Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

My on-going concerns with ePortfolios

I was asked to respond to a set of questions around ePortfolios. The questions arose from some earlier posts: Why am I an ePortfolio skeptic and Portfolios often implemented badly. What follows are my responses.

These comments are made in the general context of Australian higher education and with the assumption that “ePortfolio” generally means the implementation of an institutional system, often using something like Mahara.

A few years ago, you were critical of eportfolios as something that took time and effort away from more pressing goals. What are your thoughts on eportfolios today? If they’ve changed, explain what motivated those changes.

Generally my criticisms of ePortfolios within higher education haven’t changed. My criticisms were made in the context of the Australian higher education sector – which is where all my experience has been – however, I do believe there’s a strong possibility that they apply to higher education in other countries.

My problems weren’t so much with ePortfolios, but instead with how higher education institutions deal with learning and teaching, especially around innovations being driven by information technology. These are long term problems. Some of my qualms connect with the concerns expressed by William Geoghegan (1994) almost 20 years ago.

They also connect with the comments of National Research Council when they suggest that portfolio assessments “are often implemented poorly” (p. 142)

And that’s before the question of information technology enters the picture.

My main criticism is that ePortfolios – especially the particularly the implementation of the particular ePortfolio system selected by a university – becomes the proxy purpose. i.e. rather than goal being to improve the quality of learning and teaching, the goal becomes successful implementation of the ePortfolio system on the assumption that by doing so the quality of learning and teaching will be improved.

I don’t believe that happens in most cases.

A goal of eportfolios is to lead students to make connections between their work in several different courses and helping them to learn more about themselves as they prepare to enter the workforce. Is that a realistic expectation? If not, what benefits might you expect to see?

Given the nature of most

  • students;
    Pragmatically focused on getting the grade they desire.
  • academic staff; and
    Pragmatically focused on their particular course, while at the same time trying to engage in research is what they get promoted for.
  • academic programs.
    Created using top-down composition so that most courses are stand-alone silos with only limited connections at the start/end of courses (i.e. pre-requisites)

It’s very hard to encourage those connections between courses to be made.

Especially when introducing a new technology – the ePortfolio system – as the means to achieve this cultural shift.

Haseltine (2010) uses the CIA as an example of what happens in these types of situations

..when agencies spent money on new systems, they expected to get a return on their investment and therefore tried to force employees to use the new technology. Usually such mandates failed for one of two reasons. Either employees simply refused to do as ordered, or they followed orders but used the new technology exactly as if it were the older technology it replaced, and never changed their work habits or business processes.

This sums up nicely the experience with most universities with enterprise LMS and the roll-out of enterprise ePortfolio systems is facing the same problems.

Over time, there are always some exceptions.

But time is not something institutional ePortfolios have. They are being overtaken by the rise of growing abundance of information technology
services within the cloud.

From one perspective, ePortfolios are a personal tool. It’s for the student to use for their own learning, for developing their own professional portfolio. Why then are Universities mandating them?

Arguably it is because we’re in a transition phase from when Universities had to provide these services to a time when they will provide their own. I would suggest that Universities providing institutional ePortfolio systems are in danger of preparing themselves and their students for yesterday, rather than preparing for tomorrow.

Gardner Campbell argues for this type of shift in his “A Personal Cyberinfrastructure”.

More concrete problems with the institutional ePortfolio systems include student institutional mobility and the comparatively poor quality of the tools.

Last year I was a student at one University. This year I am an academic at another University. I now have two Mahara-based ePortfolios, one for each institution. Sure, I can export the information from one and import it into another, but why should I have to do extra work simply because I’ve moved from one institution to another? In addition, my student portfolio is being used as an exemplar at that institution, so I can’t really remove it now that I’ve moved on.

As it happens, I have had a blog for quite sometime. It’s my real ePortfolio. The blog is hosted on Apart from the folk working for WordPress, WordPress has a huge additional ecosystem of developers and designers around it. Much larger than any open source or commercial ePortfolio system is ever going to have. As a result, the quality of the WordPress services and tools is significantly better.

So, as a student I’m being

  1. forced to use a tool that is more difficult to use than a tool I already use;
  2. to duplicate something I can already do;
  3. in a way that is heavily dependent on the existing institution;
  4. because the institution says I should.

In what circumstances, if any, could eportfolios be used effectively? I’m not sure what is currently meant by eportfolios can be used effectively at an enterprise, or even program level.

I’m sure there are individual courses that are making effective use ePortfolios. Mostly because the tool matches the culture created by the academic staff within the course.

There may even be some programs that do this. I would imagine they would be disciplines where the nature of an ePortfolio matches the long-standing disciplinary culture.

But even then, you have problems with the growing comparative limitations of the tools and the question of why an ePortfolio tool should be provided by an institution.

However, without an appropriate culture……

Do you have any personal experience with eportfolios? If so, please share.

Last year, I completed a graduate entry pre-service teacher program. As part of that program we were required to create an ePortfolio for the local teacher registration body.

This year, I’m teaching an ICTs and Pedagogy course to third year Bachelor of Education students. The course requires students to use
their Mahara portfolio to submit assessment as part of a broader push to encourage familiarity with the tool.

I have almost 10 years of developing e-learning innovations for university education, and almost another 10 years encouraging and enabling other academics to adopt e-learning innovations.

What should colleges be aware of before assigning eportfolios?

Does it fit the culture and practice of the academics or other members discipline? Is maintaining an eportfolio something that is accepted within the discipline? Can the students see existing professionals engaged in maintaining an ePortfolio?

The literature around portfolio assessment and its likely limitations due to poor limitation.

The rise of cloud services, social media and the idea of a personal cyberinfrastructure and whether it makes more sense to engage out there, rather than provide an institutional system.

The apparent exponential growth of Information Technology which suggests if the technology isn’t ready now for this idea, it will be very soon.


Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? In S. Bapna, A. Emdad, & J. Zaveri (Eds.), (pp. 438-447). Baltimore, MD: IBM. Retrieved from

Haseltine, E. (2010). Long fuse, big bang. New York, New York: Hyperion books.


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  1. I agree. After using WordPress for a while now and seeing other sites and how they are set up, I find Mahara to be limited. I think Mahara looks really boring and doesn’t enable the user to show a lot of creativity (maybe there’s more to it that I haven’t seen) but right now I’m already thinking about how I can embed or link to other better tools.

  2. That’s an interesting post. I’ve always wondered myself what an e-Portfolio would actually consist of… I mean, isn’t it just a blog with other affordances for uploading assignments and what not?

    The idea of building a PLN, I believe, is good but the tools are so distributed across the net that it makes it a difficult practice to assess. I agree regarding the resistance from students who are already using effective tools to “copy” what they would already be doing in some custom yet less effective platform – I would be resistant.

    The sunk cost bias of educational programs to make good of their technological investments can sometimes get in the way of what is already a whole lot of hard work! I do think, however, that “the nature of most, students, academic staff and academic programs” (as you mention), is kind of sad and not really reflective of what education should be…


    • I agree Pierre that it is sad that the nature of many/most is not reflective of what education should be. But it is the reality, which is the pessimist (or realist depending on your perspective) in me. But the optimist in me suggests that most of the students and academics could be otherwise.

      It’s the nature of the system and the inconsistencies in their lived experience created by projects such as institutional e-portfolio systems that encourage that perspective. At least, that’s a proposition I’d like to test.

  3. Right on with shaking the institutional norm. You will be undertaking research re this?

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