Why I don’t like institutional e-portfolios

License CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by Clint Hamada

There was a reasonable amount of discussion at the #pleconf last week on the role of e-portfolios in personal learning environments and who should be responsible for providing e-portfolio tools for students. I think the ground swell view was that e-portfolios are important but that students should be able to choose how they create their own e-portfolio. This is a view I agree with and is a slight softening of my previously held view which was that universities had no business in providing e-portfolio software. My view now is that universities probably should provide e-portfolio software for their students to use but that the use of that software should absolutely not be mandated and it should be up to the student to choose how they manage their e-portfolio.

I think that e-portfolios are a lifelong asset that belongs to the student and to no one else. They have the final say in how it is created and who has access to it or to the artefacts within it. In fact their e-portfolio may consist of several tools reflecting their capabilities, achievements and interests and it will undoubtedly form not just a showcase for the student but a key part of their ongoing personal learning environment. It will travel with them from institution to institution. It may change completely over the years but it is the choice of the student and no one else.

I do think that students who are new to the idea of maintaining an e-portfolio when they start higher education may like to have a simple to use and configurable e-portfolio system that can be provided by the university as a starting point. I would like to nominate WordPress, Google Sites and many other common solutions as being eminently suitable for this purpose.

So why do universities insist on pushing the use of institutional e-portfolios? Well as usual it’s about control. It’s not about the student.  What I have seen happening is a desire for tight integration between the LMS and the e-portfolio normally for the sole reason of managing artefacts for use in assessment. This is purely of benefit to the university. There is no benefit to the student. In fact it degrades the perceived role of the e-portfolio by the student to being one of an assessment management tool and nothing else.

The institutional e-portfolio becomes entrenched when it is rolled out with inadequate staff development, as it nearly always is, or explanation about the real purpose of an LMS. Academic staff then see the e-portfolio as an alternative LMS. I have seriously sat in meetings while staff  declare their love for the institutional e-portfolio because it has a better WYSIWIG editor than the LMS. Other staff have talked about how they have developed all of their course materials in the e-portfolio and still others are using the e-portfolio as a quizzing tool.

What I am saying is that the original purpose of the e-portfolio continually gets subverted to the needs of the institution and the academic. Surely this is anathema in an age of supposed student centredness.

I was taken to task on Twitter for saying that I was tired of seeing e-portfolios used incorrectly. The point was that there was no ‘correct’ way and that all ways of using e-portfolios were equally valid as part of experimentation and innovation. Needless to say I completely disagree with that proposition. I think the role and purpose of an e-portfolio is very clear and we mustn’t allow the classic obfuscation of academic educational technologists and institutional mangers to undermine that.

As this is a blog I have no requirement for impartiality so I’ll provide links to two other posts critical of e-portfolios; here is Donald Clark’s take ‘E-portfolios – 7 reasons why I don’t want my life in a shoebox’ and here is David Jones ‘My on-going concerns with ePortfolios

13 Comments On “Why I don’t like institutional e-portfolios”

  1. There is a middle path. At our institution any student can have an eportfolio and do what they like with it. In a few UoS there is mandated use, for recording experience in a few specialist ways, eg as lab books and for recording clinical experience. But use is certainly not limited to these uses, which would affect only about 1000 of our 45,000 students. The idea that no one can see into it is very hard for everyone to grasp, including students!


  2. I am with you Mark. I have seen few uses of ePortfolios that empower the students and that involve the providers fully understanding the implications of the way they have set up the tools.

    For me a key that is often missing is data portability plus teaching the skills for students to be able to get their stuff out of the institutional ePortfolio when they leave the institution. Without this key element, most ePortfolio implementations are like telling the Art or Architecture students that they may build up an impressive A3 set of sketches, but if potential employers want to see them, then they must visit the locked display cabinets in the campus Design Building.

    I also get ratty when the same word “ePortfolio” is used for “a verifiable checklist that students must complete for a course to be accredited by an external body” (eg. for vet or physio students) and then also used for “a verification and showcase of work completed that shows what a student can offer an employer” and then also used for “a method that students can demonstrate that they have met the graduate attributes of an institution”. There are all very separate beasts – calling for different methods of content management, access and institutional control. Yet, the same product and configuration is pushed and prodded into a bad fit for all three purposes at the same institution.

    You touched a nerve with me. Here endeth the rant.


    • Sorry I touched a nerve. It seems to be a touchy subject. Thanks for your reply. I liked your analogy of arts and architecture students. Many of these systems promote the idea data portability but I am sceptical about their ability to allow students to do this easily. It’s an aspect of their use that continually gets overlooked as uncritical education technologists have ruched to embrace institutionale-portfolios over the last few years.


  3. I think we should talk about ‘folio’; eportfolios by their nature are institutional applications and tools.


  4. Laura Hollinshead

    I totally agree with you Mark and I have tried to promote the idea of providing choice at my institution. The problem is that ITS departments aren’t willing to give up the control and feel that by providing something that students can customise it makes it personal.


    • Laura, that seems like an archaic attitude and I wonder if it really comes from ITS (it may well do). In my experience working in ITS and managing edtech installations at an institution with over 70,000 students for over three years I found that it was the educational technologists in the central group outside of ITS that restricted the way edtech was used more than ITS.

      As Mary-Helen says, it is not the place of ITS to set the restrictions around the use a particular edtech unless there technical limitations in which case they should advise the business owners of the application.


  5. Holly, implicit in your. Olmert is a big problem for institutions. These are learning and teaching issues and need a specialist teaching-experienced unit to imterface between ITS providers and academic staff. We have such a unit (15 people) in a central unit in the office of the DVC(E). We are the clients of the ITS, not the staff. We try and maintain a balance between the innovative staff and the bulk of people who just want reliable teaching systems. We’re expanding into the administration and provision of all teaching space at the present, so that virtual learning space becomes just another kind of interaction space, along with formal and informal learning spaces.

    Leaving an ITS unit to service L&T needs is like getting an oil company to service your car. They might know something,must the chances are the. Notices you’re given wont reflect the real range of options.


  6. Really interesting reading. I’ve been researching e-portfolios, but to build one for myself. I agree that allowing the student to personalise is the best. I’ve heard of people also using Pinterest to curate their e-portfolios, although I really like your suggestion of a Google website. Perhaps a little more professional. Good stuff all around! Cheers!


  7. Pingback: Why I don’t like institutional e-portfolios | Mark Smithers | Flexibility Enables Learning

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