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AAEEBL: It's All About Evidence-Based Learning--Supported by ePortfolios

Executive Director Trent Batson gives CT an AAEEBL update.

ePortfolios have been around for a long time now--more than a decade. In trying to understand them, many people new to ePortfolios, or those who haven't been involved with them extensively, focus on the technology, asking, "What are those ePortfolio products going to do?" But the key to understanding ePortfolios is realizing that what you're looking at is a supporting technology that opens up an enormous range of potential for evidence-based learning.

AAEEBL, the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning--and the organization around which most of the thought leadership on ePortfolios takes place--is now well established at 3 years old. CT asked AAEEBL Executive Director Trent Batson (photo above) for an update.

Mary Grush: What's important about evidence-based learning?

Trent Batson: Would you hire a person who offered only a twice-abstracted index as an indication of ability? An index that may have little validity? An index lacking predictive value about performance? An index many employers say is worthless?

Grush: The index, meaning grades?

Batson: Yes, I'm talking about grades. The original instructor who provided the grade knew a lot about this person when she was a student but then abstracted all that human knowledge down, down, down to a single letter. Then, over time, more letters were gathered and averaged, all of the letters equally stripped of actual knowledge of the learner now applying for a job with you.

If I was proposing this system anew, a system no one had ever used before, my proposal would be thrown out as absurd. If someone asked you how your daughter or son was doing with friends, sports, learning, and socially would you answer "2.98"?

Grush: Well mine would be much higher! But no, of course I wouldn't say that.

Batson: Many departments, programs, colleges and universities, and K-12 systems are awakening to a realization that there is a better way to measure student achievement, a better way to assess and evaluate, and a better way toward accountability than mere letters (grades) based on mere test scores.

We can move from this very thin and veiled domain of grades based largely on tests to the colorful, detailed, and informative domain of evidence-based learning (EBL).

Grush: The "…EBL" part of AAEEBL.

Batson: EBL, made possible by electronic portfolios, is a global movement toward better learning, better assessment, better employability, and better career success.

Instead of answering your friend asking you about your daughter with a cryptic "4.0+," you could say, "ah, look at these photos on my iPhone of my daughter's semester abroad, of her internship experience, of her undergraduate research, of her learning community, of her field work."

It is now possible to have evidence (documents, photos, audio clips, diagrams, video, slide sets, etc.) backing up the grades we give to students.

Grush: That is, with ePortfolios, it's at last possible to present all these things...

Batson: Employers or graduate school admissions officers can now see a "richer picture" (cf of a candidate: a standard resume that's online with links to evidence in the ePortfolio.

It is also possible--and maybe even likely--to fundamentally transform the academic structure, literally to create a new form. This new educational form is structured around a core evidence-based learning (EBL) paradigm. In this new form, grades are based on evaluating ePortfolios, not on tests. It is based, not on how much a student remembers of what the professor said, but on actual evidence of student learning gathered with the help of the professor.

Grush: So the use of ePortfolio technology certainly has the potential to impact and change some of the processes of how student progress is reported, and it could even contribute to more fundamental change in the practice of education. What is AAEEBL's role in all of this? And, how would you characterize AAEEBL's sphere of influence?

Batson: As you pointed out, "…EBL" is the last part of the name of The Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL), the three-year-old global professional association for the world's ePortfolio community.

AAEEBL, with its 100 institutional memberships in 5 countries and its 16 corporate sponsors, is in itself an indication of the EBL movement. AAEEBL hosts 4 conferences every year in the U.S. and sponsors two annual conferences, one in the German-speaking region of Europe and one in Australia.

Grush: ePortfolio technology has had about 10 years to mature, but is the ePortfolio industry robust enough to support a large shift to the EBL paradigm?

