ePortfolios Explained

At one level, an ePortfolio is nothing more than a digital collection of artifacts that belong to or represent a person. In an academic context, these artifacts might include a student’s essays, posters, photographs, videos, artwork, and other course-related assignments. Additionally, the artifacts might also pertain to others aspects of a student’s life, such as volunteer experiences, employment history, extracurricular activities, and so on. However, while these digital artifacts are important, they are static products. They are simply things that the student has produced or done or experienced, and a good ePortfolio ought to be more than just a collection of products. It should also be a process – specifically, the process of generating new or deeper learning by reflecting on one’s existing learning. It’s important, then, to think of an ePortfolio as both a product (a digital collection of artifacts) and as a process (of reflecting on those artifacts and what they represent). An ePortfolio can have additional purposes, too, which we’ll get to later on. But those additional purposes only emerge if the ePortfolio is first construed as both a product and a process.

Like a Learning Management System, ePortfolios exist online and support student learning. They differ from Learning Management Systems in two key ways: namely, ownership and control. In a university course, the Learning Management System is “owned” and controlled or managed by the instructor: he or she decides who has access, what tools are turned on or off, and so on. With an ePortfolio, it tends to be the student who is in charge: he or she decides who can view the ePortfolio, what artifacts get added, how it is designed, and so on. Typically, a student loses access to the Learning Management System when courses end; in contrast, many ePortfolio platforms are designed to follow the student after he or she has finished university.

It’s useful to think of ePortfolios as a tool for what has come to be known as Personal Development Planning, which is “a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect on their own learning performance, and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development” (Jackson, 2001). As Quality Assurance Agency in the UK has articulated, Personal Development Planning helps students in the following ways:

  • plan, integrate and take responsibility for their personal, career and academic development, identifying learning opportunities within their own academic programmes and extra-curricular activities
  • recognise, value and evidence their learning and development both inside and outside the curriculum
  • be more aware of how they are learning and what different teaching and learning strategies are trying to achieve
  • be more effective in monitoring and reviewing their own progress and using their own records and evidence of learning to demonstrate to others what they know and can do
  • evaluate and recognise their own strengths and weaknesses and identify ways in which perceived weaknesses might be improved and strengths enhanced
  • develop their identity in relation to their academic, professional and personal progression
  • develop a vocabulary to communicate their development and achievement
  • be better prepared for seeking, continuing or changing employment or self-employment and be more able to articulate the skills and knowledge they have gained to others
  • be better prepared for the demands of continuing progression and career development in professional and academic careers

Different kinds of ePortfolios

When reading about ePortfolios, it becomes apparent that some educators primarily see them as a tool for generating new or deeper learning while others primarily see them as a tool for assessment (of students and, by extension, of university programs). At the 2008 Making Connections conference, Helen Barrett described the difference in perspective this way: “There’s a major tension right now between student-centered and institution-centered ePortfolios.” Student-centered ePortfolios, she added, are driven by “assessment for learning,” while institution-centered ePortfolios are driven by “assessment of learning.” In a 2007 article in Campus Technology, Trent Batson also suggested that the “learning idea” of ePortfolios was being “hijacked by the need for accountability.”

Even within the “student-centered” approach to ePortfolios, it’s possible to distinguish different kinds of ePortfolios based upon the purpose of the ePortfolio for the student. Different organizations use different names, but the distinctions are more or less the same. Here, for example, are two taxonomies, one from an organization in California and the other from an educational institution in New York:

ePortfolio California LaGuardia
Developmental (i.e., working) – a record of things that the owner has done over a period of time, and may be directly tied to learner outcomes or rubrics. Assessment ePortfolios, where the audience is internal to the institution and the goal is to support institutional outcomes assessment.
Reflective (i.e., learning) – includes personal reflection on the content and what it means for the owner’s development. Learning ePortfolios, where the audience is students themselves, and the goal is helping students examine and reflect on their learning.
Representational (i.e., showcase) – shows the owner’s achievements in relation to particular work or developmental goals and is, therefore, selective. When it is used for job application it is sometimes called Career portfolio. Career/Transfer ePortfolios, where the audience is external, and the goal is to provide students with a tool for showcasing their achievements to employers or transfer institutions.

