ePortfolios: Buzz Word or Value Add?

  • 5 Min Read

What is an ePortfolio?  And why would someone be interested in creating one?  It may be a buzz word that has piqued your interest, but why?  Not all ePortfolios are created equal! Creating a rich resume complete with work samples and demonstrating capabilities for employment to qualify for positions beyond typical entry positions?  Showcasing masters and PhD research items and processes and sharing those with mom so she can see what you do at school?  Tracking and showing learning progress across courses?  Decreasing isolation of interns on workplace practicums through community building and sharing?  These are examples of how our clients have used and are continuing to use ePortfolios.  This post will explore the ideas around ePortfolios and provide a framework to think about where the value-add is for teaching and learning.

“ePortfolio” is a broad term used to describe a collection of materials that may include various files, web pages, videos, thoughts and pictures.  More specifically, various researchers have categorized ePortfolios either by their content (i.e., career, teaching, accreditation) or more commonly by their purpose (showcase, developmental, reflective, assessment).  We believe it is time to breakdown these artificial barriers.  Within the context of learning, ePortfolios usually consist of a mix of several categories to correspond with the purpose and requirements of the learner.  Therefore, instead of grouping ePortfolios into specific types, it may be preferable to think of the elements that go into an ePortfolio, with some elements being demonstrated more robustly based on the purpose.

Organization and Storage

At the most basic level, ePortfolios are the collection and organization of one’s personal learning journey. The journey may include exemplary work, a resume, evidence of achievement, academic results, awards and much more. For students in professional programs, leading up to a capstone course or certification test, an ePortfolio provides the ideal mechanism for gathering the learning artifacts created through their courses. In addition to gathering materials together, the ePortfolio process is about selection, interpretation and reflection on the materials.  Reflection, presentation and social interaction are key themes integrated within ePortfolio to enable learners to document evidence of learning. Each of these will be discussed in detail below.

Reflection

The reflective element of ePortfolio is arguably one of the most important aspects for a learner. There are numerous studies that talk about the educational value of reflection.  Briefly, by reflecting on a learning experience (a project or a class), the learner gains a deeper understanding of the content through their interaction with it. Putting thoughts on paper or describing an experience enables a user to transform an intangible event into concrete evidence of learning and expands the experience. ePortfolios enable learners to relate evidence with previous experiences, other materials and future goals. For example, a student on a work term or study abroad program might keep a journal of their daily experiences and then share those experiences with peers, creating a community of learners. Alternatively, reflecting after a lecture or a lab provides an opportunity for a learner to have an “aha” moment as the learner thinks about their own opinions, experiences and relationships with the topic.

ePortfolios make it easy for learners to extend traditional journals to social exchanges. The electronic format allows ideas to be shared with peers or other interested parties easily.  Sharing ideas and ongoing discussion can provide further opportunity for understanding materials from different perspectives; enriching the experience of both the learner and the commenter.

Presentation

It’s important to distinguish the presentation element of ePortfolios from the ePortfolios themselves. ePortfolio items are collections of things, while the presentation is how we tell the story of those collections to an audience. Telling a story using evidence within an ePortfolio can demonstrate learning or competence; it can persuade and it can help develop peer relationships. When telling stories verbally, we tailor our tone, the content and the story arrangement to suit the audience; ePortfolio stories are no different. We want to present our materials, evidence and reflections in a way that is appropriate for the audience. The selection and arrangement of items helps the user tell different stories or even the same story to different audiences. An exemplary project can serve as evidence in a career presentation and, for example, at the same time be the basis of an MBA entrance application presentation. A story about summer experiences may contain completely different materials if it’s for a project that will be reviewed by peers or an internship report for the company the learner worked for. The ability to create these presentations and share them appropriately gives ePortfolio users the flexibility to tell the stories they want to tell.

Social Interaction

The social element of ePortfolios brings the other elements together to build cohesive, meaningful interactions. The ability to request feedback and make comments on others’ items enables conversations, constructive criticism and introduction of alternative viewpoints.  This enhanced learner engagement with content and the learning process is a unique achievement of ePortfolio technology and helps guide learners to rethink, revise and refine their learning experiences.

Social interaction can also reduce isolation felt by online learners or students on a work placement by providing a collaborative space for sharing similar learning experiences. The social component of ePortfolio provides a basis for building communities of learners and a virtual space for sharing ideas. ePortfolios offer opportunities for peer feedback which encourages self assessment as well as interaction and observation of others. Effective learning communities are not focused on assessment but rather interaction between learners which leads to comprehension and knowledge-building.

Moving Forward

ePortfolios truly become learning vehicles when the process elements are brought to the forefront. The documentation of prior learning, while valuable, is not as powerful as the evaluation and sharing of that learning journey. A learner who is able to apply critical thinking to not just the materials but also to their own learning process will demonstrate increased engagement in their learning and a deeper self-awareness of their own learning styles and motivations.  ePortfolios coordinate all elements of the learning process, from goal-setting, to achievement, to reflection and self- or peer-evaluation.  We see learners of all ages leveraging this technology from Kindergarten to educational or business leaders sharing their lifelong learning journey.

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