Batson: Here are the names of AAEEBL corporate sponsors over the past three years: Digication, TaskStream, eLumen, Adobe, Blackboard, PebblePad, Chalk&Wire, Foliotek, Three Canoes, Desire2Learn, NobleHour, Epsilen, Learning Objects, Rcampus, LiveText, and the Longsight Group--16 in all. Adding in open source (Sakai, Mahara) and non-AAEEBL member ePortfolio providers brings the total global number of successful ePortfolio providers to around twenty.

To support EBL, ePortfolio technologies have their own "supply chain." These are the technologies that make it possible to create the ePortfolio evidence to begin with--document technologies, video and audio technologies, smart phones, graphics software, sensors, and so on.

This is not a small industry and therefore is capable of supporting not only educational transformation at all levels--K-20--but of providing individuals with ePortfolio accounts after they graduate. Some large corporations, in addition to those mentioned, have invested heavily in ePortfolio technologies.

Grush: How are higher education institutions picking up on ePortfolios? It seems, at least on the surface, that it's slow in the U.S., compared to other countries.

Batson: Because ePortfolios "work" best in an EBL environment, and since the EBL paradigm is a far stretch from current dominant educational designs, ePortfolio use at scale on campuses will take time. It has been estimated (as early as the 2008 Campus Computing Survey report) that more than half of U.S. higher education institutions use ePortfolios. Globally, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, by some measures, are ahead of the U.S.

Grush: What are some of the related technology trends that might impact the ePortfolio movement?

Batson: All ePortfolio providers are now cloud-based. As a cloud-based subscription service, there is no longer the need to tie all accounts to a campus or a school system.

And most if not all providers either have a mobile app or are moving toward one. This is especially important outside of the U.S. where WIFI access may be limited.

Student management tools within the ePortfolio app are improving with semantic search and tagging capabilities. The "two faces of ePortfolios" (as identified by Helen Barrett), the student learning ePortfolio and the institutional assessment management system, are becoming more distinct in many ePortfolio applications.

Grush: Are ePortfolios becoming easier to use?

Batson: The joys of Web 2.0 are coming to an ePortfolio near you. We are starting to see user interfaces similar to familiar Web 2.0 apps, tying the ePortfolio app to Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or LinkedIn and so on. Those who may remember struggling with an ePortfolio app a few years ago will be surprised to see how improved the interfaces are now.

Grush: What is AAEEBL doing to inform educators about ePortfolios and evidence-based learning?

Batson: AAEEBL has three ePortfolio conferences coming up so you can learn much more about EBL. See to find out about The AAEEBL Conference on Career, Employability, and ePortfolios Feb. 27-28 at Westminster College in Salt Lake City; secondly, The AAEEBL Conference on Learning, Metacognition, and ePortfolios March 23 (one day) in Providence, RI at the Culinary Museum on the Harborside Campus of Johnson&Wales University; and the big annual AAEEBL conference in Boston, July 16-19, 2012, AAEEBL's international conference.

Grush: I would add that the last one you mentioned--the conference in Boston July 16-19, is co-located with Campus Technology's annual summer conference, offering all attendees access to most of both events. It's a great opportunity to learn about ePortfolios and evidence-based learning in the context of a broader-based education technology event.

Batson: As you pointed out, ePortfolios are a decade old. They are unusual in that they were and are designed for a learning paradigm that is not yet in place. They are automobiles without the Interstate Highway System. Fundamentally, however, ePortfolios and AAEEBL are enmeshed in learning theory and in an educational design--evidence-based learning (EBL)--that brings to life student-centered learning in the real sense.

Higher education has demonstrated that student-centered "high-impact practices"--undergraduate research, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, first-year experiences and so on--are more effective than traditional learning experiences. Many scholars now consider ePortfolios another high-impact practice. They are part of the general movement toward active learning, and toward college graduates who can actually do something--and can show evidence of that.

[Editor's note: AAEEBL's annual conference in Boston July 16-19 is still (through February 20) accepting proposals for sessions at the conference. If you wish to submit a proposal, go to The entire conference is about evidence-based learning and ePortfolios.]

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