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The Significance of ePortfolio in Education

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Significance of ePortfolio in Education

For six months, the AAEEBL community has been seeking ways to define “eportfolio.”  We have found ourselves constantly running up against the limits of any single definition.  For years, published definitions have described the technology behind “eportfolio” as if that technology itself is “eportfolio.”  That’s like defining writing as a pencil or word processor.

ePortfolio is not the technology but the ways eportfolio technology is used and the significance of those uses.  “ePortfolio” is a learning concept and is also a research field and a community of practice.  There is theory behind “eportfolio” that preceded the “e” and continues today.

Because of the nomenclature confusion, eportfolio advocates in education have difficulty answering the question “what is an eportfolio?” 

The challenge is that eportfolio advocates are situated psychologically in a new imagined learning ecology “beyond the curriculum.”  They are situated in a learning ecology where knowledge is not rare but abundant and where knowledge is not a thing but a process. 

How does one who is situated in a new world explain a concept like “eportfolio” to someone living in an old world?

When Europeans began migrating to “the new world,” they wore shoes appropriate to the roads and streets of Europe but not appropriate to the rough paths of this new world.  They were “situated” in the old world but walking in the new world. 

Let’s address this nomenclature and situatedness problem by describing the significance of eportfolio in higher education. 

1.     The move from teaching to learning.  For 20 years, educators have understood that “teaching” as it had been done for a century was not necessarily resulting in the learning needed in today’s world (or for the demographically aging student body). 

But this understanding has resulted in only gradual and partial changes in the learning ecology on most campuses for undergraduate students. 

One major general initiative, however, has been promising:  the high-impact educational practices put in place on many campuses that engage social pedagogies (and learning) and that also move more of the responsibility for learning to the learner:

First-Year Seminars and Experiences, Common Intellectual Experiences, Learning Communities, Writing-Intensive Courses, Collaborative Assignments and Projects, Undergraduate Research, Diversity/Global Learning, Service Learning, Community-Based Learning, Internships, and Capstone Courses and Projects. ( 

As many have noted for the past couple of years, employing student eportfolios in these kinds of learning experiences galvanizes learning even more.  Some refer to this use of eportfolio as a “meta high-impact practice.”

The use of a student eportfolio in the HIP practices allows students to collect artifacts while learning that make their learning more tangible and memorable.  Students can revisit these artifacts later, after a week or weeks, and find new meaning in these tangible reminders of their learning experience.  This is an example of students having more ownership of their own learning process. This is a concrete example of the move from teaching to learning. 

2.     “One Size Does Not Fit All.”  Learning experiences are no longer exclusively centered in the classroom.  But, once learning moves out of the classroom, students have differing learning experiences.  If learners can learn anywhere, how does a faculty member assess that learning? 

This is one of the biggest issues facing higher education today:  students are less and less likely to learn in lock-step, or at least less and less likely to have lock-step learning be the only learning that is endorsed formally. 

The significance of eportfolio for “out of sight” learning is that evidence of learning can be collected in an eportfolio, including digital badges for micro-credentialing that are “stored” in an eportfolio. 

One major impulse behind “out of sight” learning – such as in some of the HIPs – is that the average age of undergraduates is rising.  While “lock-step” might have seemed almost justifiable when students were in the 17-22 year old range, it seems less justifiable for an older student body who, most likely, have already had many real-world learning experiences. 

3.     Career development or employability.  In response to employer demands for better evidence of the capabilities of graduates – the diploma and transcript no longer seeming to have solid predictive value – many campuses have adopted eportfolios for two purposes:  first, to track student progress toward learning outcomes and, second, to provide a way for students to better demonstrate their achievements. 

4.     ePortfolio as a cultural signifier of the transfer of ownership of learning from the institution to the learner.  ePortfolio is a technology native to the emerging new learning ecology – self-paced learning, MOOCs, personalized learning, competency-based learning, assessment of prior learning – and a necessary component of this new learning ecology.  The rapid spread of eportfolio implementations in higher education in at least 55 countries around the world confirms that eportfolio is entwined with the new learning ecology. 

Bret Eynon, Randy Bass and Helen Chen (at LaGuardia Community College, Georgetown University and Stanford, respectively), the thought leaders for the Connect to Learning FIPSE-funded Project that ran for several years, concluded that Project with a rich website that is called “Catalyst for Learning.” (    That is the significance of eportfolio – sometimes you don’t get a reaction or any energy in a process until you add a catalyst. 



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Rita Z. Prokopetz says...
Posted Thursday, October 15, 2015
Re: "The challenge is that eportfolio advocates are situated psychologically in a new imagined learning ecology “beyond the curriculum.” They are situated in a learning ecology where knowledge is not rare but abundant and where knowledge is not a thing but a process."

Dr. Batson,

This is brilliant! Thank you for the entire article -- I read it a few times.

Regarding the "learning ecology" concept, would it be under the umbrella of "ecological constructivism" and learning eco-systems?

I hope to hear more on the topic as I plan to write a paper on EC soon.

Thank you!

(new 'community of practice' member)
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Jean Darcy says...
Posted Friday, October 16, 2015
Yes, I agree with Rita, the use of concepts like "learning ecology" is very helpful. It situates the learner in a dynamic relation to texts that shift their significance in relation to use. I am reminded of Emerson's essay on the farmer in which he valued the farmer's orientation to knowledge in terms of the way each part influenced the other and changed the meaning of the other if seen in relation. I also like " ePortfolio as a cultural signifier of the transfer of ownership of learning from the institution to the learner. " In my own experience teachers and administrators who value a linear approach to "talk and chalk" learning do not understand how valuable it is for a student to come to understand a relation to their own thinking process, especially as it opens up into this "ecological dynamic" in which different parts of the brain are engaged simultaneously to problem solve. In thinking of how the software relates to this issue, one critic claims, "It is not technology, it is neurology."
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Rita Z. Prokopetz says...
Posted Friday, October 16, 2015

Thank you for your post! I am engaged in discussions on the topic in other learning communities and wonder if I can share your thoughts (giving you credit, naturally!)
Please let me know!
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