VLE,  Web/Tech

Eportfolios – J’accuse

Day #362 whoopee cushions

This is a bit kicking a man when he's down as most people have turned away from eportfolio software now, but it still persists. It's also old hat – Jim was telling us this ain't your eportfolio mama, three years ago. But maybe now is a good time to reflect. I would like to one day do a series of posts about collective fantasies that grip educational technology, and why they don't turn out the way we envisage (learning objects anyone?).

This post was set in motion by an email from a colleague asking whether I thought blogs were better means of achieving portfolios than specific eportfolio systems. I answered yes, but it set me thinking as to why I've always had an aversion to eportfolios. They can be seen as a case study of how educational technology gets it wrong, for the reasons below.

A key characteristic of these ed tech mass hysterias is that they're based on a good idea – an eportfolio sounds great. It will be a place to store all the evidence you gather to exhibit learning, both formal and informal, it supports lifelong learning, career development, etc. Who wouldn't want one of those? Unfortunately, the idea is too seductive and all encompassing, it becomes a panacea for many ills. Which leads to the first main problem.

Over-complication – because we are developing software to suit a range of stakeholders, feature creep becomes inevitable. The question of ‘how simple can we make it’ is not one that is usually asked. So for eportfolios we find we need new standards to export and move between institutions, ways of locking down items so they can be verified, means of providing different views for different audiences, etc. In a blog the answers to these problems are: RSS; is it important?; and tags respectively.

Institutional, not user focus – a related point is that we end up developing solutions that are sold or selected by institutions (see also LMSs). An institution has a very different set of requirements to an individual. However, if you want eportfolios to work, then it’s individuals that need to like them and be motivated to use them. This emanates from an institutional tic, which is the need to own and control systems and data.

Focus on the tool, not the skills – having developed our overly complex, institutionally focused tool, it now requires a good deal of training for students to use it, since it isn’t very intuitive, and they didn’t know they wanted it anyway. So it becomes a tool that is focused around a particular course, often with credit attached to it. In short it becomes a tool used inside education only. There is little focus on the more general skills which are actually the main benefits: sharing content, gathering and annotating resources as you go, becoming part of a network, reflecting on work, commenting on others, etc. In short, the sort of skills that make for a good blogger.

Lack of social element – the eportfolio often becomes institutionally branded and focused, and because it is has been designed by educational technologists who are probably a bit sniffy about all this social software business, doesn’t allow for much of the easy social elements found elsewhere. This can be functional (eg is embedding easy), but more often it is cultural – the culture of blogging is one of openness and reciprocity, whereas eportfolios are tied into a more academic culture of individualism, plagiarism and copyright. In this environment the social element does not flourish. 

Educational arrogance – maybe arrogance is too strong a term, but eportfolios demonstrate a common mistake (in my view) in educational technology, which goes something like “Here’s some interesting software/tool/service which does most of what we want. But it’s not quite good enough for higher education, let’s develop our own version with features X and Y”. In adding features X and Y though they lose what was good about the initial tool, and take a long time. Blogs are good enough for eportfolios, if what you want from an eportfolio is for people to actually, you know, use them. 


  • Mike Johnson

    how glad am I that we still have not dived into this slow-motion traincrash. But, guess what muggins is tasked with at the moment… At least we have a fierce professional body and assessment to fire at students to make them want to comply at some spinal level. Completing a PDP is a professional obligation and said professional body can ask to view your PDP at any time – and that ‘time’ is the only time anyone actually updates their PDP. I really shouldnt air this idea in public but I am surprised they have not set up activity monitoring on a central online portfolio so that they wouldnt have to send the detector vans out.
    Yeah blogs, but I’m a sarah stewart fan (at the moment): http://sarahstewart-eportfolio.wikispaces.com/

  • Mark Smithers

    I completely agree with the points you make Martin. In my experience I have also observed that eportfolios are often made available to many academics who do not understand what they are really for or how they fit pedagogically. Some academic staff members say they ‘prefer it to the LMS because it has a better HTML editor’. Others use it as a pseudo LMS and use it for content delivery and quizzing.
    In fact, the clearest misuse of eportfolios is as an assessment submission system which I find quite dispiriting.
    I have often argued that all students need is a blog. I find it interesting that many universities are rolling out Google mail and Google Apps. I wonder if they realise that the freedom offered by the ability to create, sites, blogs and wikis in Google Apps will effectively disrupt their existing eportfolio systems.
    I have written about this recently on my own blog. http://www.masmithers.com/2011/06/06/the-cloud-as-a-disruptor-of-educational-technologies/

