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An Insight into ePortfolios

We share with you this month a very useful and interesting article from the Centre for Teaching Excellence, at the University of Waterloo, which explains clearly and in few words what an ePortfolio means. For all details: https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/educational-technologies/all/eportfolios

Along with this essential characterisation of an ePortfolio as an educational tool, the EPICA Project focuses further on the needs of these students after graduation.

The EPICA ePortfolio, developed by MyDocumenta, includes new features that will be crucial to increase employability: a way to improve the quality, visibility and availability of skills for both students and employers.

EPICA has been launched as a partnership between Europe and Africa to promote the use of ePortfolios as an employability tool adapted to the market requirements in tomorrow's rapidly changing global economy.

ePortfolios Explained: Theory and Practice

While ePortfolios might be described as digital collections of artefacts, a good academic ePortfolio also represents a process – specifically, the process of generating new or deeper learning by reflecting on one’s existing learning.

So what is an ePortfolio?

An academic ePortfolio is a digital collection created by a student of their course-related work, like essays, posters, photographs, videos, and artwork; academic ePortfolios can also capture other aspects of a student’s life, such as volunteer experiences, employment history, extracurricular activities, and more. In other words, ePortfolios document and make visible student learning. But a good ePortfolio should be more than just a collection of products.

A good ePortfolio is both about being a product (a digital collection of artefacts) and a process (of reflecting on those artefacts and what they represent). Like a Learning Management System (LMS), ePortfolios exist online and support student learning. But with an ePortfolio, the student is in charge: the student decides who can view the ePortfolio, what artefacts get added, how it is designed, and so on. ePortfolios remain the student’s property after finishing university.

 

The learning theory behind ePortfolios

According to Basken (2008), ePortfolios “are a way to generate learning as well as document learning". Both generating learning and documenting or recording learning are important, but the process of generating learning sometimes gets overlooked. ePortfolios generate learning because they provide an opportunity and virtual space for students to critically assess their academic work, to reflect on that work, and make connections among different courses, assignments, and other activities, such as work experience, extracurricular pursuits, volunteering opportunities, and more. ePortfolios are effective learning tools because they support students’ own knowledge construction, make otherwise invisible aspects of the learning process visible, and place agency in the hands of students, which fosters learners’ motivation.

Constructing knowledge

ePortfolios fall within a learning theory known as social constructivism, which proposes, in part, that learning happens most effectively when students construct systems of knowledge for themselves, rather than simply having information presented. Social constructivism also proposes that another determinant of effective learning is that it happens in a social context – that is, we construct our knowledge through dialogue and interactions with others. With ePortfolios, the process of reflection originates as a solo activity, but becomes social through a feedback loop, as the student’s instructor, peers, mentors, and even family members respond to and provide commentary on those reflections. Making and then sharing an ePortfolio with others is somewhat like telling a story: the story of one’s learning journey.

Making learning visible

Bass and Eynon (2009) describe the process of critical reflection involved in the creation of effective ePortfolios as one that makes “invisible learning” visible. By invisible learning, they mean two things.

First, Bass and Eynon refer to the intermediate steps that occur whenever a student, or any person, is attempting to learn something or do something. It’s easy to focus exclusively on the final product (such as an essay), and to overlook the stages of learning and doing that preceded that product. By reflecting on these invisible stages, students can learn more: they can learn more deeply, they can learn more about how they learn, and they can learn how to do better the next time.

The other aspect of invisible learning is learning that goes “beyond the cognitive to include the affective, the personal, and issues of identity” (Bass & Eynon, 2009). In other words, the process of learning something doesn’t involve just the rational mind; rather, feelings, personality, and sense of self are all involved – sometimes facilitating that learning process, and sometimes hindering it. By reflecting on those affective, personal, and self-identity factors, students can develop meta-cognitive skills that can enhance their learning.

Fostering student agency

Finally, because ePortfolios are a student-centered activity – one in which the student is free to choose what artifacts are included, and is free to reflect on the process of their learning – they foster engagement and motivation (Tosh, Penny Light, Fleming, & Haywood, 2005). Research on student engagement with learning suggests that when students perceive that they have choices in how to learn they are more engaged and motivated to move beyond simple information acquisition to try to gain an understanding of the subject (Entwistle & Karagiannopoulou 2014; Kuh et al., 2005). ePortfolios offer this opportunity for learner control and can support or promote deep learning as students are able to make connections between the learning that occurs in different contexts. Indeed, it is this recognition that learning occurs beyond the classroom that makes ePortfolios attractive to many educators.

Best practices for instructors

When ePortfolios have broader institutional uptake, students will be encouraged in all of their courses to use their ePortfolio, and to reflect on and make connections between all of their courses and academic experiences. For this reason, ePortfolios are most effective when they are established as an institution- or program-wide initiative, but they can still be successful at the individual course level. To ensure this success, it’s important to observe a number of best practices.

Explain the benefits of ePortfolios to students

ePortfolios can: help learners develop new or deeper learning, which results in higher grades; help learners develop a better sense of themselves as students and as individuals; be shared with friends and family members; even more significant, it can showcase learners’ achievements when they are applying for a job.

Establish clear expectations

Explain to your students what you expect them to do in their ePortfolios. Learners may have difficulty understanding the need for them to reflect on their work and the need for them to make connections between different courses and experiences.

Scaffold student learning

Help students start small: ask them to choose just one artefact (such as an essay) and have them reflect on the challenges they had to address as they wrote their essay. Or, have the students select two assignments from different courses, and have them reflect on how each of those assignments helped them to better understand the other assignment.

Walk the talk

Create an ePortfolio for yourself and share it with your students. You’ll better understand the challenges and benefits of maintaining an ePortfolio, and it will also persuade students that it is a useful endeavour.

Tie ePortfolios to assessment

Maintaining an ePortfolio demands a significant amount of time and energy from students, and they will resent it if their time and energy are not reflected in their final grade. If ePortfolios are merely an optional assignment that is encouraged but not required, most students will not undertake one.

Make it social

Integrate viewing and commenting on other students’ ePortfolios as part of the assessment. You could, for example, have a link to each student’s blog in the online space that your course has in your university’s LMS. Additionally, you could create a discussion forum in that online space where students make helpful and encouraging comments on one another’s ePortfolios. The ePortfolios, then, become an integral part of the online community of students.

References

Barrett, H. (2008). Balancing “eportfolio as test” with “eportfolio as story.” Presented at Making Connections conference.

Basken, P. (2008, April). Electronic portfolios may answer calls for more accountabilityThe Chronicle of Higher Education.

Bass, R. & Eynon, B. (2009). Capturing the visible evidence of invisible learningThe Academic Commons.

Entwistle, N. & Karagiannopoulou, E. (2014). Advances and innovations in university assessment and feedback. Kreber, C., Anderson, C., Entwistle, N. & McArthur, J. (eds.). Edinburgh University Press, pp. 75-98.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Assessing conditions to enhance educational effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tosh, D., Penny Light, T., Fleming, K., & Haywood, J. (2005). Engagement with electronic portfolios: Challenges from the student perspective. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 31(3).