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E-Portfolios: Are We There Yet?

For years, e-portfolios have been nurtured by a corps of true believers. As DIY education becomes a reality, their time may have come at last.

As open ed and DIY initiatives seep into the mainstream, educators continue to grapple with the issues of assessment and credentialing. A solution that has been bandied about for years without gaining significant traction is e-portfolios. Has the time finally come for institutions to move away from transcripts and traditional assessment toward the e-portfolio model for demonstrating student achievement? Campus Technology sat down with Trent Batson, executive director of the Association for Authentic, Experiential, and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEBL), to talk about the strength of e-portfolios in assessing 21st century learning and the potential of e-portfolios to transform higher ed.

Campus Technology: Why e-portfolios? Why now?

Trent Batson: E-portfolios have gained a huge amount of interest in the past few years, because they are not a technology that sustains the status quo, like learning management systems. In a sense, e-portfolios portend the future, because they are a way for students to own their own learning and to carry around evidence of their experiences in all fields of study. The e-portfolio fits into the world of learning as it is now. It can be a technology around which entire enterprises transform, so that learning becomes assessed through evidence rather than tests.

It's funny, portfolios have been used in the skills-based fields--writing, art, music, and so on--for many years, but they tended to be looked down upon in academia outside those disciplines. Now, with the focus on student-centered 21st century learning, everyone is talking about skills. Sure, you have a degree in history, but what did you do to achieve that? What can you do with those skills that you learned while earning that degree?

The beauty of e-portfolios is that they can enable learning theories that have been developed through intense study over the past 30 years of how humans learn using cognitive science, traditional psychology, and anthropology. It's important that we're now switching to an approach that's appropriate for adult learning. At the base of this research is the idea that learning is based on experience. Until now, we have not allowed students to have much in the way of experience; instead, we expect them to listen to someone who has had experience.

CT: When do you think the adoption of e-portfolios will become mainstream?

Batson: It's a growing phenomenon, but the change to e-portfolios as a standard assessment tool won't happen overnight, because it means redesigning how courses are taught. A professor using e-portfolios as the basis for a course grade has to take a different approach from a professor using more traditional means of assessment. He has to help students build the evidence in their portfolios. It means the teacher must help them work on problems or projects throughout the semester. It's an active learning approach.

This doesn't mean that professors don't lecture at all. For young students coming into a college-level biology course without a biology background, there might be four weeks designated as the informational stage of the course. How does a biologist think? What kind of evidence does a biologist look for? The teacher would then build toward the questions that he's going to ask throughout the semester and the problems to which students will try to find answers. At that point, the teacher would turn to what we might call the transformational part of the semester: For 11 weeks, the teacher would help students work on projects, and create deliverables that they produce and respond to, and help them build evidence in their portfolio. That's a very different model from the one we've employed for centuries.

CT: What is stopping schools from adopting this form of assessment across the board?

Batson: There are some major barriers. If you are still going by seat time and the credit system as the main way that you charge students, the business side of the university is impinging on the academic side. It's saying that this is the best way for us to keep track of students and commoditize knowledge. That is completely inappropriate today, because knowledge is no longer a commodity. Knowledge is a process now. But you can't charge tuition based on little bits of knowledge--what are three credits of knowledge? So the business aspect of higher learning stands in the way.

We stand at the crossroads of two gestalts--the business model gestalt of the credit system and seat time, and the academic gestalt of student-centered learning. Basically the whole university has to accept e-portfolio assessment as the way to grade students. Sure, a whole program can certify students as biologists or physicists or mathematicians based on the e-portfolio approach. And we as professionals can say that this is how we're going to certify students in this field. But for a whole university to make the switch really goes against the expectations of the culture, the expectations of the students, and the expectations of most professors, because they still want to do what they've been doing all along.

CT: What's the role of e-portfolios in higher education right now?

Batson: Right now, about half of all American universities have some sort of e-portfolio initiative in place, so it is becoming widespread. In most cases, though, the initiatives encompass a few courses here and there, or a program or two. A handful of universities around the globe, including Virginia Tech, Clemson University (SC) and LaGuardia Community College (NY), have committed to moving toward 100 percent e-portfolio courses.

This is not something that's going to change overnight, but it is really nice to know that there is a road map for how to change around e-portfolios. The push toward e-portfolios is not just a willy-nilly "technology is causing a revolution and I don't know what we're doing" type of change. Our whole culture has gone digital, knowledge has changed entirely--yes, it's a big change, but we actually know the way to go. We have evidence in the practices gathered together that gives us a pathway forward.

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