As you can see in the above chart, different labels are used, but the distinctions being made are similar. LaGuardia is perhaps most helpful in proposing a fourth kind of ePortfolio, one that combines or facilitates the three different kinds of student-centered ePortfolios. The name proposed by LaGuardia for this multi-faceted ePortfolio is “the integrative ePortfolio.”

ePortfolios: a growing trend

In certain fields, such as art or architecture, practitioners have always kept portfolios of their work, since that was their key means of convincing other people to hire them. In the 1970s, the idea of having students build paper-based portfolios of their work began spread to other disciplines in some universities, such as Alverno College in Wisconsin. In the late 1990s, the idea of “electronic portfolios,” which later came to be known as ePortfolios, began to emerge, but even in 2002 they were still considered a new tool. In that year, the Vice Chancellor for Information Technologies in the Maricopa College District, said that “E-portfolios are on the horizon… But what they really are is still being defined.”

By 2008, though, ePortfolios were becoming a familiar and powerful technology on university campuses. That year, the Campus Computing Project reported that in higher education, “the use of of e-portfolios has tripled since 2003.” This growth is no doubt what prompted Kathleen Blake Yancey (former president of the National Council of Teachers of English) to say, in 2008, that ePortfolios were helping to create a “tectonic shift” in higher education and were “remaking the landscape” of how students learned.

By 2010, ePortfolios had become even more widely accepted, as affirmed that year by a report from LaGuardia:

The ePortfolio movement has grown dramatically in significance over the past decade. Linked to sweeping economic, demographic, political, and technological changes, the ePortfolio is an increasingly salient feature in US higher education. As this data suggests, many US campuses have launched ePortfolio projects in the past five years.  This is true at in all sectors of American higher education.  Meanwhile, usage of the ePortfolio is expanding rapidly overseas, particularly in Europe and Australia. — http://ePortfolio.lagcc.cuny.edu/about/field.htm

In 2011, the Campus Computing Project analyzed the growth of ePortfolios across different types of American educational institutions, as rendered in the following chart:

Chart of ePortfolio growth

Moreover, it’s notable that the growth of ePortfolios is not limited to educational institutions. For example, in the United States, the state of Minnesota provides an ePortfolio to every citizen who wants one. At present, that state has over 100,000 ePortfolio users. A recent survey commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 80% of employers said that “an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job applicants have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their company or organization.”

This sudden growth in ePortfolio usage has been caused, according to J. Elizabeth Clark, by four factors:

  1. The technology itself has matured. Early ePortfolios were often put onto CDs. The ability to put them online expanded their accessibility enormously. Additionally, the online platforms for making ePortfolios have greatly improved over the past few years. Back then, even the best ePortfolios looked clunky and awkward. In fact, an article that appeared in 2002 in the Chronicle of Higher Education described them as little more than “extensive résumés.” Now, almost anyone can make an attractive, engaging, and visually effective ePortfolio. As the technical sophistication of the ePortfolio platforms has grown, their pedagogical potential has also expanded. In 2002, the aforementioned article in the Chronicle of Higher Education said that “students will show off their portfolios to potential employers or to parents eager to see where their tuition money is going.” We’ve now moved beyond that limited view ePortfolios. Additionally, due to the popularity of social media tools such as Facebook, students are more comfortable creating digital representations of themselves.
  2. A pedagogical change has occurred in higher education, one that values student-centered, active learning. The lecture-based tradition of the “sage on the stage” is being challenged by the pedagogical model of the “guide on the side.” Social Constructivism (the learning theory that proposes that people learn best when they construct their own knowledge in a social context) continues to transform how education happens.
  3. For many people, especially students, life has become more “fluid” than it once was. Students are more likely than they once were to change institutions or to take courses from several institutions as the same time. Recent graduates, too, are more likely than they used to be to move from one employer to another. As a result, it’s beneficial for them to have what J. Elizabeth Clark calls an “education passport,” which helps them to “represent their learning and carry it with them as they move from one setting to another.”
  4. In many countries (including the United States and Canada), there has been an increased expectation from governments that universities must be able to demonstrate their accountability; in other words, they must be able to show that the funding they receive results in effective learning. Since ePortfolios can be used not only to assess a student’s individual learning outcomes, but also (collectively) the outcomes of entire programs, administrators have been have happy to encourage their adoption.

