Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Friday, March 10, 2006

Electronic Portfolios: What Are They?

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Electronic portfolios or e-portfolios are gaining increasing media attention as potentially highly valuable learning, evaluation and assessment tools for educators, learners and academic organizations.

An e-portfolio is a web-published collection of documents, information, link resources, audio and video clips that showcases the demonstrated abilities, know-how and skills of a specific person to her own selected stakeholders.

Photo credit: Dana Nicolescu

Some academic researchers have ventured as far as stating that e-portfolios "may have the most significant effect on education since the introduction of formal schooling" (Love, McKean, and Gathercoal, 2004).

But e-Portfolios are nothing else than the modern-day digital version of our old-time classroom notebooks, separate physical information containers with finite capacity for each field of study (mathematics separate from literature or science).

Digital e-portfolios (also known and referred to as "webfolios") wipe out all of the above limitations and traits by offering an integrated personal publishing environment in which all topics and interests can be interrelated, there is no limitation to the amount of information and resources that can be added, and which can be selectively shared with faculty, peers, family and friends for many different purposes.

Like an up-to-date web-based content management system, "users can upload files of any type, organize them in folders, and then reference them in presentations or compositions they design to share with a particular audience or multiple audiences. For individual students and instructors, the portfolio system provides a convenient and accessible space and the tools to represent individual learning and competencies."
(source: OSPI)

Photo credit: Leah-Anne Thompson

The idea is simple but powerful: give students a personal space online to pose questions, publish work in progress and link to and comment on relevant resources. It also gives them a way to find and link up with other learners with similar interests to create an ad-hoc learning community.

"Imagine an e-portfolio based on personal publishing and social networking that can automatically link you to others with similar interests ..."
(Steve O'Hear - The Guardian)

"Portfolios are collections of work designed for a specific objective--that is, to provide a record of accomplishments"
(National Learning Infrastructure Initiative)

"An eportfolio is a web-based information management system that uses electronic media and services. The learner builds and maintains a digital repository of artifacts, which they can use to demonstrate competence and reflect on their learning."
(ePortfolio Portal)

"If your view of portfolios is just something akin to a content management system, don't bother. But if it's the student's personal and continuing presence in an online community of discourse, then you are on to something."
(Stephen Downes)

"Portfolios are collections of realia that have been assembled by a person and are retained and curated by them because the objects contained in the collection evidence or attest to claims that a person might make to themselves or to others about their life."
(The E-Learning Framework)

"Having access to their records, digital repository, feedback and reflection students can achieve a greater understanding of their individual growth, career planning and CV building. Accreditation for prior and/or extra-curricular experiences and control over access makes the eportfolio a powerful tool."
(ePortfolio Australia)

But what is an e-portfolio made of?

Photo credit: Andriy Doriy

Though there are no set rules and experimentation is ongoing at different academic institutions, an e-portfolio generally integrates the following components:

  • an online personal workspace where an individual can easily write and publish text-based information, links, digital mages and audio or video clips (e.g.: blogs).
  • facilities allowing others to optionally editc, comment, contribute or add to the existing content. (e.g.: wikis)
  • social networking facilities allowing the reaching out and discovery of other learners or educators with similar interests, sharing the use of similar knowledge resources or writing about related topics.
  • tools to publish and distribute the content in multiple ways (newsletter, email, RSS feed, alerts, etc.)
  • features to categorize, tag and classify the content created, collected and published.
  • search and filtering tools allowing easy extraction of relevant and related information on any specific topic captured by the learner.
  • management and rights access facilities to allow personalized access to specific content sections to different stakeholders.

And what kind of information can be written in it?

As far as what kind of information can be placed inside an e-portfolio, there are for now no rigid limitations. A broad and flexible range of resource types seem to best complement the highly varied needs of learners motivated to use this tool.

According to most of the online literature on e-portfolios I have found online, e-portfolios appear to be excellent hosts for:

  • Personal information

  • Education history
  • Personal stories

  • Personal commentary and reflections
  • Research information - such as documentation and references supporting specific research

  • Annotated bibliographies

  • Books lists

  • Coursework - assignment, projects

  • Instructor comments

  • Academic and professional achievements
  • Persistent web searches

  • Newsradars (custom filtered highly thematic news feeds)

  • OPML / reading lists (lists of RSS resources)
  • Timelines

  • Calendars

  • Timeplans
  • PowerPoint presentations

  • Digital photographs (annotated)

  • Video clips

  • Audio recordings - Podcasts
  • Goals, plans

  • Personal goals and objectives

  • Personal values and interests

  • Recommendation letters and references

"All of the artifacts included should have a purpose - they should demonstrate a skill, an attribute, and learning acquired from experience."
(source: George Siemens - elearnspace)

The goal of an e-portfolio is in fact the one of capturing the performance, the learning processes, the choices, the different understanding modes, the reasons and motivations, the progress made and the cultural and learning context in which the learning experience takes place.

