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The interest in student-centered and competency-based pedagogical approaches, as well as the availability of development tools has renewed the interest of higher education institutions in digital portfolios, or e-portfolios, as a learning and evaluation instrument. This article examines the trend, and offers recommendations, examples, and resources for successful e-portfolio implementation.
In an educational setting, an e-portfolio is a digital collection of artifacts and personal reflections that provides evidence of a student’s development. Dr. Helen Barrett, a renowned e-portfolio specialist, mentions in an interview with Raymond Cantin from Vitrine technologie-éducation that the e-portfolio is both a story and a checklist: an account of the student's learning journey, and a way to verify if course or program outcomes are achieved. In this context, e-portfolios are mostly used for assessment, presentation, learning, or a mix of those purposes.
Many tools can be used to create an e-portfolio, from specialized platforms to simple blogs.
Most e-portfolio systems are hosted on a computer server and accessed through a browser, although some can be integrated with virtual learning environments like Moodle, Blackboard, or Desire2Learn. They allow you to store, organize and display files, from texts to multimedia files (image, audio, video...). Some e-portfolio systems also have communication functions, such as blogging, messaging or social networking.
Several e-portfolio systems are being used in Québec’s cégeps and colleges, including Elgg, Mahara, and local initiatives Edu-portfolio and SHERPA. Other e-portfolio systems are described in a 2009 article from THE Journal; interestingly, despite the fact that three years have passed, all these technologies are still available, with the exception of Angel Learning, which merged with learning management system Blackboard.
Depending on the needs and objectives of the users, e-portfolios can be built with technologies other than specialized systems. A growing number of Web 2.0 tools allow users to easily produce and share content on the Internet; students and teachers can therefore create their own blog, website, or social network page in a few clicks, for free, and use it as a portfolio. For example, students in Accounting and Management at Cégep de Saint-Félicien, use WordPress, a well-known blogging and website-creation tool, to develop e-portfolios. Bernard Gagnon, education advisor and ITREP at Saint-Félicien, mentions in a Réseau REPTIC inquiry (in French) that the decision is justified by WordPress’ flexibility and user-friendliness. At University of Regina, Professor Alec Couros assesses pre-service teachers with “blogfolios”: e-portfolios created with a blogging tool. Most examples of student work provided by Professor Couros are built with Blogger or WordPress, both free technologies.
A combination of web-based tools (a mashup) can also act as a portfolio. For instance, Dr. Helen Barrett proposes a strategy to create e-portfolios using applications from the Google suite, such as Google Drive, Google Sites and Blogger.
With so many ways to create e-portfolios, how can students, teachers, and schools make an informed decision when choosing a tool?
The following questions will help you analyze your needs in order to determine the best tool for an e-portfolio project:
Based on your analysis, find which category of e-portfolio meets your needs, and gather as much information as possible on potential tools. Additionally, in a perspective of lifelong learning, an e-portfolio tool should allow content download and transfer to other systems. Verify if the tool respects international interoperability standards, namely the LEAP2A specification.
You can perform a preliminary search on the Internet and select a few tools which features match your requirements and constraints. You could then contact the organizations that develops those tools or provides services, and ask a representative for all the additional information you need to make an informed decision. Asking questions doesn’t cost anything and can avoid unpleasant surprises.
Choosing a particular e-portfolio tool is an important decision, but it is only one step of an implementation strategy.
In her final report about REFLECT, an e-portfolio integration research project, Dr. Helen C. Barrett makes several recommendations to integrate such tools, including:
These conclusions match those of a study performed by researchers from the University of Nottingham and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) on twenty-one e-portfolio pilot projects in United Kingdom universities. Five key aspects of e-portfolio use were found to be related to a successful implementation: purpose, learning activities, processes and ownership in implementing effective e-portfolio practice, and the disruptive nature of e-portfolios. According to the authors of the study, this last aspect indicates that schools must recognize that “[e-portfolios have] implications at an institutional level as they impact on the nature of the curriculum and its assessment as well as staff workload and pedagogic and technical support, particularly in novel, work based learning and life-wide contexts.”