  • Mark Smithers

    Yes Sarah Stewart has some great eportfolio thoughts and I remember having a lovely chat with we both agreed that all that the students really need is their own blog. I’m sure she’ll tell me if I’m wrong 🙂

  • Techczech

    I’m a bit puzzled by this post. Not that I don’t agree with the general points but they don’t match my experience with e-portfolio software the real needs of students using it.
    1. Mahara has a community element – students can share in all sorts of different ways
    2. Blogs don’t make it easy (although there is e.g. Anthologizer for WordPress) to compile ones achievement – e-portfolio software does
    3. e-Portfolios don’t prevent external blogging or website building (although Mahara now makes it possible)
    4. Most students don’t want to blog. Forcing them to do so is like forcing them to perform in front of an audience which they may not be prepared to do. For those, e-portfolio software is ideal.
    The problem is not with e-portfolios but with portfolios – they need to be integrated into a program of learning. Some people may keep them just for personal development but most will do it for a particular qualification which means they need to share the portfolio with an assessor. And that makes something like Mahara pretty much the perfect option.
    So e-portfolios are problematic if you’re talking about education and learning, but in the context of schooling – the real world in which most people live, they work just fine (or as well as anything does…).

  • Doug Fletcher

    With respect I have to disagree with the main thrust of this post. I am not sure if many implementations of an eportfolio system have pushed as hard as we have (and are) to use it to integrate student experience and learning at a program level (HRM BBA program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University), but I suspect that it is necessary to consciously redesign curriculum in order to get the ‘juice’ out of any eportfolio system. It adds capacity for learning in a structured way that really is unique and different, and I would argue, supremely beneficial to learning outcomes.
    Can you achieve the same result with blogs only? Well, maybe, but then you are putting a lot off on the students to discover and design their own file management/display/reflection capacity where their files and identity are secure. Mahara, as clunky as it seems sometimes, is really a very good system for what we need and I continue to be excited about what it can do in Kwantlen’s environment.
    The short response is ‘everyone wants to optimize student learning and retention, but nobody wants to build and sustain the resources’–ya gotta die to get to heaven and that’s just the way it is.

  • Melita

    I think you cover the real point here in your third paragraph – “…it becomes a panacea for many ills”. The problem is not with e-portfolios per say, but the fact that, just like many other pieces of technology, people don’t know how to plan for and use them appropriately. E-portfolios are great for some things, for some people, in some contexts.
    We need to realise that technology does not do our work for us. That work is to understand who our learners are, what their needs are, and to plan, implement and refine systems that will work for them at that time, in that context, for that content. To do otherwise is to shirk our responsibilities as educators. It is hard work, but it makes a difference.

  • Martin

    @Mike – yes, thanks for the reminder about Sarah’s stuff, I used blogs as an example, but this shows that any easy to use tool bends to the task pretty well.
    @Mark – yep, I think my problem with eportfolios is that we concentrate on the tool too much instead of the more generic skills which are the real gain.
    @Dominik – sorry, I have a real problem with any argument that contains the phrase ‘in the real world’. I was very explicitly talking about higher ed, and for the staff who work there and students who study there, this is ‘the real world’. My experience has been generally that students don’t take to eportfolios and unis spend a good deal of money on them. I was trying to make the point that this is rather typical of an ed tech mindset, and some of the practical benefits of an eportfolio approach (which I think is a good thing), can be realised in cheap, existing software, and indeed by developing specific tools we lose sight of these.
    @Doug – I was maybe making too sweeping a statement. My impression is that generally students and staff have struggled with eportfolios. Now maybe they’d struggle if they were in blogs too, but at least you wouldn’t spend £1000s implementing that software. I’d also argue that using tools like this is a more transferable skill when they leave, and that a walled garden approach loses some of the broader skills you might want to develop such as knowing how to cultivate a network of peers. But I do accept that a very structured eportfolio may well be the solution for some professional bodies.
    @Melita – yes, I think Doug’s point above indicates that for his students a very specific eportfolio solution does work, but for most students I would suggest more general skills around sharing, curating, presenting are better, and blogs, wikis, etc are probably better suited for these