E-portfolios would appear in fact to be extremely valuable evaluation tools. Not only for educators but for learners as well.

Photo credit: Gokhan Okur

Each time a learner acquires new knowledge, she must in some way put in relation what she already knew and what she just discovered. The goal is the achievement of a new awareness that allows the learner to see from a higher viewpoint her personal know-how, and the imbalances and gaps yet to be fulfilled by further study.

But e-portfolios are really nothing new at all. The idea for such an approach was born in the mid-80's when more and more education researchers started pointing out that "portfolios" could have been highly useful self-didactical devices. Already at that time researchers envisioned personal learning portfolios as a systematic gathering and archiving of all the study work output generated by a student during her participation in a course or throughout his ongoing learning lifecycle.

Such an approach, allows the creation of a self-nurturing learning device allowing effective examination, interpretation and ongoing evaluation of a student's effectively conquered competencies as well as capacity for a more organic assessment of her skills and potential.

Nowdays, when a student is asked to develop her own learning e-Portfolio, what she is really asked to do is to keep an online diary of her personal learning experiences. The learner must learn to organize her learning path in a way that can be esily reported, commented, annotated and tracked. That by itself, forces the learner to become much more conscious of her effective know-how, learning gaps and yet-to-be-filled knowledge areas.

The learner needs to take on greater responsibility for her learning achievements as she is naturally led to document the relevance of newly learned information with her pre-existing and established know-how.

This is why individual learning becomes a "personal construct" in continuous evolution and focusing on the individual personal life-learning experiences and discoveries.

Photo credit: Kay Garston

An eportfolio can also be viewed as a web-based information management system that uses electronic media and services. The learner builds and maintains a digital repository of artifacts, which they can use to demonstrate competence and reflect on their learning.

Potentially, e-portfolios are a better pathway to education systems that place the learner at their center. E-portfolios may also become personal knowledge instruments capable of affecting and influencing the social, cultural and economic aspects of both the individual maintaining it as well as the larger society in which she lives.

To learn more about e-Portfolios please see:


"Elgg is all about a learner-centred, learner-controlled space in which you choose the connections, the resources and the communities you want to participate in," says David Tosh, one of its creators.

Drawing on this experience, Tosh and Werdmuller published a paper describing a new kind of e-portfolio based on personal publishing and social networking. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The duo then set about creating Elgg (named after a small village in Switzerland) and released it under an open source licence, meaning it is free to use and the code can be edited by anyone. Since then, thanks to a small team of volunteer programmers and an active user community, Elgg has developed a rich set of features.

The learner-centric approach and social networking aspect of Elgg make it very different from more traditional virtual learning environments (VLEs), which are usually structured around courses, timetables and assessment. "Whereas Elgg is learner-centred, the VLE systems tend to be centred around the requirements of an institution".

What makes Elgg different is that it allows users to decide exactly who can view their content.
"Different levels of access can be set for individual blog entries, so some posts can be fully public and others only readable by a particular group or individual, such a private post to a dissertation student or their supervisor

(source: The Guardian, March 7th 2006)

Open Source Portfolio Initiative
The Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI) is a community of individuals and organizations collaborating on the development of the leading non-proprietary, open source electronic portfolio software available.

Some e-portfolio examples:

UBC Teaching EPortfolio/Examples

Gateway's Electronic Portfolio Manual

ePortfolios Samples

Readers' Comments    
2009-03-22 09:27:12

Ray Tolley

A very useful collection of statements about e-Portfolios but why has this hit the wires three years on?

In the last three years things have moved on concerning e-Portfolios. They are now required for both Primary and Secondary pupils as well as VET students, Adult learners and the unemployed. They can even be used for documenting the milestones of the pre-school child.

However, as the e-Portfolio enters the arena of Lifewide, Lifelong Learning and Leisure more practical issues now raise their heads. No longer is the e-Portfolio capable of being hosted within an institution for perpetuity. And neither is cloud computing the solution for most of our younger students, the elderly or those who cannot be bothered to maintain a whole host of different accounts for different types of media.

Effective transition is an issue that I repeatedly address in my blog and might be of some interest to readers. Also see my website and demonstration e-Portfolio at:

2006-03-12 02:04:59

Dean Shankle

This was a very good overview of e-portfolios, which as you point out, is a very hot topic in education. For example, the State of New Hampshire (USA) is requiring all public schools to make e-portfolios available to students.

Both of the open source platforms that we use for training (moodle and lams) have people working on building modules for e-portfolios.

Thanks for the useful overview.

posted by Robin Good on Friday, March 10 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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