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ePortfolio: A Millennial Cultural Phenomenon

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, April 20, 2015

What is an ePortfolio?  An AAEEBL Project for 2015 in Coordination with EPAC

EPAC was an important early organizing entity for the U. S. eportfolio community.  Many current eportfolio leaders were active in EPAC in the early 2000’s.  Since then, Helen Chen and John Ittelson have maintained EPAC as a service to the eportfolio field.  AAEEBL and EPAC collaborate regularly on webinars, as they are doing for the 2015 series.

[Register for the April 29 Webinar with Geoff Irvine, CEO of Chalk & Wire now].

The Importance of Defining “ePortfolio”

A research and practice field needs to define its core epistemology.  But while “eportfolio” can be understood academically as a set of practices to improve learning or as a genre of self expression to create an identity or as a way to discover tacit knowledge within yourself (as part of a generative knowledge process) or as part of a narrative over a life time interpreted using a hermeneutic approach to discover the “narrator” of your life (a kind of self-exegesis), do any of these important interpretive lenses capture the cultural significance of having a personal space within the cloud in this millennium?  Maybe to really know what we are about as the eportfolio field of inquiry, we need to look beyond academia (in the U. S.) and take a cue from countries where “eportfolio” is an economic and social instrument for workforce development:  eportfolio as a necessary personal space for social and economic mobility in this digital age. 

It is because of the multiple interpretations and uses of eportfolios that AAEEBL and other organizations in the eportfolio field globally that we need the What is an ePortfolio? Project.

This Project has generated interest already through the two webinars offered so far in April – with Steve Handy of Bluehost and with Christopher Sheehan of Arizona State University and Helen Chen of EPAC (recordings available on the website). 

This current document describes how this Project will evolve over the next 9 months and invites participants to join a team working on this Project.  (Contact   

Parts of the Project

1.     AAEEBL Webinar Series, co-sponsored by EPAC.  Monthly “Screen Side Chats” featuring chief officers of AAEEBL Corporate Partners and key academic eportfolio leaders.  Each session is recorded and made available on the AAEEBL website.  (Next one, April 29, is with Geoff Irvine, CEO of Chalk & Wire). 

2.     What is an ePortfolio? Project Team.  A volunteer team to analyze transcripts of the Screen Side Chats, to research other published statements about defining “eportfolio,” and to develop a white paper on the topic that will be made available to the eportfolio community in early 2016.  This Team will be formed by the end of May, 2015. 

3.     Coordination between this team and other eportfolio entities such as EPAC, the International Journal of ePortfolio, the International Coalition for ePortfolio Research, the Centre for Recording Achievement, Europortfolio, ePIC, ePortfolios Australia and others.

Tentative Goals

1.     A definition for the community

2.     A definition for public use

3.     A definition for college and university administrators, and for faculty, who are unfamiliar with the concept of eportfolio.

4.     A definition for students/learners

A simple, reductionist, definition is not useful for any of the above groups since that kind of definition does not convey the importance of the eportfolio idea or of the potential of eportfolio for re-shaping learning in a digital world. 

Interim Thoughts on Definition

The eportfolio field needs a definition because “eportfolio” is still a relatively unknown phenomenon.  The field of “biology,” say, can assume a broad understanding of what “biology” entails and can use that established and broad understanding to create a definition that delimits that broad understanding. The field of “eportfolio” cannot do this.  We do not enjoy the benefits of an established, broad-based understanding of eportfolio but instead face broad-based misunderstanding.  Therefore, our definition must aim to create that cultural understanding of the eportfolio idea and field of study and practice.

With this task in mind – creating a definition of the idea of eportfolio and therefore of the field – we can begin with what philosophical framework is best to use for our purpose.  In a seminal article published by Celeste Fowles Nguyen, then of Stanford University, in the fall of 2013 in the International Journal of ePortfolio, entitled “The ePortfolio as a Living Portal:  A Medium for Student Learning, Identity, and Assessment,” v.3, no. 2, 135-148, Nguyen lays out an approach to understanding the idea of eportfolio:

The eportfolio is presently understood as an online space for students to share and reflect upon learning artifacts and academic experiences.  Traditionally, eportfolios have been studied through scientific or developmental paradigms, where they are often viewed as a tool to measure outcomes or student progress.  This paper contributes to the understanding of eportfolios through a critical hermeneutic approach (Herda, 1999), in which the eportfolio is one medium, among others, for learning . . . This framework highlights the role of the student in narrating his or her own life.  The focus on identity in this research may add an additional dimension to discussion about culture and technology.