  • Clare Davies

    An interesting and familiar discussion. These issues have been swirling around in my head for months now – it’s nice to know I’m not alone! Do we go for blogs & wikis and opt for the ‘student uses their own familiar tools’ or a use a specific ePortfolio tool? I think we all acknowledge that it’s the process and the learning that’s important here – that’s a given.
    I deliberated for months, but finally decided to go with Mahara, as opposed to blogs & wikis. I may live to regret it, but hey, you’ve got to go with what suits your organisation & students the best. In an ideal world, all our students will be blogging, and blogging voluntarily & regularly without being coerced. But I know our students 😉 Some won’t blog because they only want to do the bare minimum, some because they don’t feel comfortable doing so, some because they lack confidence using the tools etc etc. They have to want to do it and need to see the purpose of it all. We also need to think about the staff – we’ve got to make it easy for them too! For our staff & students, Mahara really is the tool for the job given the purpose of our ePortfolio, but I can see how it isn’t for everyone. I like the fact that students can, if they prefer, use Mahara to link to their own blogs or websites, or, if a student needs abit of scaffolding, they can use the templates in Mahara to get going. Seems to suits everyone.
    I think I’m waffling abit, sorry, I could go on & on…but I won’t.

  • Keith

    I use blogs (mostly WordPress) in a course within a program that has an eportfolio component (my course doesn’t contribute to the eportfolio). The feedback I get from students is 1) WordPress is easier to use (not that it doesn’t provide its own learning curve), and 2) that blogs (I recommend EduBlogs but let students choose what they like) are theirs to keep and use after they leave the institution.
    I never tell the students that we are “blogging”, I just outline how the blogs are going to be useful for our next activity.

  • Sarah Stewart

    Hello everyone
    Thank you for this blog post and subsequent conversation – it has been very timely.
    @Mike Johnson – you’ve got me worried…a fan “at the moment”…when are you not going to be a fan!? LOL
    @Mark Smithers Yes, totally agree about students and blogs.
    Seriously, I agree with everything that Martin has written here, and as those of you who follow my blog know, I have long advocated open cloud solutions for ePortfolio. But for health professionals there is still the tension between open blogging to engage with colleagues and support community reflective practice, and maintaining client and self confidentiality. I feel I have it sussed, but then again I am very experienced both in terms of online communication and midwifery practice. I am not so sure that undergraduate students would have the same ability.
    At the moment I have been given the job of sorting out ePortfolio for the midwifery students I work with, but I have been dithering back and forth between cloud solutions (eg blog) and ePortfolio platforms. I would dearly love to hear what you think: http://sarah-stewart.blogspot.com/2011/06/dithering-about-eportfolio.html
    What I feel is missing from the picture is research looking at the long term use of blogs vs ePortfolio by practitioners, in particular health professionals. Do you know of any? I have my own experience to go by but I am not the “average” midwife, nurse….. And we still have the issues of portability to solve as well as integration with professional bodies and employers.
    Martin: your post has brought up more questions than answers for me, which is always the sign of a great blog post. Thanks 🙂

  • M C Morgan

    Been arguing this for year at http://biro.erhetoric.org/WikisBlogsAndEfolios – even before I had heard of PLEs. Eportfolios are rhetorically ineffective, and more than a little nefarious: “At one end, efolios are simply about managing student artifacts (those projects and papers). As such, mostly harmless. On the other end, a mandate to implement academic portfolios can reshape the university curriculum towards having students produce stuff than can be featured on a portfolio. Some disciplines (education, for instance) might welcome this, and some industries (education again, for instance) find portfolios useful for accreditation.”

  • Bruce

    Re: the comment “The problem is not with e-portfolios per say, but the fact that, just like many other pieces of technology, people don’t know how to plan for and use them appropriately”:
    Is it possible this sort of reaction is exactly the problem? If the tools are designed right, shouldn’t it be natural and intuitive “how to plan for and use them appropriately”?

