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12 Important Trends in the ePortfolio Industry for Education and for Learning

A current scan of the ePortfolio marketplace

"Campuses are so much more sophisticated about ePortfolios now!"
      --ePortfolio vendor, September 2012

In the last three months, I talked with a large majority of global ePortfolio industry leaders. I was surprised at how much the industry had changed and how large the scale of implementation is compared to a year ago.

Why are ePortfolios so relevant today?

AAEEBL President and CEO Trent Batson

An electronic portfolio belongs to the learner: a Web-based application that can upload and store any file type to serve as evidence in a presentation from the ePortfolio, such as for graduation or to get a job. It is thus an electronic record of achievement that can be constantly sorted and culled and curated over time. It is an active repository with many management tools that can generate Web presentations for particular purposes; it is a resume-maker with linked evidence.

This basic function enables learning outside the classroom to be recorded and visible through the evidence--photos, video and audio clips, writing, and other kinds of evidence about the outside learning experience. This basic function also fits the culture of the service economy that now dominates the country: Jobs are increasingly temporary and one needs a ready record of accomplishments to continue to be employed or under contract. Graduates today need an ePortfolio after graduation to continue their learning and therefore their employability.

ePortfolios enable the move from education (the educator as the active agent) to learning. "In a time of stable knowledge, teach; in a time of rapidly-changing knowledge, learn,"--so says Carl Rogers [paraphrased], an eminent learning researcher. This is the time for learning: Start all thinking based on considerations about learning. Education presumes a set field of knowledge, limiting learner discovery to that field in which all knowledge has been discovered and analyzed; it presumes students will be acted upon by educators instead of students/learners acting upon knowledge; it presumes one path for all learners. Focusing on learning, as ePortfolios allow educators to do, opens up the learning experience.

The mobile nature of ePortfolios--always accessible through any browser--fits the learning needs of today. And the industry has responded by improving the quality of their ePortfolio offerings.

ePortfolio Vendors Comment on Their Market: Summary of Interview Findings

Extensive interviews with 14 ePortfolio vendors revealed key directions and interesting developments in that industry. Below are the 12 most notable findings.

New companies. New companies are entering the market. In this list are three companies I have not talked with before: SchoolChapters, Bedford/St. Martin's and Pathbrite. Each is entering this market sector with good preparation and realistic expectations about their entry into the market sector. Since the total number of significant ePortfolio providers in the world is less than 20, three new entries into the market marks a significant increase.

Larger scale implementations. Typical campus implementations have moved beyond scattered individual and program pilots to large program rollouts.

Greater sophistication on campus. Campus representatives are becoming more selective and knowledgeable: It's not enough that an ePortfolio application has a certain feature. Now, these reps want to see how the feature works. "Campuses are so much more sophisticated about ePortfolios now!" said one interviewee.

Selling to individuals. I found an incipient move to individual accounts. Up until this year, almost all ePortfolio accounts for students were created through an institution acting as "middleman." But, I found that now a couple of companies are primarily or only selling to adult individuals. This emergent trend is a significant marker in the development of the industry.

More mobility. Mobility is a necessity for ePortfolio users. They want and need to be able to access their ePortfolio account from anywhere using any device. Therefore, I found that many of the companies offer a mobile app for smart phones or at least ability to use a browser on a smart phone to access the ePortfolio.

Tenuous international markets. Most companies are U.S.-based or Canadian, and, with a couple of exceptions, have not penetrated the international market extensively; the few companies or open source communities headquartered outside the U.S. have done well in the U.K. and Australasia. One exception to this general picture is the Middle East, notably the Emirates, where institutions there want accreditation in the U.S. and are adopting U.S.-based ePortfolio applications. The reason for this picture of global imbalance in the market bears exploration.

A maturing K-12 sector. The K-12 market has begun to grow. There are very different needs and restrictions for ePortfolios at this level, so the applications have to be customized differently. Use of ePortfolios during the K-12 years, therefore, may not translate into student ePortfolio expertise in college.

