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ePortfolios Explained: Theory and Practice

Screenshot of an ePortfolio titled, "Making Connections; Solving Problems"

Image provided by Danielle Juneau from her ePortfolio. 

While ePortfolios might be described as digital collections of artifacts, a good academic ePortfolio also represents a process – specifically, the process of generating new or deeper learning by reflecting on one’s existing learning. 

So what is an ePortfolio?

An academic ePortfolio is a digital collection created by a student of their course-related work, like essays, posters, photographs, videos, and artwork; academic ePortfolios can also capture other aspects of a student’s life, such as volunteer experiences, employment history, extracurricular activities, and more. In other words, ePortfolios document and make visible student learning. But a good ePortfolio should be more than just a collection of products. 

A good ePortfolio is both about being a product (a digital collection of artifacts) and a process (of reflecting on those artifacts and what they represent). Like a Learning Management System (LMS), ePortfolios exist online and support student learning. They differ from Learning Management Systems in two key ways: namely, ownership and control. In a university course, the Learning Management System is “owned” and controlled or managed by the instructor who decides who has access, what tools are turned on or off, and so on. With an ePortfolio, the student is in charge: the student decides who can view the ePortfolio, what artifacts get added, how it is designed, and so on. Typically, a student loses access to the LMS when courses end; in contrast, ePortfolios remain the student’s property after finishing university.

The learning theory behind ePortfolios

According to Basken (2008), ePortfolios “are a way to generate learning as well as document learning" (Basken, 2008). Both generating learning and documenting or recording learning are important, but the process of generating learning sometimes gets overlooked. ePortfolios generate learning because they provide an opportunity and virtual space for students to critically assess their academic work, to reflect on that work, and make connections among different courses, assignments, and and other activities, such as work experience, extracurricular pursuits, volunteering opportunities, and more. ePortfolios are effective learning tools because they support students’ own knowledge construction, make otherwise invisible aspects of the learning process visible, and place agency in the hands of students, which fosters learners’ motivation.

Constructing knowledge

ePortfolios fall within a learning theory known as social constructivism, which proposes, in part, that learning happens most effectively when students construct systems of knowledge for themselves, rather than simply having information presented. Social constructivism also proposes that another determinant of effective learning is that it happens in a social context – that is, we construct our knowledge through dialogue and interactions with others. With ePortfolios, the process of reflection originates as a solo activity, but becomes social through a feedback loop, as the student’s instructor, peers, mentors, and even family members respond to and provide commentary on those reflections. Making and then sharing an ePortfolio with others is somewhat like telling a story: the story of one’s learning journey.

Making learning visible

Bass and Eynon (2009) describe the process of critical reflection involved in the creation of effective ePortfolios as one that makes “invisible learning” visible. By invisible learning, they mean two things.

First, Bass and Eynon refer to the intermediate steps that occur whenever a student, or any person, is attempting to learn something or do something. It’s easy to focus exclusively on the final product (such as an essay), and to overlook the stages of learning and doing that preceded that product. By reflecting on these invisible stages, students can learn more: they can learn more deeply, they can learn more about how they learn, and they can learn how to do better the next time.

The other aspect of invisible learning is learning that goes “beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity” (Bass & Eynon, 2009). In other words, the process of learning something doesn’t involve just the rational mind; rather, feelings, personality, and sense of self are all involved – sometimes facilitating that learning process, and sometimes hindering it. By reflecting on those affective, personal, and self-identity factors, students can develop meta-cognitive skills that can enhance their learning.

Fostering student agency

Finally, because ePortfolios are a student-centered activity – one in which the student is free to choose what artifacts are included, and is free to reflect on the process of their learning – they foster engagement and motivation (Tosh, Penny Light, Fleming, & Haywood, 2005). Research on student engagement with learning suggests that when students perceive that they have choices in how to learn they are more engaged and motivated to move beyond simple information acquisition to trying to gain an understanding of the subject (Entwistle & Karagiannopoulou 2014; Kuh et al., 2005). ePortfolios offer this opportunity for learner control and can support or promote deep learning as students are able to make connections between the learning which occurs in different contexts: academic, workplace and community. Indeed, it is this recognition that learning occurs beyond the classroom that makes ePortfolios attractive to many educators.

Types of ePortfolios

Some educators see ePortfolios primarily as a tool for generating new or deeper learning while others view them as a tool for assessment (of students and, by extension, of university programs). Barrett (2008) described the difference in perspective this way: “There’s a major tension right now between student-centered and institution-centered ePortfolios.” Institution-centered ePortfolios, she adds, are driven by “assessment of learning.” Student-centered ePortfolios, on the other hand, are driven by “assessment for learning,” which refers to academic assignments that fulfill the traditional role of assessing student learning while at the same time providing an opportunity for students to learn as they complete the assessment.

Even within the student-centered approach to ePortfolios, it’s possible to classify different kinds of ePortfolios based upon the purpose of the ePortfolio for the student. Different organizations use different names with some distinctions between what the institution or research group wants to emphasize. LaGuardia Community College’s ePortfolio initiative, for example, distinguishes between assessment ePortfolios, where the audience is internal to the institution and the goal is to support institutional outcomes assessment, learning ePortfolios, where the audience is students themselves, and the goal is helping students examine and reflect on their learning, and Career/Transfer ePortfolios, where the audience is external, and the goal is to provide students with a tool for showcasing their achievements to employers or transfer institutions.

