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Study Shows Steady Growth in ePortfolio Use; What Does That Suggest?

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, February 2, 2015


Study Shows Steady Growth in ePortfolio Use; What Does That Mean?

As a frame for this article, and to offer evidence that eportfolios are important, consider the following:

In 2012, we were able to state reliably, based on the the EDUCAUSE Survey of Undergraduates and Technology, that 51% of students in the U. S. and other reporting countries used eportfolio at one time in their college experience.  That number in the 2013 Report was 54%, an annual increase of 3%. 

In 2012, we had to qualify the good news (to us) that over half of students use eportfolios by adding, “but only 7% used them in more than one course.”  However, in 2013, we see a significant increase in students using eportfolios in more than one course:

·      In 2013, 5% used eportfolios in more than half of their courses

·      9% used eportfolios in “a few” courses

·      39% used eportfolios in one course.

·      In other words, the percentage of students using eportfolios in more than one course went from 7% to 14%, a notable increase. 

·      In that same year, student use of learning management systems actually declined.


What is an ePortfolio and Why Are They Important?

The eportfolio movement is about 20 years old, if you include webfolios as a type of eportfolio in the 90s (on the web but without a database to manage the webfolio).  However, the portfolio (without the “e”) idea is perhaps a thousand years old (or more?) Portfolios created by artists or musicians or writers go back centuries. 

ePortfolio is based, therefore, on an ancient tradition.   But, unlike paper or canvas or blueprint portfolios, eportfolios  -- the technology – live within an online database and the collection is electronic rather than atomic (that is, tangible objects).  The “e” in eportfolio is therefore very important as it designates an amazing liberation from the limits of the physical world. 

So, eportfolios have not caught on as much as they have just because of the technology.  They have that long tradition behind them.  And, fortuitously, they also arrived on the scene just as they were needed.  With the necessary shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning – in a time of relatively stable knowledge, teach; in a time of rapidly changing knowledge, learn – the learner who can show evidence she has the ability to learn quickly has an advantage.  She can show her abilities through concrete evidence in her eportfolio.  It is both the technology native to new ecologies of learning and, secondly, is wrapped in decades-old learning theory based on portfolios to help us understand how to implement eportfolios in these new ecologies. 

The accountability movement also arose as eportfolios developed technologically.  They seemed the perfect answer for the demands of accountability. They could show student progress toward learning outcomes.  ePortfolios with the right “back end” can produce aggregate reports on classes of students to show their progress toward explicit learning goals.  This data is invaluable to many institutions for many purposes – institutional research reports, institutional planning and assessment, re-accreditation, and so on. 

And, a third element also contributed to the growing adoption of eportfolios.That third element is advances in understanding of how adults learn best.  Research into learning in cognitive science, linguistics, anthropology and other fields added to research in psychology and education provided new understanding about adult learning.  It turned out, to generalize, that the “delivery of content” as an entire framework for education was and is deficient to the demands of our times.  Instead, as an example, educational designs in which learners are challenged to solve a discipline-specific problem by themselves or in a team result in deeper and more lasting habits of learning. 

Many cultural, research and technology vectors (energy plus direction) are behind the growth of eportfolios.  Another less obvious factor behind eportfolios:  the idea of students owning their own work and keeping it with them over time is a compelling idea that has galvanized an entire community of educators (including administrators) for over a decade. 

Active Learning Designs Benefit from ePortfolios

Active-learning designs, resulting in learners solving problems in many different ways and with varying results, requires a different means of assessing the learning and the results.  ePortfolios provide this new means:  if learners collect well-constructed and revealing evidence of their learning process, benchmarks, reflection and analysis, then not only is learning deeper but the assessment itself becomes the basis for a resume and for further learning.

But almost certainly the strongest force driving change is the whole panorama of digital technologies, causing our entire culture and economy to change – and they are still driving more change.

Will ePortfolios Continue to Spread?

So, with all these vectors coming together, why haven’t eportfolios been adopted ubiquitously and universally?  It may be that at some point, they will be, but the systemic and fundamental changes educators and their institutions must make are confounded by the business model – credit hours – and longstanding expectations and habits, faculty preferences and priorities, popular images of how learning occurs – the list can go on, but the idea is that such an established and fundamental cultural cluster of ideas and beliefs and patterns about teaching and learning will not change quickly, if ever. 

But those changes must occur before eportfolios can be employed in broadly useful ways.  Attaching an eportfolio to an existing traditional course is like attaching a plow to a car (as people did in the early part of the last century).  The car did not do well, nor will eportfolios if they are only an ornament in a course. 

What Is an ePortfolio?

An eportfolio is an online digital collection of learning artifacts (“assets” in other parts of the world) that form a personal library or museum of an individual’s evidence of learning.  A very important difference from learning management systems is that the learner owns her or his personal eportfolio:  owns both literally as in copyright law, once it is published on the Web, and owns in the sense of the eportfolio collection staying with the learner and not with the institution.  The learner can set permissions as to who can see and have access to the data in her or his eportfolio. 