The learning theory behind ePortfolios

In an educational context, the primary value of ePortfolios (according to the Co-Director of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research) is that they “are a way to generate learning as well as document learning.” Both of these aspects – generating learning and documenting learning – are important, but it is the first one (generating learning) that sometimes gets overlooked, even though it is crucial to the success of the ePortfolio process. Essentially, an ePortfolio generates learning because it provides an opportunity and virtual space for students to critically assess their academic work, and to reflect on that work and make connections among different courses, and connections between academic work and other activities, such as work experiences, extracurricular pursuits, volunteering opportunities, and more.

Randy Bass and Bret Eynon describe this process of critical reflection as one that makes “invisible learning” visible. By invisible learning, they mean two things.

First, they mean the intermediate steps that occur whenever a student, or any person, is attempting to learn something or do something. That “something” might be a tangible thing like writing an essay, or it might be a more abstract goal like understanding a theory. In either case, it’s easy to focus exclusively on the final product (the essay or the theory), and to disregard or forget about all the stages of learning and doing that preceded that product. All the steps and false starts and decisions that preceded the final product are one form of invisible learning. By reflecting on them, students can learn more: they can learn more deeply, they can learn more about how they learn, and they can learn how to do even better the next time. It’s rather like a tennis player. He or she might have a good serve, but it will probably improve only if the player reflects on all the motions that occur before the racquet actually hits the ball: how the feet are positioned, how the ball is tossed, how the racket is turned, and so on. To improve, the player needs to reflect on all those intermediate steps that are “invisible” in the sense that he or she doesn’t usually think about them in a conscious way.

The second thing that Randy Bass and Bret Eynon mean by invisible learning are the “aspects of learning that go beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity.” In other words, the process of learning something doesn’t involve just the rational mind; rather, our feelings, our personality, and our sense of self are all involved – sometimes facilitating that learning process, and sometimes hindering it. For example, if a Canadian student is learning about global warming, then a memory about a warm winter when the local pond did not freeze might serve as a useful “anchor” for that student to hang certain facts on, or it might bias her to accept evidence that is not credible. Similarly, if a student suffers from a lack of confidence, then that poor sense of self might prevent him from learning as well as he otherwise might. By reflecting on those affective, personal, and self-identity factors, studentscan develop meta-cognitive skills that can enhance their learning.

From a broader perspective, ePortfolios fall within a learning theory known as social constructivism. That theory proposes, in part, that learning happens most effectively when a student constructs a system of knowledge for himself, rather than simply having information presented to him. Additionally, the theory proposes that another determinant of effective learning is that it happens in a social context – that is, we construct our knowledge through dialogue and interactions with others. With ePortfolios, the process of reflection originates as a solo activity, but becomes social through a feedback loop, as the student’s instructor, peers, mentors, and even family members respond to and provide commentary on those reflections.  In this regard, making and then sharing an ePortfolio with others is somewhat like telling a story: the story of one’s journey of learning. In this regard, ePortfolios can overlap with another recent trend in higher education – namely, digital storytelling. As defined by Educause, digital storytelling is “the practice of combining narrative with digital content, including images, sound, and video, to create a short movie, typically with a strong emotional component.” The Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (at Georgetown University) explains why digital storytelling can be a pedagogically effective tool:

Digital storytelling works at the intersection of the emotional and the epistemological aspects of learning, bridging story and theory, intellect and affect. For many students an emotional engagement with the topic – or a problem in the most generative sense of the word – is the point of departure that allows them to connect their stories to the relevant theories. As emotions are reclaimed cognitively, they enable students to write themselves into existing discourses and to contribute personal perspectives to an academic community.