Corporate market interest. The corporate market shows signs of some interest in ePortfolios, perhaps driven by the advent of self-paced online learning in corporate settings. Self-paced learning in this setting may be designed for employees to keep up with the more rapid changes in the market, in the knowledgebase, and in the products than before information technology. Online self-paced learning may be replacing training and may not be occasional but constant. Staying ahead in many fields and markets is harder than ever. To show that an employee is up-to-date, an ePortfolio may be the best tool (as long as the ePortfolio does not contain trade secrets and is not legally owned by the company).

Alternate certification of learning. All companies are aware of badges, MOOCs, and open education resources (OERs). Some have begun to incorporate the ability to include badges in their applications. This is a form of micro-credentialing certified by peers who work with a person on a joint project with separate but critical deliverables. Badges have seen a recent bump in activity and the implications of pairing badges with ePortfolios are significant.

The merging of LMS and ePortfolio technologies. We may be seeing the end of the LMS as we have known it. The market won't go away, but the LMS may begin to morph into an ePortfolio architecture, supporting longitudinal learning and decoupling from the course-based design they’ve had since the early CMS. LMSes, however, will not belong legally to the learner as ePortfolios do, so they will remain institutionally owned and therefore cannot serve to support the same level of transformation as do ePortfolios.

Market segmentation. A sign of ePortfolio industry maturity is that ePortfolio providers are specializing and finding particular market niches. Some providers specialize in linking ePortfolio content to global standards, others provide libraries of rubrics, while still others focus on intuitive learner-focused interfaces and functionality. A few providers include the "big three": an LMS, an assessment management system, and a student learning ePortfolio, all the while sharing functionality among the three apps.

The move to Web 2.0 native architectures. ePortfolios, at least the learner-focused modules or applications, do not in theory need to be tethered to an educational institution. ePortfolios as learning-enablers may come into their own when they become consumer applications marketed to the larger general market. They can make this move, and in some cases are making this move, when their architecture follows the lines of open architecture native to the Web, such as the latest version of Sakai.

What does all this mean?

Clearly, the ePortfolio market is becoming a dynamo but what is it driving? Let's look at key trends and their implications, both for the industry and for how learning is done in our culture.

Selling ePortfolios to Individuals

Consider the incipient move to individual accounts. This move started with companies making it possible for graduates who had an account with them during matriculation to keep that account open after graduation for a small annual fee. Then, a few companies said that individuals could purchase accounts without regard to any affiliation, past or present, with any institution of higher learning. Most recently, a new company said, out of the gate, that their market is individuals, full stop.

This is the time of the DIY learner, although our society offers few means to certify learning accomplished outside of an institution. One means, however, is assessment of prior learning, a growing international movement: Present your evidence of learning to the office of assessing prior learning at an institution and you will be awarded the equivalent academic credits. What better way to assist those who would assess your prior learning before being admitted to a program than with an ePortfolio? [See for more on this new phenomenon.]

Learning outside of the classroom is already visible with ePortfolios, but now we may also see that learning outside of the institution--that is, without being enrolled in any institution--is also visible in ways that can be certified.

Are we opening a Pandora's box? Many educators now do recognize that important learning goes on all the time, not just during moderated learning times. They also recognize that our culture now demands that most people who wish to stay employed need to learn constantly and throughout life. Learning is not limited to the time you are in the company of an expert, nor is it limited in any way. Expert guidance remains as essential as ever, but core cultural knowledge is now available broadly; it is no longer scarce.

But no, educational institutions, even with their high cost, and even now that knowledge is no longer scarce, will not lose out to DIY learners. The demand for learning is infinite today. Our elite institutions are turning away almost all applicants except for 10 percent or fewer. Not only is demand infinite, sources of knowledge are as well. The infinite demand meets the infinite supply of opportunities and confusion results. We are in a turbulent time.

The un-tethered learner, the DIY learner, is a new phenomenon: It's the Gap Year taken to a new level, it's the semester abroad, the year off, the summer experience, the field study--all not as an interlude to "real" learning but as a genuine path to success in life. And ePortfolio providers are there to offer support for this new path. ePortfolios are ideal for the un-tethered learner, both within and without an institutional setting.

