You know what a portfolio is. Artists usually maintain one or more. Astute investors maintain one or more. And for the rest of us, portfolios double as a glorified resume; documenting qualifications, skills, abilities and achievements, stuff that can make or break a job interview, or just send you spiraling down (or up, whichever way you look at it) an ego trip. 

But used in the context of education, portfolios can be a valuable assessment and learning tool, both, for educators and students alike. I’m sure your school or learning institution is already using portfolios for such a purpose. There are very few negative aspects to using portfolios as a lifelong learning experience. In fact, used intelligently, rather than just posing as an archives of sorts, portfolios make for a very authoritative reference for individual assessment. And with easy access to the Internet, portfolios have mutated into something even more alluring – webfolios, or what is more popularly known as electronic portfolios/ePortfolios. There is a distinction however, between ePortfolios and webfolios, as some academic researchers explain:

we make a distinction between hard-copy portfolios, e-portfolios, and ePortfolios. A hard-copy portfolio usually consists of paper artifacts in a binder. An e-portfolio resides on disk, CD-ROM, or similar physical transportable media and is not accessible from the Web. A ePortfolio resides on the Web and “is a tightly integrated collection of Web-based multimedia documents that [could include] curricular standards, course assignments, student artifacts in response to assignments, and reviewer feedback of students’ work.””

                   (Love, McKean, and Gathercoal, 2004)

“You may have heard of the term ePortfolios. There is a difference however, between eportfolios and ePortfolios. Since the mid-90s, the term eportfolio has been used to describe collections of student work at a Web site. Within the field of composition studies, the term “ePortfolio” has also been used. In this portal, we are using the current, general meaning of the term, which is a dynamic web site that interfaces with a database of student work artifacts. EPortfolios are static Web sites where functionality derives from HTML links. ePortfolio therefore, now refers to database-driven, dynamic web sites, not static, HTML-driven sites.”

                                   (Batson, 2002)

ePortfolios have unfurled a dizzying array of possibilities in education (please note that ePortfolios are not confined to higher education. Elizabeth A. Herbert has produced a book explaining the power of portfolios for assessing children’s learning). It has (though not single-handedly) broadened the learning landscape by empowering the use of portfolios for personal development, deep learning, presentations, future employment, assessment and accreditation. An ePortfolio becomes a digital identity for the owner. It acts as an extension to the owner’s experience and provides a platform for his or her own personal reflection. It adds the ability to form a connection with other learners and educators, sharing resources with similar minded learning communities, morphing into a collaboration tool, rather than just a rigid depository of artifacts.

Here are some features that an ePortfolio can embody:

·  Personal information

·  Education history

·  Personal stories

·  Personal commentary and reflections

·  Research information – such as documentation and references supporting specific research

·  Annotated bibliographies

·  Books lists

·  Coursework – assignment, projects

·  Instructor comments

·  Academic and professional achievements

·  Persistent web searches

·  Newsradars (custom filtered highly thematic news feeds)

·  OPML / reading lists (lists of RSS resources)

·  Timelines

·  Calendars

·  Timeplans

·  PowerPoint presentations

·  Digital photographs (annotated)

·  Video clips

·  Audio recordings – Podcasts

·  Goals, plans

·  Personal goals and objectives

·  Personal values and interests

·  Recommendation letters and references

(Source: Electronic Portfolios: What Are They?)

Such features seem too good to be true for just an ePortfolio, but it’s these very features that challenge students to develop creativity and think more critically as they develop their own ePortfolios. Because of the wide array of possibilities that ePortfolios offer to education, it becomes necessary to set a focus for its implementation. In a paper by Helen C. Barrett, she wrote:

Barton and Collins (1993) stated, “the first and most significant act of portfolio preparation is the decision of the purposes for the portfolio” (p. 203). What are your purposes in creating anelectronic portfolio? To support ongoing learning/professional development? To supportformative and summative assessment? To support marketing and employment? These are three major purposes for electronic portfolios… and they are all different and require different types of technology tools. A learning portfolio can be supported very nicely with a web log environment (“blogs”), whereas an assessment portfolio that ties artifacts to a set of standards, with feedback or validation, is best implemented through a relational database structure. A marketing or employment portfolio only needs an authoring environment that supports formatting and hyperlinking on a web-based server.”

Helen Barrett goes on to say:

Portfolios should support an environment of reflection and collaboration. It is a rare system that supports those multiple needs. That is why I often advocate for three interconnected systems: an archive of student work, an assessment management system to document achievement of standards, and an authoring environment where students can construct their own electronic portfolios and reflective, digital stories of learning (see earlier discussion about this balanced model). I believe the use of technology can be a motivating factor for portfolios, especially if we can make it engaging for the learners, and give them an opportunity to express their own voice in their portfolios.”

