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Back(pack) to the Future: The Renaissance of ePortfolios

Contributed by Julian Prior, Educational Technology Advisor at Langara College

Picture of Tracy Penny Light speaking at the BC Open Badges Forum, KPU
Tracy Penny Light speaking at the BC Open Badges Forum, KPU

ePortfolios are one of those technologies whose popularity in post-secondary education seems to come in waves, much like the interest in virtual worlds or classroom response systems (‘clickers’). Fifteen years ago when I was a Sociology lecturer at a further education college in the UK my colleagues were constantly clamouring for an easy to use and student-centred system for capturing progression in learning. In the mid-2000s there was again a peak in interest as dedicated ePortfolio solutions such as the open-source Mahara project began to emerge. And now in 2017 we have academic associations, conferences and journals dedicated to what JISC define as “a product created by learners , a collection of digital artefacts articulating learning (both formal and informal), experiences and achievements” (JISC, 2012). But why the renaissance? Why now?
I would argue there are three main reasons for the current popularity of ePortfolios in post-secondary education:

  1. Declining influence of the LMS. Back in 2009 it was controversial to speak of the demise of the LMS/VLE. Now there is far greater awareness of the limitations of systems, which essentially put control of learning into the hands of instructors, learning technologists, and system administrators. The ePortfolio model turns the LMS on its head. It empowers students, encourages creativity and self-reflection and, importantly, gives them an online space that they control. To borrow an idea from the Open Badges movement: ePortfolios represent a digital backpack that students can take with them throughout their learning journey, into employment and beyond.
  2. More and easier solutions. From the late 1990s until the mid-2000s ePortfolio solutions were at best clunky and at worst inaccessible and only for the technologically adept. Now there are many alternatives ranging from dedicated ePortfolio platforms such as Pebble Pad, Pathbrite and MyeFolio to website builders like Wix, Weebly and even Google Sites. Both Capilano University and UBC use a multi-site WordPress installation for student ePortfolios which allows for both customization and ease of use in a familiar web publishing environment. Under the leadership of Meg Goodine and Lesley McCannell KPU are using Mahara in subject areas such as Nursing and Health, and Trades and Technology. Mahara has an active and responsive developer community who are committed to creating a flexible, accessible yet powerful ePortfolio platform for education.
  3. Employability and Digital Identity. In an increasingly competitive global market for jobs, employers are looking for reflective and critical students who demonstrate “soft skills” in addition to subject-specific knowledge and competencies. Students require a vehicle to communicate their talents to employers but also to show them they can create and manage a professional online digital identity. Tracy Penny Light from Thompson Rivers University has recently argued that even when students are initially resistant to creating an ePortfolio they eventually come to value the thought process involved in building it which often gives them an advantage in interview situations (BC Open Badges Forum 2017).

If ePortfolios in the age of the read/write web are helping to turn students from passive consumers of knowledge into active producers of their own learning, this is not to downplay the significant challenges ahead. Two in particular seem worthy of mention. Firstly we must guard against ePortfolios becoming nothing more than a checklist or dumping ground for skills and competencies. If that is all ePortfolios are then, in the words of a colleague, “my students already have access to an ePortfolio: it’s called LinkedIn.” Secondly, if the metaphor of a digital backpack that students take with them from K-12 through college, university and into employment is to work then ePortfolios need to be truly portable, user-owned and interoperable with other learning systems. Imagine the frustration of spending many hours creating a beautiful digital portfolio showcasing one’s skills and talents only to be told that a college or university uses a different, incompatible system?

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