As ePortfolios move into the general consumer market, the quality of ePortfolio applications must of necessity be competitive with other Web 2.0 applications. LinkedIn, Facebook, and other general market applications are not ePortfolios: They allow individuals to post information about themselves, but they do not support a full ePortfolio presentation. Nor do they provide the power to set permissions on who sees what piece of evidence, nor do they even provide storage space and management tools to curate personal evidence. On LinkedIn, all profiles look alike, whereas an ePortfolio allows you to create your own identity. A LinkedIn profile could not help in assessment of prior learning because LinkedIn would not allow the individual to show evidence of learning, or anything more than just a resume summary. Still, ePortfolio technology must be as easy and social as Facebook and LinkedIn if ePortfolios are to compete in the general market.

Multiple sites can advance awareness of your abilities, but an ePortfolio should be your first hit on Google. That is the authentic you.

The potential in the broad general market is there; to me, it seems inevitable that this is the direction the ePortfolio market is moving.

A "Tiny" International Market

Compared to the U.S. market--around 6,000 colleges and universities, the largest economy in the world, and a dominant service economy thriving on innovation--the market for ePortfolios in the U.K. is "tiny" according to one interviewee who should know. There is an upsurge of interest in Switzerland, France, Portugal, Spain, Austria and Germany. However, the dominant paradigm in Europe is to use ePortfolios just to track competency.

In Australia, workforce development has been a leading incentive for using ePortfolios. Recognition of prior learning is strong in Australia, a major initiative within the general workforce development effort. Use of ePortfolios among the "Sandstones," Australia's elite universities, is limited to certain fields.

It is hard to compare education in the U.S. with education outside the U.S. since so much of international education has been fully supported by governments. U.S. higher education institutions are much more like businesses, with sports teams, alumni associations, endowments, and high tuitions than are educational institutions outside of the U.S. Not being supported by one government, U.S. institutions are competitive entities looking for an edge that ePortfolios can provide.

At this point, it seems safe to say that the education establishment in the U.S. is more inviting toward ePortfolio implementation than is true in most other countries. As a result, almost all major ePortfolio-providing companies in the world are either U.S.-based or Canadian. It seems inevitable, though, that these companies will eventually compete well around the world as demand grows outside of the U.S.

Alternative Certification of Learning

The badging movement, thanks to HASTAC at Duke, the Mozilla Foundation, and the McArthur Foundation, has gained great visibility and buzz recently. McArthur provided funds for a competition to develop the national technical infrastructure to manage badges as certificates of a certain kind of learning outside of any institution.

Badges are not new, of course, which is one reason behind their quick popularity. We are all familiar with Boy and Girl Scout badges and with military badges. They reflect a level of skill doing a particular task, such as marksmanship, horsemanship, or astronomy. The Boy Scouts say: "You are expected to do exactly what is stated in the requirements. If it says 'show or demonstrate,' that is what you must do. Just telling about it isn't enough." (italics are mine; from The Boy Scouts of America home page).

Badges became popular in software development, a team enterprise. Badges are used to certify that a peer has performed well to produce a necessary deliverable for a team project. Badges are therefore the outward sign of learner peer review. Peer review in academia traditionally results in a publication or a conference presentation that then can boost the career of a professional staff member. In traditional peer review, the prestige of the publication or of the conference has conferred value on peer review. Learner peer review--badges--does not yet enjoy the opportunity for prestige to back up the badge. Yet, all ePortfolio providers are interested in and keeping an eye on the badge movement.

Badges incorporated into ePortfolios as another form of evidence of achievement makes sense. Badges could in theory be coupled with rubrics as evidence of achieving a particular level of expertise within a rubric structure. That badges are based on peer review seems very much in keeping with the DIY learner emerging pattern. Not only can learners "own" their own learning but perhaps also "own" the process of learner peer review.

Anticipating a Learning Culture

ePortfolios are not just a technology. Nor are they just an additional option in a standard curriculum. Instead, they are a way to see the new world of learning. They are the most disruptive learning technology: Designing learning based on ePortfolio abilities can create a new super-paradigm based in the broad culture. There are signs this is happening. Educational institutions need to be strategizing about how they will function within this super-paradigm of learning.

In a sign of these times, an industry is thriving based on something that has not yet happened: The ePortfolio, in addition to being disruptive, is an anticipatory technology. The super-paradigm is just an outline now; it is an outline of a learning culture. It is a clear and present gift.

Companies Interviewed

Bedford/St. Martin's

Chalk & Wire













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