  • Doug Fletcher

    I think some folks (looking in the mirror as I say this because it applies to me) get hooked by the technology and make up applications for something that is cool to use. It is easy to lose sight of the purpose behind using the technology.
    The reason I have come to love Mahara despite its clumsiness is that allows the integration of program learning objectives across courses/learning experiences in a way that would be very difficult to do any other way AND since it is open source my institution can afford it! 🙂 The only cost is the sweat equity of the faculty to get it going and maintain it.
    But I can also see that if the program learning objectives weren’t there, then ‘easier to use’ options to Mahara might be preferable.

  • Ray Tolley

    I like your approach because you clearly identify the many problems related to ‘tool thinking’. However, your ‘all guns blazing in every direction’ approach does not solve anything. I am surprised that someone who claims the imprematur of the OU should think so narrowly about the problems users and designers of ePortfolios must face. You appear to be talking from within the cosy box of Academia (aka ‘Ivory Palaces’) and thus ignoring the much larger audience of the real world where ePortfolios are needed from cradle to grave – if you really believe in Lifelong and Lifewide Learning.
    For instance, although you allude to the issue of interoperability, you do not argue for its purpose or functionality. You repeatedly argue for blogs but without recognising their serious limitations. You do not appear to have a reasoned argument for portability. – I could go on at length but many of these issues I address at: http://www.efoliointheuk.blogspot.com
    Sarah Stewart makes a good case for a more controlled ePortfolio environment and you should know that a similar concerns relate to the UK scene.
    Bruce states ‘if the tools are right’ – and this is the nub of the whole issue – who designs the tools? As an education manager for many years I have always argued that it should be the educator that specifies the tool and not the technician.
    Whatever the age of the learner, from 5-95, the question still remains for the practitioner: ‘What do you want to do with your learners?’ And in the trend towards collaboration and peer review, of external assessments, mentoring and tutor guidance, nevermind showcasing, the secure ePortfolio environment allows the learner to communicate as much of themselves as they wish to multiple audiences and with different personas.
    But perhaps the issue that concerns me most is that of the onrush of ePortfolio-literate students that will shortly be flocking to HEIs. Staff in HE and FE environments should be aware that whole cohorts of students will be leaving mainstream education already understanding the value of a personal ePortfolio and will certainly be looking to HEIs that are willing to look at their well-populated ePortfolios. If HE staff do not understand this perhaps the potential students will look elsewhere.

  • Martin

    Ray – hmmm, the use of ‘Ivory palaces’ in your argument always raises alarm bells. Why is my view deemed cozy and yours not? I’m sure people struggling in SMEs might well level the same accusation at education. And in fact, my argument was a real world one – I don’t know any professional (who by their nature are lifelong learners) who keeps an eportfolio. Not one. I know 100s if not 1000s who keep blogs and wikis. So, why not use software and tools we know work instead of developing new ones?
    My argument was that I think the skills involved and reasons for keeping eportfolios are great (I’ve been involved in eportfolios for years now, so I do know all the arguments, this isn’t coming from a position of ignorance), but I don’t think the implementation is right. What I think are important are the skills of reflecting, gathering, sharing, networking, curating – but these more general (and employable) skills get lost, because we teach students how to use eportfolio software.
    I think what is telling in your argument is when you say the educator should specify the tool. That’s exactly what eportfolios are – created for educators, not learners.
    I fully accept that sometimes an eportfolio may be the best approach for some professions. But I think there are simpler more effective ways of teaching these skills that would have greater transferability, and we should start with these.
    I don’t think your last concern is one that will cause much trouble, and maybe speaks of your own ivory tower. ‘What is your eportfolio system?’ is rarely a question hot on the lips of students. But developing skills that employers want is.

  • Mark Allenby

    I think you have missed the biggest problem with eportfolios, one shared by all forms of assessment of learning. All assessments fail when the assessment method comes before the pedagogy.

    Pedagogy should come first, then assessment. If an eportfolio is congruent with the underlying pedagogy, it is likely to be a good tool. If it is incongruent, or simply ignored, it will probably fail to support or measure learning.

    • Richard

      Hi Mark

      Nice post, however yours is the first post for 7 years on this site. Is the site still relevant? Was it at the time when this topic was hot? Have they moved on? Have we?

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