E-portfolios have been effectively integrated in courses, programs, and institutions. Several examples of e-portfolio use can be found in Québec’s cegeps and colleges. In addition to Cégep de St-Félicien, other institutions like Cégep de Lanaudière, Cégep de Rimouski, Cégep de Sherbrooke, Cégep de Lévis-Lauzon and Cégep Marie-Victorin provide courses or programs featuring this tool. A Profweb story told by Dgino Cantin from Cégep Limoilou explains in detail how the e-portfolio system SHERPA has been used as part of the Fine Arts program’s exit assessment over the last year, and how it will be extended to first-year students.
On a larger scale, a number of North American higher education institutions have implemented e-portfolios at the program or institution level in recent years. A few provide detailed information about the process on their websites:
At any level, carrying out an e-portfolio initiative demands a shared effort from teachers, students and administrators, and can take several years. Some wonder if the game is worth the candle. Are e-portfolios really useful beyond institutional evaluations and program improvements?
Darren Cambridge, Co-Director of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, writes in an article for Educause Review that in the last decade, a growing body of research has demonstrated the contribution of e-portfolios to “increased student engagement, retention, learning skills, professional identity development, and self-direction.” Many instructors and learners who have worked with e-portfolios agree: in an article of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)’s journal Peer Review, students and teachers share the benefits of using e-portfolio. Believers also include Yves Morin, who teaches in the Fashion Marketing program at Cégep Marie-Victorin. In a video (in French) available on CCDMD’s World of Images, Mr. Morin mentions that, in addition to improvements in student motivation and assessment, introducing a learning e-portfolio in his course in 2004 led to an eight to twelve percent increase of his class averages.
Besides these advantages, e-portfolios can play a significant role in 21st century education models, in which the development of “Web citizenship” competencies and the application of learner-centered pedagogical strategies are identified as central aspects. Indeed, since the emergence of social media and the Web 2.0, schools recognize the importance of having students develop ICT abilities and a positive online presence. Maintaining an e-portfolio calls for digital content creation; it also establishes a digital identity for students, which can be used to interact in online communities, connect with others, and share ideas on the Web. Furthermore, in an education model that favours learner-centered approaches, e-portfolios are useful tools to assess a student’s progress in an authentic way and reduce plagiarism. They allow students to know themselves by highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, which can lead to better academic and career choices. Incidentally, Stanford University has experimented with e-portfolios for academic advising to support undergraduate students, and found “authentic evidence of impact in ways that current transcripts and records simply cannot capture.”
Obviously, simply using e-portfolios does not guarantee such effects. An e-portfolio approach contrasts with traditional methods of instruction and evaluation, and requires a profound transformation in the way students, teachers and administrations work and interact. Therefore, a change in learning outcomes will most likely occur with an appropriate evolution of the school culture towards an active, student-centered and outcomes-based approach.
Career-wise, collecting evidence related to professional competencies is highly valuable. Students who have a learning portfolio can easily turn it into a career portfolio, and use it to connect to prospective employers. E-portfolio system Seelio even made this its specialty.
The possibility of transferring student portfolios to professional development portfolios raises important issues of data ownership and long-term preservation. If an e-portfolio is hosted by an academic institution or its service provider, how long should a student be able to access it? Should the hosting service be free? Should the institution have certain rights on the data, especially if it is used for analytics and other collection systems? Is the content transferrable to another platform? Answering these questions early in the planning of an e-portfolio initiative will considerably help defining its purpose and processes, as well as facilitate the selection of a tool.
Issues of institutional culture change and data preservation have been in the air since e-portfolios became a major trend in the late 2000s. Now that the interest in e-portfolios seems to be renewed, revisiting those issues, along with the resources and best practices developed at that time, is certainly relevant. But with the evolution of social media, hosted Web services, free resources, and of our relationship with our personal data, we may find new, creative ways to answer these challenges.