Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

ePortfolios in universities – forget it?

I continue to have a high level of skepticism around the concept of universities investing in ePortfolios. I feel that it is another example of how people within universities tend to over-emphasize their importance in the scheme of things, extend the university role into areas it where it should never have been and subsequently waste resources and more importantly the time and energy of academic staff that would be better spent focusing on other aspects of improving learning and teaching. In particular, I see ePortfolios being another approach that is being over-run by the technologists alliance.

This latest restating of my prejudice arises from a find from Stephen Downes OLDaily newsletter which eventually traces back to this post from a Spanish higher school teacher which in turn draws on this post from Derek Wenmoth.

Perhaps this is some limitation of mine. I just don’t see the point of ePortfolios. What is all the fuss about?

The diagram

The core of the post is the following image that, at least for me, does a good job of giving a road map of what learner’s do within their learning: do stuff, manage the outcomes, present it to various audiences, share it with others.

ePortfolio roadmap by Perfil de Sonia Guilana

My immediate though was where in any of this is there a need for a formal institution of learning (e.g. university or school) to provide the learner with the tools to perform any of this? Why does the advent of elearning technologies change any of the relationships?

From the discussion it appears that the institution’s role can be seen in providing a VLE – shown as one place the learner might “do stuff” and also talked about one place they may “manage stuff” – and one part of “presenting stuff”. The institution’s role in “presenting stuff” is in assessment and accreditation.

Already the VLE provided by institution’s is falling behind the usability and functionality provided by external tools. Sorry, but having seen both Moodle and Blackboard up close, I’d much prefer to be using external tools. I even prefer, for functionality and ease of use reason, using Google Mail to the email system provided by institution. Given they are already falling behind, why should an institution believe it can provide a better suite of systems for the learner to “present stuff” with.

Institution’s providing portfolio systems becomes a bit more silly when you add in the observations that informal learning far outweighs formal learning and that increasingly learners will engage in formal learning from many different providers. One solution proposed to address these issues is for education systems to standardise portfolio systems so either they are all using the same one or have systems that talk to each other. Given the long history of failure of such attempts at standarisation, I’m surprised anyone still doesn’t laugh uproariously when someone suggests such a project.

What is an alternative?

Only very briefly, have to stop procrastinating and get back to the thesis, the following are some initial suggestions:

  • Ensure that institutional systems integrate/interface simply and effectively with all the other tools that make up the above diagram.
    e.g. it should be easy for learners to export the “stuff” they produce in a VLE into their own tools. As part of this, VLEs should be generating RSS feeds for most if not all of its functions. Ensure institutional systems work within global authentication systems (e.g. OpenID), rather than institutional or system specific authentication systems. (e.g. Australian Access Federation)
  • Focus institutional technology on only those tasks that the institution must perform and aim on doing it well.
    e.g. Rather than providing an ePortfolio system that helps learners present their work (something they can do themselves). Focus on implementing significant improvements on the systems around assessment and accreditation. The assignment submission systems in most VLEs is woeful, and that’s only in simple implementation details that would significantly increase the efficiency of the assessment process. Most don’t offer any support for activities that might significantly improve learning and assessment from an educational perspective.

In part, this is one aspect of the BAM project. One area it is trying to experiment with. Rather than require students to use blogs provided within an institution LMS (which are mostly really limited), allow them to use real-world blog engines and focus the institutional information technology on the assessment aspect.


Wicked problems, requirements gathering and the LMS approach to e-learning


Build it and they will come – starting with the institution


  1. Hi, David,

    As much as I agree with many of your observations, I do not agree with your conclusions. You are obviosly not a teacher.

    I repeatedly find researchers who quote already outmoded concepts and claime them to be truth. As I have suggested elsewhere, the diagram that you display gives a very linear description of the construction of an e-Portfolio and shows nothing of the cyclical and reiterative processes of learning.

    Secondly, I find it somewhat demeaning for intelligent and loquacious writers to think that their very small corner of the universe should be the judge, jury and executioner for the rest of the world. An e-portfolio is no more the preferred tool of academia than a plate of food for a beggar. In other words, the e-Portfolio is equally beneficial to all learners as much as food – and all people, like it or not, are learners.

    As any teacher knows, the showbox of artefacts that one can use to illustrate one’s progress, the e-safe collaborative tools that HE students seem to think are their inventions, the ability to display to selected audiences etc are powerful tools at any point of one’s education.

    As I say in a recent post, there is, of course, a dilema as to which comes first, the tools or a web2.0 attitude to teaching and learning.