Like a digital story, an ePortfolio is a kind of story: it’s a narrative of a student’s learning. Additionally, an ePortfolio can include actual digital stories as part of its collection of artifacts.

Finally, because ePortfolios are a student-centered activity — one in which the student is free to choose what artifacts are included, and is free to reflect on the process of his learning – they foster engagement and motivation, as is affirmed by an article about ePortfolios in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology:

Research on student engagement with learning suggests that when students perceive that they have choices in how to learn subject matter they are more engaged and motivated to move beyond simple information acquisition to trying to gain an understanding of the subject (Entwistle, 1998; Kuh et al., 2005; LaSere Erickson & Weltner-Strommer, 1991; Marton & Saljo, 1984; Ramsden, 2003). Electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) appear to offer this opportunity for learner control and to be capable of supporting or promoting deep learning as students are able to make connections between the learning which occurs in different contexts: academic, workplace and community. Indeed, it is this recognition that learning occurs beyond the classroom that makes e-portfolios attractive to many educators.

In short, as Randy Bass and Bret Eynon asserted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “If we truly want to advance from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning, then a strategy involving something like electronic student portfolios, or ePortfolios, is essential.”

Other reasons for ePortfolios

While ePortfolios can help students develop new and deeper learning, they can also benefit institutions by providing evidence that program outcomes – that is, the skills and competencies that a student needs to acquire before graduation – are indeed being met. The traditional student transcript, with its list of the grades received in various courses, is intended to affirm that a student has achieved specified competencies, but an ePortfolio goes further. It not only affirms that the competencies have been achieved, but also shows how they have been achieved. They are a much richer and more compelling form of evidence. As the Association of American Colleges and Universitieshas stated, “The ePortfolio is an ideal format for collecting evidence of student learning, especially for those outcomes not amenable to nor appropriate for standardized measurement.”  Other experts have made similar claims. Peter Ewell, the vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, has noted that “Electronic portfolios simplify the process of setting learning objectives and meeting them.”  Barbara Cambridge, co-director of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, says that the ability to ensure that “institution-wide goals” are being met through curriculum and teaching practices is greater now than ever before, partly because “we now have the evidence that can be collected and shared in e-portfolios.”

ePortfolios: evidence of efficacy

As Aileen Wyllie observed at the 2010 ATN Assessment Conference, “the literature is generally positive about the benefits of ePortfolios.” She supports this claim with reference to a 2001 study by B. Cambridge, a 2005 study by G. Lorenzo, a 2008 study by G. Hallam, and others.  Wyllie also pointed toward research showing that ePortfolios “can enhance learning outcomes for students” such as A. Jafari’s 2006 study and L. Stefani’s 2007 book publication. These findings were echoed by a report submitted by Bowling Green State University, which found that “undergraduates using electronic portfolios had higher grade-point averages, credit hours earned, and retention rates than a comparable set of students who did not use the system.”

One of the largest studies pertaining to the efficacy of ePortfolios was undertaken by New York’s LaGuardia Community College, where nearly 50,000 students have maintained ePortfolios since 2001. The LaGuardia study reports that students using ePortfolios consistently earn higher grades:

The data shows that, in every semester that has been examined, ePortfolio students are significantly more likely to pass their courses than non-ePortfolio students. In ePortfolio courses, the pass rate is 77%; in comparison courses, sections of the same courses where ePortfolio is not being used, the pass rate is 72%. For a high pass — a C or above — the pass rate in ePortfolio sections is 73.6%; in non-ePortfolio sections of the same courses, the pass rate is 67.2%. In this most basic, faculty-driven assessment of student learning, faculty consistently indicate that students in their ePortfolio courses are more likely to achieve success.

