E-portfolios provide a digital means of gathering together a range of outputs, assessments, and resources for a student. Lorenzo and Ittelson (2005) defined them as “a digitized collection of artifacts, including demonstrations, resources, and accomplishments that represent an individual, group, community, organization, or institution” (p. 1). Beetham (2005) summarized them as a collection of digital resources:
- that provide evidence of an individual’s progress and achievements;
- [are] drawn from both formal and informal learning activities;
- that are personally managed and owned by the learner;
- that can be used for review, reflection, and personal development planning;
- [and] that can be selectively accessed by other interested parties e.g. teachers, peers, assessors, awarding bodies, prospective employers. (p. 3)
Writing as early as 2002, Batson described e-portfolios as “too good to be true” (para. 7). In this, they are akin to learning objects, backed by clear logic and strong argument. They have not quite undergone the same fate as learning objects, and are heavily utilized in many institutions, but they have not led to the fundamental change in assessment practice that was once foretold.
The argument for e-portfolios is a compelling one — they provide a place to store all the evidence a learner gathers to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, in order to support lifelong learning and career development. It is an idea that has significant impact for education — instead of recognizing education at the level of qualification, such as a degree in a particular subject, it allows a more granular recognition of specific skills, linked to evidence. This means a student can demonstrate competencies such as teamwork, communication, and problem solving to potential employers in a more effective manner. Much of the potential of e-portfolios is aligned with some of the constructivist language around student-centred learning; for example, O’Keefe and Donnelly (2013) claimed that “students can take possession of their learning and view the assessment as a positive experience in which they are assessed for learning rather than the reverse” (p. 2).
The use of e-portfolios varies, with Chatham-Carpenter, Seawel, and Raschig (2010) having identified four main uses: reflective learning, employee marketing, program assessment, and showcasing professional standards. In a survey of 43 institutions using e-portfolios, they found that most were using them for more than one of these functions. Their use, however, was not always appreciated by students. Singh and Ritzhaupt (2006) found that many students did not perceive an e-portfolio as a valuable tool and identified a number of themes, which included a lack of support on how to use the system, a lack of understanding and buy-in from faculty members, high cost, an overly complex user interface, and a resistance to the expectation that all students should implement an e-portfolio as a graduation requirement. Students may sometimes resist new methods because they come with an overhead for adoption, but this resistance diminishes as support improves and the new methods become more commonplace. Some of the criticisms highlighted here are an indication of the problems that arise when implementing a new approach and technology in an area as sensitive as assessment.
One successful implementation of e-portfolios is the ePortfolio Ireland project (http://eportfoliohub.ie), a collaboration between institutions of higher education in Ireland that aims to establish a framework to encourage academic staff to incorporate e-portfolios into their courses. The evaluations examined the perception of e-portfolios from the perspective of students, faculty, and employers (ePortfolio Ireland, 2019). The results showed that nearly half of the students who took the survey were currently using the tool, and, of those, approximately half did so for their own use and half because they were directed to do so as part of their study. However, using e-portfolios for preparing for future employment and career development was not strongly reported, and 65% of respondents indicated that it took a lot of time to complete an e-portfolio and that this was a barrier to their use. From a faculty perspective, many reported positive outcomes, but very few staff used e-portfolios themselves.
The evaluations reported that 80% of employers indicated that they include e-portfolios as part of their recruitment. However, given that evidencing competencies to employers is seen as a key benefit of e-portfolios, their usage may not be affecting practice. Korn (2014) reported a similar finding, noting that “83% of respondents to a recent Association of American Colleges and Universities survey said an e-portfolio would be ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ useful in ensuring that job applicants have requisite knowledge and skills” (para. 6). However, actual practice by recruiters does not reflect this. Korn continued, “Hiring managers are skeptical that the Web portfolios will convey anything more than a résumé and interview” (para. 9). This makes sense — while employers will say that the extra information in an e-portfolio is useful, in practice, their having to work through many pieces of evidence submitted by many applicants in addition to their résumés and having to conduct interviews is probably too time consuming. It also indicates that entrenched practices such as CVs and interviews have their own momentum, and ed tech is not implemented in a social vacuum. The success of any technology lies in an alteration to accompanying practice more than the technology itself.
Although e-portfolios have achieved more success than learning objects, they have not become the standard form of assessment as proposed, although in some areas their uptake has gained significance. Some of their issues are akin to those that beleaguered learning objects. While not damning them, the following issues still hamper their adoption.
As was mentioned by many of the students in the studies quoted above, they found e-portfolios time consuming. E-portfolios need to link into institutional systems and meet different requirements. This has led to the development of an IMS standard (https://www.imsglobal.org/ep/index.html) that can export and move between institutions. In addition, e-portfolios require methods of locking down items so they can be assessed, a means of providing different views for different audiences, and so on. The result is software that can be overly complex for users.
INSTITUTIONAL, NOT USER FOCUSED
A related point is that the result is a solution that is sold or selected by institutions. An institution has a very different set of requirements than an individual. However, for e-portfolios to be successful as a lifelong learning tool, then it is the individuals that need to adopt them and be motivated to use them.
FOCUS ON THE TOOL, NOT THE SKILLS
The complex, institutionally focused tool that has been developed requires a good deal of training for students to use it, as was reported by many of the students in the studies referenced above. This support is crucial. The danger is that the e-portfolio becomes a tool used inside education only, focusing on a specific university’s requirements, with little focus on the more general skills that are the main benefits of e-portfolios: sharing content, gathering and annotating resources, becoming part of a network, reflecting on work, commenting on other’s achievements, and so on.
LACK OF OWNERSHIP
While the intention of e-portfolios is for students to take greater ownership of their assessment and learning, there is no clear evidence that students continue to use e-portfolios after graduation. This may be a result of the e-portfolios’ institutional focus. Jim Groom (2008b) and others have proposed that blogs provide a better option for e-portfolios than most bespoke software, claiming they provide students “a space that they can share, interact in, take with them, and build upon as they move onwards and upwards with their lives” (para. 4). E-portfolios enable tagging and comments, offer an easy means of embedding content, can be exported to other systems, and can be linked into institutional systems. More significantly, though, they are based on the individual and, as we saw in chapter 10 on blogging, they form an ideal basis for developing an ongoing digital identity. While not definite, I would contend that it is likely that more students would persist with a blog they initiated during their formal study than with an e-portfolio. For instance, how many of your colleagues do you know who maintain an e-portfolio compared with those who maintain a blog?
Although e-portfolio tools remain pertinent for many subjects, particularly vocational ones, for many students owning their own domains and blogs remains a better route to establishing a lifelong digital identity. If we were to consider e-portfolios as an instantiation of a more general approach of rethinking assessment and recognition, and then reimagine courses and pedagogy that would utilize this, then we would have an interesting case study. The technology is only part of the story in terms of their adoption; users have well-articulated reasons for their usage, but in order for these to be realized, the accompanying culture in higher education and employment also needs to adapt. Such cultural change is a slow process, and as with metadata, the return on investment for such change needs to be worthwhile. E-portfolios are currently engaged with the task of establishing this case.