Best practices for instructors

When ePortfolios have broader institutional uptake, students will be encouraged in all of their courses to use their ePortfolio, and to reflect on and make connections between all of their courses and academic experiences. For this reason, ePortfolios are most effective when they are established as an institution- or program-wide initiative, but they can still be successful at the individual course level. To ensure this success, it’s important to observe a number of best practices.

Explain the benefits of ePortfolios to students

ePortfolios can: help learners develop new or deeper learning, which results in higher grades; help learners develop a better sense of themselves as students and as individuals; be shared with friends and family members; and showcase learners’ achievements when they are applying for a job.

Establish clear expectations

Explain to your students what you expect them to do in their ePortfolios. Learners may have difficulty understanding the need for them to reflect on their work and the need for them to make connections between different courses and experiences.

Provide numerous examples of successful ePortfolios created by students

Direct students to examples of effective ePortfolios created by Waterloo students, like Inkless, a project-focused ePortfolio created by Mechatronics Engineering student Kevin Liu or this ePortfolio by Knowledge Integration student Danielle Cruz that features “course skills spotlights” and more.  

Scaffold student learning

Help students start small: ask them to choose just one artifact (such as an essay) and have them reflect on the challenges they had to address as they wrote their essay. Or, have the students select two assignments from different courses, and have them reflect on how each of those assignments helps them to better understand the other assignment.

Walk the talk

Create an ePortfolio for yourself and share it with your students. You’ll better understand the challenges and benefits of maintaining an ePortfolio, and it will also persuade students that it is a useful endeavour.

Tie ePortfolios to assessment

Maintaining an ePortfolio demands a significant amount of time and energy from students, and they will resent it if their time and energy is not reflected in their final grade. If ePortfolios are merely an optional assignment that is encouraged but not required, most students will not undertake one.

Make it social

Integrate viewing and commenting on other students’ ePortfolios as part of the assessment. You could, for example, have a link to each student’s blog in the online space that your course has in your university’s LMS. Additionally, you could create a discussion forum in that online space where students make helpful and encouraging comments on one another’s ePortfolios. The ePortfolios, then, become an integral part of the online community of students. Adam Rothman, of Georgetown University, refers to this approach as the hub-and-spoke model.

Assessment of ePortfolios

Because ePortfolios require a significant investment of time and energy from students, it is important that they be assessed carefully, and that the assessment contributes in a substantial way to a student’s final grade in a course. However, there are challenges to assessing ePortfolios: how, for example, does one evaluate the quality of a student’s “reflections”? Furthermore, if students come to see their ePortfolios as “just another assignment,” then they will not engage with it in an authentic way and it may become just another “hoop” for them to jump through. Helen Barret (2005) suggests that “high stakes assessment and accountability are killing ePortfolios as a reflective tool to support deep learning.” A balance needs to be found, one that strives to help students appreciate the genuine benefits that they will experience by developing an ePortfolio that captures their work and personal reflections, but which also acknowledges that assessing ePortfolios is not a merely “subjective” matter. In other words, ePortfolios can be personal in nature, and yet still assessable by objective standards.

Perhaps the best way to overcome these assessment challenges, while still ensuring that students benefit from their ePortfolios, is to assess ePortfolios with a rubric (such as this rubric developed by the University of Wisconsin). Furthermore, consistent formative feedback, either left by the instructor or by other students, helps learners maintain motivation to work on their ePortfolio, while also providing feedback to assist in subsequent reflections or other additions to their work. In this case, there is no need to provide a grade for the work they have contributed – scaffolded feedback to guide them in their learning journey can be very beneficial.

References

Barrett, H. (2008). Balancing “eportfolio as test” with “eportfolio as story.” Presented at Making Connections conference.

Basken, P. (2008, April). Electronic portfolios may answer calls for more accountability. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bass, R. & Eynon, B. (2009). Capturing the visible evidence of invisible learning. The Academic Commons.

Entwistle, N. & Karagiannopoulou, E. (2014). Advances and innovations in university assessment and feedback. Kreber, C., Anderson, C., Entwistle, N. & McArthur, J. (eds.). Edinburgh University Press, pp. 75-98.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Assessing conditions to enhance educational effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tosh, D., Penny Light, T., Fleming, K., & Haywood, J. (2005). Engagement with electronic portfolios: Challenges from the student perspective. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 31(3).

Resources

CTE Resources

CTE Teaching Tips

Other resources

  • Catalyst for Learning: ePortfolio Resources and Research
  • LaGuardia Community College’s ePortfolio initiative
  • Cambridge, D., B. Cambridge and K. Yancey (2009). Electronic Portfolios 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Cambridge, D. (2010). ePortfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Chen, H.L. & Penny Light, T. (2010). Electronic Portfolios and Student Success: Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Learning. Washington: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
  • Eynon, B. (2009, January).  “It helped me see a new me:” ePortfolio, learning, and change at LaGuardia Community College.  Academic Commons.
  • Peet, M., Lonn, S., Gurin, P., Boyer, K. P., Matney, M., Marra, T., Simone Himbeault, T., & Daley, A. (2011). Fostering integrative knowledge through eportfolios. International Journal of ePortfolio, 1(1), 11-31.
  • Penny Light, T., Chen, H.L., & Ittelson, J.C. (2011). Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors. Jossey-Bass.

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