learner ultimately will be found. Increasingly, she's finding institutions implementing blogging software or free cloud services. Those schools have discovered what artists already know, she observes. "Artists construct their portfolios to showcase work but also to act as a way to get critiques and feedback," says Barrett. "We tend to approach the portfolio as a presentation, not as a conversation. But that's what is so exciting about Web 2.0. The portfolio can become a conversation, a dialog, because Web 2.0 tools are built on an architecture of interaction and participation."

That in turn is leading to a movement in which the learner constructs his or her own community of people who can support the learning environment. "[Learners are] doing it now, but doing it in Facebook and MySpace," she explains. "Their conversation is around assignments or around activities to support their academic endeavors."

What Barrett is describing comes very close to personal learning environments. A PLE, according to Wikipedia, is a system that allows the learner to take control of and manage his or her own learning. That includes setting goals, managing the content, and communicating with others in the process of learning. It also involves wider collaboration, says CTLT's DesRosier. "It's not my identity located in this specific place of learning. It's an interaction. It's a community reflection; a community gathering of evidence."

CTLT Assistant Director Nils Peterson wholeheartedly agrees. An ePortfolio is not an electronic extension of its paper-based predecessor, he insists. "It is not a thing or a place; it's a practice."

The internet, he points out, is well suited to promoting this kind of reflective practice. The ePortfolios of the future "will look like blogs and wikis," he says. "They definitely will not be walled gardens run by universities."

Peterson predicts that users will have a variety of ePortfolios through the years, like multiple blog projects, and they'll be supplemented by resources important to the individual, "whether it's Flickr, because a person is really interested in visual images, or other kinds of social tools for collecting particular kinds of media." Along the way, he says, students will interact with communities wherever those communities reside. "If you're a photographer, you'll want to find a photographer community and get engaged there-- and not work in a portfolio structure."

Getting there will take time. The challenge for the university that espouses-- or requires-- the use of ePortfolios, says Tamez, is to stop thinking about them as "flat" assignments. "We have to think about how we continue to help students stimulate their own thinking and learning and not just leave something behind-- well, OK, it's done-- but to use [the ePortfolio] as a tool to continue to grow and generate new kinds of working relationships. Those relationships continue to spark innovation."

Tamez herself has started academic blogging outside her ePortfolio, and she has her students creating blogs, too. Why not pursue with her students the ePortfolio strategy that has proven to be so useful in her own work? "The blog is a lot easier to change as an environment," she says. "It's more understandable, more readable. The tools are more direct than SharePoint." Plus, she adds, "I wanted my students to have control. I didn't want the university to be in there... [making us feel like] it can be removed at any time. I wanted to build more autonomy."

Barrett takes Tamez's point one step further and says she finds that if schools are using proprietary ePortfolio tools that students would have to subscribe to continue using post-graduation, they won't bother. She argues that sustained, post-graduate use requires tools toward which the learners will effortlessly and affordably gravitate. "And [the tools will] morph and change as we go through different stages of our lives," she says. We may not call it a portfolio, she adds, but that's what it is.

"People don't see ePortfolios in a lifelong, life-wide context-- yet. But I can guarantee you that in the personal world, [people will] be storing videos in YouTube; they may keep a blog. If we can build that habit of mind in reflection, then we can truly support lifelong learning."

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