    Lastly, for now, the potential beneficiaries of an e-Portfolio culture are too numerous to define in detail. If you can accept that the e-Portfolio is for Lifelong, Lifewide Learning an Leisure that just about embraces everyone, whatever their abilities or interests. Again, have a look at my latest list in

    Perhaps the solution is to sack all lecturers and professors who cannot use web2.0 tools and for their students to go to a university that can encourage or permit the use of e-Portfolios for the more creative and communicative aspects of teaching and learning.

    Again, as I have often said, ‘Let the VLE do what it does best and leave the e-Portfolio to do what it can best do.’

    Kind Regards,
    Ray T

    • G’day Ray,

      I’m increasingly bemused and amused by the tone of your responses. Especially the ad hominem nature of your arguments.

      Am I currently a teacher? No. It’s currently my task to help others in that role. However, teaching is one of the things I enjoy immensely, have over 15 years experience in, and have had a number of external confirmations of my ability in doing so. My selection for my current role was in large part based on the quality of my own teaching.

      I am not questioning the student centered focus of many of the ideas or eportfolios or the tasks outlined in the diagram above. I am, however, questioning the notion that the best way to enage or encourage the use of that focus/those tasks is an institutional focus on the provision of an e-portfolio.

      Based on the difficulties associated with mandating a single change across the board and the limitations of most institutional approaches there are better ways – IMHO. In the above post I have no problem with the assumption that all learners should have a collection of tools that enable them to implement the above tasks or other aspects of eportfolios.

      I am simply questioning whether or not it is appropriate or effective for an institution to mandate and supply a tool to perform those tasks. I believe it is more appropriate for the institution to focus on other aspects of improving teaching and learning.

      Increasingly, as I’ve posted elsewhere, the eportfolio movement within higher education strikes me as replete with examples of Tolstoy’s syndrome, the pedagogy of the impressed, and Technology I, technology gravity and task corruption

      Again, a key distinction here is between the theoretical paradise of eportfolios in institutions promoted by the technologists’ alliance and the reality of implementation that faces these types of approaches when it meets reality within an institution.

      Ray, I haven’t read your posts yet – still a bit early in the morning, I’m back to bed – however, I will take a look tommorow. I do think it unlikely that we’ll reach agreement on this topic.


  2. If you consider the Uni’s content as the Moodle icon in the diagram, it would seem to indicate that the role of the institution is to “generate RSS feeds for most if not all of its functions”, so I don’t know what the fuss is about?

    ePortfolios could quite happily exist simply hanging off an RSS reader as your PLE and have nothing to do with the institution, however I would have thought that institutions would be looking for leveraging ePortfolio output for demonstration of competency (prior learning, assignments, etc) as they can pull from the student’s entire life experiences.

    My lament is that all of those little content makers on the left are also attempting to be PLE / ePortfolio / social networking in one way or another. Leaving that mess to figure out a way to give the institution what it wants for formal assessment just isn’t going to work. Institutions still need to engage in the space to help shape what they want out of it.

    This is where I see BAM. It’s treating a blog like an ePortfolio for a specific course, but developed in house by an institution. Since it pulls in any RSS, BAM could quite easily have been fed from a student’s ePortfolio.

    • G’day Tony,

      I see BAM a little differently. Which probably says more about my prior experience than anything else.

      BAM is simply a slightly more advanced version of online assignment submission and management. I don’t think there’s any value in labeling it a ePortfolio. It’s primary institutional goal is to make it easy for the student to submit assessment and for the academic staff to mark and make comment on it.

      From an educational perspective, it can be used to encourage reflection amongst students and also enable academics to get some “lead indicators” about student progress – but achieving this isn’t dependent on BAM. It’s on how BAM is used in the design of the assessment and how the students and staff use it.

      This is perhaps a key distinction I have with some of the technological determinists in the ePortfolio movement. They seem to think that a ePortfolio has inherent properties that will create effective/appropriate learning and teaching. To me it’s just a technological tool and probably an example of the technologists’ alliance over-reaching and creating something that doesn’t really need to be created. Complicating things unnecessarily.


  3. “I don’t think there’s any value in labeling it a ePortfolio.”

    I was more thinking that it makes blogs like an ePortfolio rather than it being the ePortfolio. BAM is just the interface that enables the institution to deal with massive amounts of independent submissions. You would have to have something like BAM even if you had proper ePortfolios.

    What I’m excited about BAM is this little snippet:
    ” (Addition: would be nice for the marks/comments to be able to be posted back to the students blog as comments – perhaps a step too far at the moment).”

    Adding authorative feedback directly linked to the item in question, that can then be mashable with other authorative statements builds validity into an ePortfolio through attribution.

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