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ePortfolios at a Crossroads

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Wednesday, October 30, 2013

ePortfolios at a Crossroads

Trent Batson


EDUCAUSE released the findings from its annual Survey of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology in September 2013. While EDUCAUSE had kindly offered AAEEBL the opportunity to read and edit a sidebar in the report regarding eportfolios, the report as whole, in its design, revealed an odd understanding of eportfolios.

The following quotation from the Report suggests that students were led to believe that eportfolios fit into an odd category of something they call "experimental experiences.”

In investigating the magnitude of use of open educational resources, e-texts, simulations and games, and e-portfolios, we found that these are experimental experiences for most students; they typically have used them in one class or on occasion rather than as part of their education resource ecosystem. We also found that students are not telling us they want these resources used more – in fact, interest is either flat or decreasing.

p. 39, ECAR Report

In the same report, however, we find that 52% of all students used eportfolios at some point in their undergraduate career. Therefore, we can surmise that ePortfolios may be implemented, to one degree or another, on over half of the 4,000 or so U. S. institutions of higher learning. How can they be so common and yet referred to as "experimental experiences”?

AAEEBL’s 2013 Annual Conference was "ePortfolio Coming of Age.” For us in the eportfolio community to see more evidence of Casey Green’s finding in 2010 that over half of U. S. institutions then had eportfolios on their campus, the ECAR Report was gratifying, despite its odd characterization of eportfolios. ePortfolio adoption is indeed spreading in U. S. higher education and in higher education around the world.

In our field, we are aware of the multitude and disruptive ways that eportfolios can be used. We can envision an educational enterprise built around evidence-based learning and assessment. That enterprise (institution) could be more aligned with learners’ needs today after their transformation. With our sense of the potential of eportfolio technology, in concert with mobile computing in a multi-modal world, ECAR’s characterization of eportfolios borders on bizarre. It reflects a shallow perception of eportfolios.

AAEEBL and the community need to do more to open eyes. Yet, we find ourselves in a chicken and egg situation: does transformation come first or do eportfolios come first? In the report, we find that three-quarters of those students using eportfolios use them in only one class. ePortfolios, on most campuses, therefore must seem "experimental” since only one or a few faculty members are using them. (Note that the ECAR Report is based on student responses, and not on reports from administrators who might have also included institutional use of eportfolios for institutional research and tracking student progress toward learning outcomes. Since this kind of data was not included in the Report, we can assume the spread of eportfolios in higher education is under-reported).

Since Kenneth C. Green’s report in 2010 that half of all institutions had eportfolios, the ECAR Report shows a sky-rocketing of student use of eportfolios up through 2012, leveling off in the last year. Combing the Green data with ECAR’s, we can suggest that eportfolio penetration of U. S. higher education could easily be 60 or 70%. Reports from the industry add credence to this supposition.

But, there is another incipient movement that could be encouraging for us eportfolio advocates. Some eportfolio providers who offer both an LMS and an eportfolio platform, have integrated the two or are considering doing so. Other providers offer both an assessment management module (for tracking student progress toward learning outcomes) and a student eportfolio module. It is not hard to imagine the LMS, which has saturated higher education, adding eportfolio capabilities and eventually altering how eportfolios are marketed and used.

If we consider that nearly 100 percent of faculty and students use an LMS, adding eportfolio capabilities to the LMS would result in a much quicker uptake of eportfolio use than using the current marketing of LMS and eportfolio as separate enterprise products. If faculty members already are familiar with how an LMS works – its ethos, terminology, structure – they would find added eportfolio "spaces” easier to navigate than they would in a brand new and separate eportfolio platform.

Right now, of all courses or classes taken on campuses in the U. S., again according to ECAR, most students only encounter one or two eportfolio courses. At the same time, 100% of students encounter an LMS course. The best way, from an industry perspective, to enter the market ambitiously could then be to offer a better LMS and then make it even better by adding eportfolio capabilities.

There are of course real complications to overcome since the LMS is owned by the institution and its faculty while eportfolios are supposed to be owned by students. The LMS is course-based and the eportfolio is learner-based; one is vertical, the other horizontal. The gestalt of each platform is a polar opposite.

Yet, it is very possible that this is exactly how the market will begin to swing: LMS companies developing eportfolio capabilities and eportfolio use then grows as an adjunct to LMS use.

The eportfolio stack might then look like:

· Learning eportfolio

· Assessment management system

· Learning management system (LMS)

And all of it will be called an LMS.

I am not saying I believe this is how things will play out. But I do know that this scenario will be part of how things play out.

Does this scenario mean that the values our community sees in eportfolios will be championed and supported? It would seem that the danger would be, instead, that the market may drive eportfolios away from learning-centered and back toward teaching-centered, at least within the academy.

Our Association and the community need to advocate for eportfolio values. We need to continue to demand that our providers understand the purpose and the transformational power of eportfolios. The new website that AAEEBL has launched (not fully provisioned with content yet, alas), can help in this advocacy: you can add your own voice as part of AAEEBL’s advocacy via the forums and blogs and groups at the new AAEEBL site.

As a global community, we have a potentially strong voice. We are at a crossroads; eportfolio use is spreading but we find very little understanding in general of how eportfolio can best be used; the enterprise-transformation power of eportfolios is even less understood; the LMS providers seem to be looking at the eportfolio market as a new growth path. The crossroads, then, presents two dangers:

1. ePortfolios continuing as an "experimental experience.”

2. ePortfolios growing in use but strongly flavored by the LMS ethos.

As the market grows, it becomes more attractive to investment. Let’s make sure that investment moves us in good directions.

Tags:  ePortfolio  evidence-based learning  LMS 

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