Additionally, the LaGuardia study reveals that retention is better for students who take courses involving ePortfolios; that is, they are less likely to drop out of their program. A sample of more than 5000 students showed that 76% of students using ePortfolios in one semester returned the next semester; for non-ePortfolio students, the return rate was 71%.

Finally, the LaGuardia study shows that students themselves appreciate the benefits of ePortfolios. When asked “How much has your experience in this course contributed to your knowledge, skills, and personal development in understanding yourself?,” 80% of LaGuardia’s ePortfolio students said “Quite a bit” or “Very much” versus only 68% for LaGuardia’s non-ePortfolio students. As one student said, “when you’re in the process of going through some sort of growth, you don’t recognize it at the time because it is slow but then when you look back on things that is when you actually realize what’s changed and how different you are.”

Students themselves also report that developing and maintaining an ePortfolio benefited their learning:

  • “The most important thing I learned from using an ePortfolio was how to look at the ‘big picture’. In school so far, we’ve studied many accounting concepts. However, this is the first time that I have actually slowed down and taken all these small concepts and tried to understand how they are related in the grand scheme of things.” — B.H. Accounting
  • “The themes and the actual ePortfolio program might not be completely evident during the course and content work/volunteer experiences, but in retrospect they definitely have impacted the way I think and interact in the workplace.” — Student, Speech Communications
  • “I never knew  how important the team reflections from AFM 131 would be, until I began preparing for interviews for summer internships at accounting firms. I figured they would ask about team experience and I was fully prepared to answer their questions because I referred to what I had written in my team reflections [in my ePortfolio].” — Student, Accounting and Financial Management

Best practices for instructors

ePortfolios are most effective when they are established as an institution-wide initiative, or at least as a program-wide initiative. That way, students will be encouraged in all of their courses to use their ePortfolio, and to reflect on and make connections between all of their courses and academic experiences. However, ePortfolios can still be successful even at the individual course level. To ensure this success, it’s important to observe a number of best practices:

