In 2002, Trent Batson, a former professor of English, was clearly excited about the emerging area of eportfolios:
“Electronic portfolios have a greater potential to alter higher education at its very core than any other technology application we’ve known thus far. The momentum is building…” Batson (2002)
Fast forward nine years, and it seems he has lost none of his enthusiasm:
“[eportfolios have] moved from institution-centered to multi-centered; from assessment-centered to learning and assessment centered, from school-time limited to life-long and life-wide, from installed to SaaS, and from reinforcement of the status quo to supporting new learning and assessment designs.” Batson (2011)
But the reality seems to be that eportfolios are still peripheral to most educational efforts, only adopted when institutionally mandated, and then reluctantly. The OU’s main man on educational technology has no doubts:
“They [eportfolios] can be seen as a case study of how educational technology gets it wrong…Blogs are good enough for eportfolios, if what you want from an eportfolio is for people to actually, you know, use them.” Weller (2011)
Clearly, it is a polarising issue, even emotive, but should we take another look at the benefits?
For an OU assignment, I have been looking at the pros and cons of eportfolios in my own context. Mostly, I teach aspiring professionals to help them pass exams, design courses and support other tutors delivering those courses. I have a commitment to my own learning and as a Chartered Accountant I also have a formal requirement to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD).
If I am going to develop as a professional, I need to be able to store and reflect on the products of my work. I need to consider how I will improve next time round. But here is where it gets complicated. There are many “products” to consider, including student feedback, stored in paper form, recorded material, which is stored in our online classroom, emails I send to students or tutors, which are stored on our email system, meeting notes and so on. Pulling all of this together for reflection, or even for our annual appraisal process is not an easy task.
But eportfolios are good at pulling together items stored in different media, making them searchable and accessible. They also build in prompts for reflection, which has been widely recognised as critical to development:
“20 years of teaching may not equate to 20 years of learning about teaching but may be only one year repeated 20 times…We should not rely solely on our natural process of reflecting on experience, but actively seek ways to ensure that reflection itself becomes a habit, ensuring our continuing development as a professional teacher…” Beaty (1997)
Learning from experience in professional contexts tends to be informal and tacit – eportfolios can help them to be encouraged and documented.
The most serious objection to eportfolios is that they are complex and over-engineered, and a blog will largely do the job. Indeed, the term b-portfolio is now gaining some currency (Hopkins, 2011). Blogging is simple to master, whereas there is no question that eportfolios require a learning curve. In professional education, faculty are often required to learn new systems (e.g. Camtasia, Adobe Connect), and the time required to become familiar with one of the eportfolio systems is a large investment. It needs a large payback. Why not stick with the simplicity of the blog?
It is a powerful objection, but I am not totally convinced. While blogs are very effective for communication and sharing, they are less effective in storing and collating differing media.
Further key objections to eportfolios are, firstly, that they have not become popular as part of job applications. This is undeniable. They may be used for recruitment in specialist areas such as design and marketing, but there is little evidence that they are mainstream in the job market. This is probably linked to their complexity – they will become more mainstream when they are simpler.
Secondly, the sheer variety of eportfolio systems described by Batson is discouraging. It makes choosing an eportfolio system a major project in itself, and raises the risk that time spent mastering a system will be wasted as it is discontinued, or merged into another system.
So is there hope? I think there may be. I was fascinated by a recent article (Manjoo, 2011) which profiled the four technology companies that are currently shaping our world more than any others. But what is striking about Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon is that they did not invent the businesses in which they excel – social networking, search, mobile devices and e-commerce respectively. Their genius, and success, was in taking an existing product or service and making it simple, which is why even technophobes are now avid customers of these companies.
Eportfolios are surely ripe for the same treatment. They will take off when they are as easy to use as, say, Facebook – adoption in many contexts, including the one examined here, will then be obvious. Of those companies, only Google has so far begun to turn their attention to eportfolios, and have not perhaps simplified it enough yet. One day, surely, either one of these four or a specialist eportfolio company will create a product that is genuinely easy to use. There will be significant rewards for the one that does, and for its users.
In the meantime, I need to make a start myself. Look out for “adventures in PebblePad”, coming soon…
Batson, T. (2002) ‘The electronic portfolio boom: what’s it all about?’, Campus Technology (online). Available from: http://campustechnology.com/articles/2002/11/the-electronic-portfolio-boom-whats-it-all-about.aspx (last accessed 24 October 2011).
Batson, T. (2011) ‘A Survey of the Electronic Portfolio Market Sector: Analysis and Surprising Trends’ Campus Technology (online). Available from: http://campustechnology.com/articles/2011/10/12/a-survey-of-the-electronic-portfolio-market-sector.aspx (last accessed 24 October 2011)
Beaty L (1997) Developing your teaching through reflective practice, Birmingham, SEDA
Hopkins, D. (2011), ‘e-portfolios are out, b-portfolios are in (apparently)’ blog entry posted 23 October 2011. Available from http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/eportfolio/eportfolios-are-out-bportfolios-are-in-apparently-eportfolio-bportfolio/ (last accessed 29 October 2011)
Manjoo, F. (2011) ‘The Great Tech War of 2012’ Fast Company, November 2011 and online. Available from http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/160/tech-wars-2012-amazon-apple-google-facebook (last accessed 24 October 2011).
Weller, M. (2011) ‘E-portfolios – J’accuse’, blog entry posted 9 June 2011. Available from http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2011/06/eportfolios-all-thats-wrong-with-ed-tech.html (last accessed 24 October 2011)