The interpretive approach of critical hermeneutics offers new insights into eportfolios within an ontological tradition based on ways of being.  This research, based on the philosophy of Paul Recoeur (1984, 1992), viewed the eportfolio as a medium in which students can learn about self and the world.  New understandings expand one’s horizon, bringing about new ways of living, which Hans-Georg Gadamer (1988/1975) conceptualized as a fusion of horizons.  This approach to eportfolios provides educators with enhanced ways of understanding learning, identity, and assessment in higher education.

The research moves beyond an epistemological approach based on knowledge, where the eportfolios are viewed as an object or linear process, into the ontological world of being, where learning is about living life through a search that has meaning for oneself and others.  As Ricoeur (1991) explained, life can be understood as a “story in search of a narrator” (p. 425).  This interpretive context offers an expanded approach to learning that may complement existing practices to better serve institutions and students in preparing for an ever-changing world that lies beyond the college experience.


ePortfolio, conceived as Nguyen proposes, is then a medium and signifier at the heart of the world as it has become.  The eportfolio idea, then, is itself an artifact and phenomenon of the new millennium.  It is this expression of the eportfolio idea, and others, that suggest why we have an eportfolio field and community: it is an idea bigger and more significant than any one of its uses.   

What, Then, Must an ePortfolio Do to Realize the ePortfolio Idea?

Right from the early years of the eportfolio community – the 1990s – people like Katherine Yancey and Helen Barrett wrote and talked about what eportfolios must be able to do to serve the values they saw in the eportfolio idea. 

·      The space – the eportfolio – must be owned by the student in all ways.  Digitally, this meant that access to the eportfolio must be determined by the student or learner:  literally, the learner could set permissions within the eportfolio as to which specific people or groups could have access to their work – often determined piece by piece – and for how long.  Legally, the learner must be recognized as the owner of the intellectual property within the eportfolio.  Owning one’s own work was seen as greatly increasing the sense of owning one’s own learning process and therefore having more of a stake in the process and increasing engagement. 

·      The eportfolio space (“account”) must remain with the learner during college and after college (or from K-12 and on through life). 

·      The learner must be able to upload any file type to the eportfolio and must have storage capacity to hold (increasingly that capacity is in “the cloud”) work artifacts collected over multiple years.

·      The learner must be able to connect to the eportfolio from anywhere and when using multiple kinds of devices.  

·      The learner needs to be able to archive and curate learning artifacts over time, requiring that the eportfolio have a metadata set and search capabilities to manage a large archive.

·      The learner must be able to easily create current state-of-the-art websites for varying purposes over time, using data from the eportfolio. 

·      The learner must be able to collaborate on team work within the eportfolio space, where, for a particular project, the team can have access to the work. 

·      The learner must be able to use the eportfolio within an enterprise application setting:  the eportfolio may therefore interface with an SIS or ERP or LMS system.  Or it may not need to interface with enterprise applications, but simply be enterprise-friendly and supported on campus.

·      The learner must have the eportfolio recognized as a major part of the work of learning.  The eportfolio, therefore, must be able to facilitate the academic process of assessment and evaluation and, perhaps, of advising as well. 

Other items will undoubtedly be added to this list as the Project proceeds.

Our Project could then create a list of technology functionality, or a taxonomy, based on the requirements. 

The Project will also create a similar set of requirements and functionalities for derivative purposes, such as tracking student progress toward learning outcomes, recognizing or assessing prior learning, digital story-telling, and others. 

And, finally, the Project will create definitions for use in various contexts. 


But, in the end, the field needs to identify why humanity needs to recognize the importance of eportfolio:  there have always been means of learning about oneself, of self-expression, of scrap-booking one’s life, but the new element that eportfolio offers is that these traditional means can now be published and visible to the world. 


Tags:  ePortfolio AAEEBL 

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