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The Edinburgh Challenge: If eportfolios are so great, why aren’t more people using them?

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Edinburgh Challenge: If eportfolios are so great, why aren’t more people using them?

At the University of Edinburgh last week, at the CRA – AAEEBL International Seminar, we asked the delegates (attendees) to think of “burning questions.”  One of them was the question in the title of this blog – why aren’t more people using eportfolios?  Other questions overlapped, and seemed to get to the core issue we hear so often about “faculty buy-in” and related frustration points among those championing eportfolio use. 

ePortfolio leaders for 15 or more years have talked about eportfolio as a transformative technology, or a disruptive technology, as if the technology itself would bring about fundamental change in higher education.  (I am as guilty as any).  I wondered, this week, when I pondered the paradox suggested in the title of this blog, if our own rhetoric had caught up to us. 

The question is legitimate.  How do we answer it? 

Are People in fact Using ePortfolios?

Results from EDUCAUSE’s annual Survey of Undergraduates and Information Technology – covering students in 55 countries – suggests there is broad use of the technology and that a growing number of institutions use eportfolio for nearly all courses on campus.  And yet, do these uses involve institutions mostly using eportfolio technology to collect aggregated data for institutional research and reporting?  Do these reported uses reflect adoption of the eportfolio idea or just following a mandate?  Or both?  The Survey does not provide enough data analysis to help us know much about the nature or quality of eportfolio adoption.

I am led to wonder if our eportfolio rhetoric of 10 or 15 years ago needs re-visiting and re-examination.  We do say “it’s not about the technology” and that statement always inspires nodding heads showing wide agreement with that sentiment.  But, if it’s not about the technology, what is it about?  And what is “it”?

Re-Thinking our Rhetoric About and Mental Framing of “ePortfolio”

A difference from 10 or 15 years ago, when our rhetoric of disruption began, that we need to take into consideration is that many if not most institutions of higher education, in the intervening years, have been and are making changes to adapt to profoundly different knowledge processes and to equally profound changes in the nature of work in our society:  adoption of learning outcomes often based on rubrics that shows an effort by faculty and administrators to re-examine the curriculum, wide adoption of high-impact educational practices (many of which involve social learning, authentic learning and active learning), the rise of competency-based learning, the quality agenda, and in general a broad recognition of the need to adapt to the reality that information technology has altered this basic fact:  information and knowledge are no longer scarce but available in abundance in many forms. Therefore, “content delivery” cannot be a reasonable higher education mission any longer.  Instead, it may be that higher education is realizing that “helping students learn how to learn” is a better and more appropriate mission. 

If indeed, initiatives are underway within higher education that are aligned with the education needs of today, eportfolios should be framed as instrumenting those initiatives, not necessarily inspiring them.  And the eportfolio idea should be framed as deepening those initiatives with meta-cognitive development processes to strengthen those initiatives.

In other words, if colleges and universities want their 21st century initiatives designed to improve student learning and career development to succeed, they should consider adding eportfolio technology and the eportfolio idea (evidence-based learning) to those initiatives.

To me, this is what we mean when we say “it’s not about the technology.” 


We need to be more clear in our rhetoric about eportfolio that a successful learning initiative does not necessarily or even very often start with an eportfolio implementation.  Instead, a successful learning initiative should start with a “flipped epistemology” about the nature of learning and education in this century.  A flipped epistemology is that learners may well need an “informational” phase in a course (teacher-centered, most likely) but that the heart of the course is the “transformational” phase of the course (learning – centered).  This phase is where the learner – in teams or alone – takes more responsibility for learning through one form of engaged learning or another (Robert Kegan). 

We can call the transformational part of the course “authentic learning,” but let’s look more at the word “authentic.”

“Authentic” is often referred to as real-world learning and that is a good way to frame the concept.  In addition to “real-world” (actual work for a real purpose with real-world stakes), we are reminded by the situated cognition researchers that learning is, in fact, always in a context – social, cultural, professional, geographic, etc.  Therefore, designing a course of learning so that most of the time spent in the course is transformational will usually mean that the learning is authentic and therefore is situated.

This statement from a 2004 paper points to our challenge:

“The greatest difficulty to our minds of situated cognition is in the implementation.  Educators need to understand the fundamental emergence epistemology [emphasis mine] of situated cognition before they can attempt to implement situated cognition in their respective contexts.  Such an epistemology is non-dualistic [objectivist and relativist] and the prevalent practice of strictly speaking “mirroring or “transferring” objective knowledge from one individual to another is a contradiction in terms (oxymoron).”  (Hung, D., Looi, C.-K, & Koh, T.-S. [2004]. “Situated Cognition and Communities of Practice:  First-Person “Lived Experiences” vs Third-Person Perspectives,” in Educational Technology and Society, 7 (4), 193-200; found at on June 14, 2016.)

To understand this statement by Hung, Looi and Koh, it’s important to see that “situated cognition” is not referring to how learning should occur but how learning does occur.  In other words, learning designs should take into account the reality that humans learn in context.  Transferring abstract concepts to learners out of context, as these researchers claim, goes against how learners actually learn. 

Why Situated Cognition is Important to the ePortfolio Community

With eportfolio technology, because eportfolios can be used to collect evidence of learning in authentic contexts, therefore making authentic learning possible as the default learning design (such a move to authentic learning would be hard without eportfolios), learning designs can always take into account the basic fact that all learning is situated. 

As learners grow in sophistication, more of the disciplinary context is situated within their heads, so not all learners are the same, of course.  But, if the learner we are referring to in our eportfolio rhetoric is an undergraduate and relatively a novice in the field, then the necessity of recognizing situated cognition is paramount. 

ePortfolio can be thought of in many ways, as a way to record achievement and advance in a career over a lifetime, or to develop an academic or professional identity, or to better assess learning, or, as a way to deepen learning through a process of reflection and integration.  ePortfolios are also used in recognition or assessment of prior learning, or as a way to develop a relationship with an employer or a university for the purpose of recruiting.  Some make the case that eportfolio is itself a high-impact practice. 

But, regardless of the uses, eportfolio is only meaningful when embedded in a concept of human use.  In terms of learning – and I believe eportfolios must be valuable for learning or all other uses have less meaning – eportfolios are primarily the tool of the time because this time demands a recognition that learning is situated.  They are primarily the tool of the time because they allow learning designs to align with how people actually learn. 


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