(Source:  Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement)

By the way, if you’re serious about incorporating ePortfolios into your teaching methodologies, you can’t go wrong with Helen Barrett, a leading authority in this field. I strongly suggest reading her online publications to get intimately familiar with ePortfolios as a teaching aid.

Going back to what Helen Barrett mentioned (see above) about students constructing their own portfolios, I think, this deserves deeper consideration. If you were to examine your own institution’s methodology of managing portfolios, how many of them are actually done by students’ themselves? And do these portfolios include students’ needs, concerns and viewpoints? Yes, scaffolding experiences to induce reflection and assessing and forging accountability are all part of the deeper purpose of portfolios, but; this should not be at the expense of marginalizing opinions and concerns of students.

It makes better educational sense if ePortfolios are made more learner-centric, empowering students to play a deeper role in constructing their own portfolios, owning and forging their own digital identity as I alluded to earlier. By gaining control of building their self-knowledge, students will adopt a keen sense for personal reflection, something, which can only be evoked if students themselves have a hands-on approach in building their own ePortfolios. This may also pave the way for you to teach from a more, constructivist paradigm, a theory I subscribe to whole-heartedly.

Having said that, ePortfolios require a few crucial considerations. Considerations that your institution’s or school’s administration can only answer. After all, managing your students’ portfolios on the Web will require a budget. Concerns such as database management, server costs, long-term storage, who has control over the portfolios and vendor support, tend to raise a few eyebrows. So the next obvious question is, “Are ePortfolios really necessary for your institution right now?” While it’s true that ePortfolios support learning, it’s also true that ePortfolios are not the fulcrum on which learning balances. Your institution can do without it, without trivializing the substantial role ePortfolios can play.

Perhaps, that’s where open source can make its grand entrance. As a firm believer in open source software (this reduces the burden of budget constraints considerably), I cannot resist the opportunity to point you towards an exciting, albeit an awkwardly named tool called Elgg.

Elgg is all about a learner-centred, learner-controlled space in which you choose the connections, the resources and the communities you want to participate in,” says David Tosh, one of its creators.

A new Elgg user starts by creating a digital identity: announcing who they are, and what they are interested in. Then any content published by the user (such as a blog entry or uploaded file) can be assigned freely chosen keywords (a process known as tagging). The software then uses these tags to help to connect the user to other learners with similar interests.

In addition, a user can start a community, which other learners can then join. For example, a course leader could start a subject-based community to highlight potential reading materials to a group of learners. Elgg also includes the ability to publish a podcast and a way for users to subscribe to content elsewhere on the web.The learner-centric approach and social networking aspect of Elgg make it very different from more traditional virtual learning environments (VLEs), which are usually structured around courses, timetables and assessment. “Whereas Elgg is learner-centred, the VLE systems tend to be centred around the requirements of an institution,” says Werdmuller.

Elgg offers learners more autonomy but is not intended to replace the VLE. “We think of it as more of an enhancement,” says Tosh.

Elgg encourages students “to develop an online presence” and writing for and commenting on blogs “requires a style of writing that is reflective, clear and concise. It helps students to find and develop a particular type of public ‘voice’ as well as communication and presentational skills.”

(Source: The Guardian, March 7th 2006)

Maybe, just maybe, Elgg could be the solution to accelerate the adoption of ePortfolios in your school or institution. But because, this is too important a point to overlook, I want to re-iterate the importance of getting your students to take charge of their own portfolios. This may be difficult for students at a lower primary level to grasp, but nevertheless, it can be done by stimulating their interests via methods such as digital storytelling; just one more way towards stimulating creativity and arousing excitement in students using today’s emerging technology.

Digital storytelling probably deserves a post of its own, but, just to give you an idea of how easy it can be; visit Microsoft’s Photo Story 3 ( which is a free download), and create your own digital story. It’s like composition writing without the boredom. For ideas on implementation in your classroom, try this resource page. For the more serious-minded, you might want to purchase a truly insightful book on this subject, DigiTales: The Art of Telling Digital Stories, by Bernajean Porter.

As a parting note with regards to problems in implementation of ePortfolios in your institution, try heeding George Siemens’ suggestion:

In situations where full-scale implementation of eportfolios is not possible, instructors can begin to foster a culture of digital documentation by encouraging learners to practice blogging, developing simple websites, or storing their content online (in a content management system like Plone). Encouraging learners to develop an online identity in recently developed (or soon to be released) systems like Elgg can also be an effective introduction to the process.”

(Source: ePortfolios, December 16, 2004)