  1. If your students are not already familiar with ePortfolios, then spend time explaining the benefits to them. The benefits that will be of particular interest to students are probably the following:
    1. ePortfolios can help them develop new or deeper learning, which results in higher grades.
    2. ePortfolios can help them develop a better sense of themselves as students and as individuals.
    3. ePortfolios can be shared with friends and family members.
    4. ePortfolios can showcase their achievements when they are applying for a job.
  2. Explain to your students what you expect them to do in their ePortfolios. They will readily understand that an ePortfolio is (to some extent) a collection of the best work, but they will have more difficulty understanding the need for them to reflect on their work and the need for them to make connections between different courses and experiences. Use the term “critical self-reflection,” and help them understand what you mean by it.
  3. Provide them with numerous examples of successful ePortfolios that have been developed by other students. The examples don’t need to be from your university, though they might be.
  4. Scaffold your students as they begin to develop their ePortfolio. Help them start small: have them choose just one artifact (such as an essay) and have them reflect on the challenges they had to address as they wrote their essay. Or, have them select two assignments from different courses, and have them reflect on how each of those assignments helps them to better understand the other assignment. Alternatively, if your program or institution has identified key competencies, have students choose one competency and then have them reflect in writing on how a particular assignment helped them to develop that competency. Once they are comfortable with this kind of process, encourage them to expand it to other artifacts and reflections.
  5. Create an ePortfolio for yourself, and share it with your students. Doing so will help you understand the challenges and benefits of maintaining and ePortfolio, and it will also persuade students that it is a useful endeavour. As a student quoted in one study said, “The problem is that the people trying to explain it have probably never used it so they have no clue what they are talking about…. you as an outsider who have never even used it are telling us we should do this because it is the best thing since sliced bread but you have never used it… this kind of makes it hard for students to accept or appreciate it.”
  6. Make the ePortfolio an integral part of how you assess your students. Maintaining an ePortfolio demands a significant amount of time and energy from students, and they will resent it if their time and energy is not reflected in their final grade. If ePortfolios are merely an optional assignment that is encouraged but not required, most students will not undertake one.
  7. Encourage your students to look at and comment on one another’s ePortfolios. You could, for example, have a link to each student’s blog in the online space that your course has in your university’s learning management system. Additionally, you could create a discussion forum in that online space where students make helpful and encouraging comments on one another’s ePortfolios. The ePortfolios, then, become an integral part of the online community of students. Adam Rothman, of Georgetown University, refers to this approach as the “hub and spoke” model.
  8. Your ePortfolio platform should allow students the ability to customize the design and layout of their ePortfolios, so that they can feel that the ePortfolio is “theirs.” For example, a student should be able to control the colours that are used, the banner image, the background, and so on. As a student quoted in one study said, “If this is my e-portfolio that everyone can see then I want it to look good and to represent me.” At the same time, it’s a good idea to make sure that your students use a standard template for some aspects of their ePortfolio, especially with regard to how one navigates to the different parts of the ePortfolio. Doing so will make your job easier, because you won’t have to hunt for the various ePortfolio components as you visit the ePortfolios of dozens of students: the basic navigation structure will be the same for all of them.
  9. Your ePortfolio system should allow students to create different “views” or versions of their ePortfolio for different audiences. After all, the artifacts and reflections that a student wants to show her instructor might be different than the ones that she wants to show a potential employer or a family member. As a student who was quoted in one study said, “I think there are things you want to keep private but it might be good if you could create a group for your close friends to share some reflections and then an outside ring which is for everyone else and it could have things like your resume.”

Assessment of ePortfolios

Because ePortfolios require a significant investment of time and energy from students, it is important that they be assessed carefully, and that the assessment contributes in a substantial way to a student’s final grade in a course. However, there are challenges to assessing something as personal as an ePortfolio. How, for example, does one evaluate the quality of a student’s “reflections”? As a student quoted in one study said, “If this is my personal reflection then how can you give me 3 out of 5? You say, ‘Put in personal reflection,’ which we do – then we come in the next day and you turn around and say ‘You should have mentioned this and this and this – here is the check list.’” An additional challenge is that if students come to see their ePortfolios as “just another assignment,” then they will not engage with it in an authentic way; it will become just another “hoop” for them to jump through. As Helen Barret suggested in 2005, “high stakes assessment and accountability are killing ePortfolios as a reflective tool to support deep learning.” Accordingly, a balance needs to be found, one that strives to help students appreciate the genuine benefits that they will experience by developing an ePortfolio that captures their work and personal reflections, but which also acknowledges that assessing ePortfolios is not a merely “subjective” matter. In other words, ePortfolios can be personal in nature, and yet still assessable by objective standards.

Perhaps the best way to overcome these assessment challenges, while still ensuring that students benefit from their ePortfolios, is to assess ePortfolios by means of a rubric such as this one (DOC) developed by the University of Wisconsin.

Additionally, the reflective component of the ePortfolio can be assessed even more methodically by requiring students to include in their reflections some commentary on how the artifacts they have selected pertain to the achievement of targeted outcomes or competencies. Many programs and institutions have articulated such competencies. For example, the University of Waterloo has identified eight such competencies: Depth and Breadth of Knowledge; Knowledge of Methodologies; Application of Knowledge; Communication Skills; Awareness of Limits of Knowledge; Autonomy and Professional Capacity; Experiential Learning; and Diversity. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has another list of such competencies, and for each one of them has developed a rubric to assist instructors in their assessment.

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