Exploring the “e” in ePortfolio

Originally Posted on LinkedIn, April 2015

There’s a lot of talk in the ePortfolio community right now – and for the past 10+ years – about what an “ePortfolio” is, isn’t, and could-or-should be:

I’m relatively new to the ePortfolio field, having  joined the community of practice professionally in 2011, while others have been thinking about this for over a decade. Even before I worked with ePortfolios as a career though, I was acutely interested in the idea of integrating learning across time and academic/co-curricular/personal/professional dimensions – I just didn’t know what to call that. At the time, I used to refer to this idea as the “glue” that holds experience and learning together.

In graduate school, I serendipitously learned about ePortfolios and everything came unstuck. I realized that ePortfolios – if designed and implemented in an intentional, integrative way – could be the glue I was imagining. I also started to understand the complexity of ePortfolios, which I gradually recognized can be both an asset and a limitation. If ePortfolios are both process and product, as well as a system for collecting-selecting-reflecting-projecting, and an assessment strategy, while also serving a professional development function – then what are they, really? I’m a big believer that if something promises to be everything, then in many ways, it sets itself up to be nothing. As an advocate of ePortfolio pedagogy, I’ve long struggled with this tension, and felt that the lack of a clear definition, standards, conventions, and parameters has both held ePortfolios back but also enabled the idea of ePortfolios to be dynamic and perpetually adaptable – which may very well be what’s kept ePortfolios relevant in the constantly and rapidly changing fields of education and technology.

The reason I still believe ePortfolios have so much potential is all in the “e” – and I don’t think it stands for “electronic.” A decade ago, that an ePortfolio was electronic was likely a big part of what made it innovative. In today’s world where there’s always “an app for that” and with “the cloud” hovering ever-present all around us, that’s no longer the case. The magic of the “e” in ePortfolio is not that it signifies a digital format, but that it captures the pedagogy of experience, evidence, and engagement. That’s what ePortfolios are really about.

I’d like to offer another way of framing and defining the “e” in ePortfolios, which is this:

  • Experience: Building an ePortfolio is a way for learners to capture, integrate, and reflect on experiences across time and academic/co-curricular/personal/professional dimensions. At the same time, the iterative process of creating an ePortfolio is also an experience in and of itself – one that can build digital literacy, multimodal communication skills, and self-efficacy. In this model where experience is both a component and an outcome of the pedagogy, ePortfolios may be among the most powerful examples of high-impact practices and experiential learning. An ePortfolio doesn’t just package or showcase experience, an ePortfolio is an experience.
  • Evidence: A core element of ePortfolios is that they contain evidence of learning and experience – often referred to as artifacts – the quality of which can be enhanced exponentially with clear instructions, expectations, and examples. Instead of asking learners to create “assessment portfolios,” we should think of all ePortfolios as inherently assessable. In this framing, assessment becomes a function of an ePortfolio vs. the purpose of an ePortfolio. Focusing on ePortfolios as one methodology within a broader range of evidence-based learning shifts the conversation from the tool, the product, or the platform to the alignment of objectives, activities, and assessments.
  • Engagement: In much the same way that experience is both a component and a function of an ePortfolio, so is engagement. Through ePortfolio pedagogy, we invite learners to deeply engage in an iterative process of exploring their learning, experience, knowledge, values, skills, and passions – while curating their own academic, co-curricular, personal, and professional engagements. On another level, ePortfolios also offer an opportunity for public engagement, giving learners the chance to engage an actual audience of faculty, peers, employers, communities of practice, or the whole wide world in their learning. This aspect of ePortfolio pedagogy brings learning to life and provides a necessary link between academic learning and lived experience.

At this point in the conversation about what ePortfolios are or aren’t, I think we need to redefine the “e” and shift our focus to pedagogy to guide our practice. I believe strategically situating ePortfolios in a broader conversation about evidence-based learning and educational innovation will help define the pedagogy that makes ePortfolios so powerful and create opportunities for synergy with other emerging learning strategies, including MOOCs, digital badging, and experiential learning.

What do you think? What does the “e” in ePortfolio mean to you? Are ePortfolios a distinct teaching and learning strategy or part of a larger pedagogy? Should we even be talking about ePortfolios anymore at all?