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ePortfolio: Changing the Rhetoric of Technology Adoption

A Q&A with Trent Batson

In a recent blog post, AAEEBL president Trent Batson pondered "The Edinburgh Challenge: If ePortfolios are so great, why aren't more people using them?" Here, we talked with Batson about a reframing of the notion of 'ePortfolio adoption' and how that may ultimately help promote the technology.

Mary Grush: Where are we in ePortfolio adoption today?

Trent Batson: The numbers are encouraging. Educause, in its annual survey of undergraduate use of information technology — which is sent to undergraduate students in 55 countries — shows that well over 50 percent of students use ePortfolios at some point in their college careers, and ten percent use ePortfolios in all or nearly all of their courses. It would be hard to find an institution in any of those 55 countries that doesn't have an ePortfolio program in some form or other.

This technology distribution is actually quite surprising, given how little is truly understood about ePortfolios and what it means to adopt the technology.

Grush: Is there a need to change the perception of ePortfolio technology adoption?

Batson: Yes. What we were doing for a long time, actually throughout the entire field of technology and learning, was to encourage faculty to try technology — this seemed to be the goal we had in mind, and our focus. Because, we thought, if faculty didn't even take the first step and jump in the pool, if you will, there would never be the chance for more sophisticated use of technology.

And for us specifically in the ePortfolio community, we sincerely believed that once people started using ePortfolios, that they would see the value, and that the use would spread. That was a pretty simplistic notion, given the history of technology innovation in higher education — a culture where nothing ever seems to be easy, or simple, or straight forward.

I think we are at a point now where we realize that our early rhetoric no longer serves us very well.

Grush: Then how should the rhetoric change? Has the focus on individual faculty been limiting? Should the focus for ePortfolio adoption shift more towards the institution or the larger technology infrastructure?

Batson: That's at least a part of it. If one person tries ePortfolio, but almost no one else in their institution does, that person is not going to get much support or recognition for her efforts. It's similar to when the automobile was introduced, and someone had a car shipped to them by train, only to find out that there were not many roads in their town.

So if you are in effect the sole adopter of a technology, and the whole culture has not created the infrastructure for that technology to work, then you are sort of stuck.

It's not that we were wrong in approaching faculty, or that ePortfolio adoption by faculty did not produce good results, but that can't be our whole rhetoric today.

Grush: Still, over the years, the champions of ePortfolio on campus — so often faculty — have shown us many striking values of ePortfolio for learning. How would you shift the rhetoric and still keep a focus on those values?

Batson: One way that I'd like to frame the change in our rhetoric is with the mindset that we can no longer focus on ePortfolio technology adoption per se. Rather, we should create a receptivity for the technology by focusing on what it does: on how it supports learning. And we can do this with a larger, holistic view of the infrastructure.

What we need to be focusing on now is the need that colleges and universities have, to make important changes that ePortfolios can instrument. Those changes have always been the long term goal, but the point is that we now see some very positive trends in higher education that would suggest that ePortfolio is a key supportive technology.

Grush: What is the nature of those trends and changes?

Batson: First and foremost is the general change that people have been talking about for 20 years: the move from teaching to learning. So that's one way of reframing the rhetoric: People who are promoting technology use should be advocating for related institutional changes that would make the technologies really useful — improved learning assessment, employability, and all the other goals that institutions have had and now emphasize for their students.

Grush: And is there another point you'd like to make about how you would reframe the rhetoric?

Batson: Yes, definitely. The other major framing is that the nature of knowledge has changed radically, not only in the speed with which it is being developed, but in the manner in which it's being transmitted — more through disciplinary conversation than through the isolated work of individual researchers. So, people who are doing research are rethinking the endeavor.

Grush: What is an example from teaching and learning, of the change in the nature of knowledge?

Batson: High impact educational practices would be a good example. This involves much more real-world learning: authentic learning, learning communities, group learning, social learning… 

I'd also mention here, the effort to create learning outcomes for a course, a major, or a whole college curriculum. It's impressive to see faculty rethinking their courses in terms of what and how a student should learn, rather than what the instructor should teach.

And consider the whole movement for competency-based learning, and the means to provide evidence of learning. We are seeing more and more an emphasis on individualized learning — especially the necessity to collect evidence of learning. 

Here again, anyone advocating technology change should be able to represent how the technology supports key trends and changes in higher education.

Grush: It sounds like so many of these types of things need to be acted on or implemented at the institutional level. In terms of ePortfolio technology, is all of this being understood yet at the institutional level?

Batson: I'd say, at this point, almost exclusively, no. Mostly, institutions are understanding how to use ePortfolios to track student progress toward learning outcomes. There are certainly positive aspects of that, especially to help institutions uncover where the learning process is working and where it isn't. But, most institutions have yet to understand the entire ePortfolio reflective/integrative process — and the value of ePortfolio for learning. Perhaps they will catch up, if we update our ePortfolio adoption rhetoric.

[Editor's note: For more insights from Trent Batson, follow the Batson Blog on the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning Web site,]


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