In this way, eportfolios are longitudinal and continuous, not segmented by courses as happens in LMS’s.  They can stay with a learner after graduation and on into a career.

From an eportfolio database of learning artifacts (text, photos, video, sound clips, diagrams, graphs, and so on), many different web pages can be created.  Like a resume that is tailored for the occasion, eportfolio web presentations can be tailored to fit the occasion, as well.  These are not different eportfolios as many people now say, but really only different faces on one eportfolio collection. 

Do ePortfolios Make Graduates More Employable?

Do employers look at eportfolios?  This question comes up often and often seems to be asked as the “trump” question:  if no one looks at your eportfolio, of what use can it be?  And, to be honest, that was a hard question to answer for a number of years.  But then, a funny thing happened: the death of the paper resume and the birth of HR web searches of job candidates. 

Now that resumes are expected to be online, adding links to your eportfolio within the resume only makes sense:  it tells the HR folks doing the applicant triage that you have more of a story to tell beyond the resume.  The links make the resume three-dimensional.   And, then, there’s the growing trend of search committees and HR doing web searches as part of their “due diligence.”  Wouldn’t it be great to have your eportfolio show up at the top of the results list in the search engine?

In short, reasons to have an eportfolio both within the college years and afterwards as graduates changes jobs to advance are overwhelming.  But, as I’ve already pointed out, the barriers to adoption and institutional deployment are formidable.


As the EDUCAUSE Survey confirms, we can now see a pattern of individual course adoptions across a majority of U. S. higher educational institutions (and a similar pattern in a few other countries as well), and some program adoptions in a large number of institutions, and a few dozen whole campus adoptions in the U. S. 

The eportfolio industry – the companies providing eportfolios to educational institutions – has blossomed, to a large extent to provide a way to report on student progress toward learning goals.  The technology is approaching maturity, with regular updates and a Web 2.0 quality of user interface.  It is a strong industry and is helping educators understand the value of eportfolios. 

The eportfolio movement in the U. S. has its own association – AAEEBL – and a century-old professional association that strongly supports eportolios – AAC&U.  AAEEBL is tied to the Centre for Recording Achievement in the UK and to ePortfolios Australia; AAEEBL has member institutions in the U. S., Canada, the UK, and in Australia.  ePortfolio is a global movement. 

“ePortfolio” is Code for What?

The word “eportfolio” has a broad meaning for those in the movement:  it is a set of practices, not a technology.  But it also describes “evidence-based learning,” a term that some people understand more quickly than “eportfolio.” Employers, in particular, like the sound of “evidence-based learning” because it seems to answer their concerns that a degree and a transcript have lost some of their predictive value.  They ask for concrete evidence of what a candidate can actually do. 

In the end, however, the core value of an eportfolio is for learning.  Being able to reflect on one’s history of learning over a course, or program or college career and therefore integrating learning experiences adds a dimension to college learning that has proven to make a difference not only in the quality of learning for individual learners, but for retention, grades and graduation.  (Catalyst for Learning:

Learning through course designs and programs architected for eportfolios is not only deeper learning, but learning that is more in tune with the challenges of our times.  The growing phenomenon of “high-impact educational practices” suggests change is afoot in the academy.  Adding eportfolios to high-impact practices makes them even more high-impact, making eportfolios a “meta-high-impact practice,” a phrase being adopted in the eportfolio field.    

I have personally been deeply involved in technology in higher education for thirty years.  My experience tells me that no one can predict what humans will do with a technology, so I have learned caution.  We are at a point of moderate eportfolio saturation within higher education in the U. S. and other countries.  Growth has been strong in some years and less so in others, but still steady.  Knowing that fundamental change has to accompany eportfolio adoption, we can understand those slow downs. One does not just purchase an eportfolio system and the campus changes around the technology; change must precede or coincide with adoption of an eportfolio system. 

We know higher education is at a stress point and will be for years.  But we also know that online presence and the quality of that presence, and the need for it, will grow.  We know that employers want to see evidence of achievement, proof of what a candidate can actually do.  We also know that educators do want their students to learn as well as possible.  ePortfolios will continue to grow in usage, will help educators understand the nature of change needed, will help those same educators assess learners who learn outside the classroom and who may not be following a pre-set path but often creating their own paths, and will help institutions meet the demands of accountability and the quality agenda. 

ePortfolios are an integral part of educational change and will continue to be.  The EDUCAUSE survey report on eportfolios called them “experimental.”  Extrapolating from the Survey data, that characterization would suggest that two or three million students in the U.S. are engaged in an experiment.  I’d say we are well past the experimental stage. 







Tags:  AAEEBL  Assessment  ePortfolio 

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