Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Dis-Integrating E-Portfolios

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 27, 2009

This Magazine Column published as Dis-Integrating E-Portfolios in The Knowledge Tree 18 Jul 27, 2009. Australian Flexible Learning Framework [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]
We typically think of a portfolio as something someone like an artist or designer creates in order to show people what he or she can do. The portfolio is intended to be representative of the style of work they do while highlighting what they feel is their best work. Portfolios are especially useful in the creative disciplines, where test scores or even academic grades do not convey a real sense of the person's talent.

In recent years this concept has migrated online. As it has done so, it has acquired a more explicitly demonstrative function. As Sutherland suggests, ‘An eportfolio is a purposeful aggregation of digital items – ideas, evidence, reflections, feedback, data etc – which ‘present' a selected audience with information about the subject of that eportfolio.' (Sutherland, 2007)

E-portfolios follow in the footsteps of a web that itself has become more explicitly demonstrative. As people became more comfortable with online technologies, they began to use sites like MySpace to showcase their music, Flickr to post their photos and DeviantArt to display the rest. Such sites typically employ social networking features, such as the formation of groups and links to friends, suggesting that sharing, rather than storing, was the explicit intent of such sites.

In the academic world, however, e-portfolios were seen to serve a more explicitly educational function. The BECTA report is typical: ‘E-portfolios benefit learning most effectively when considered as part of a joined-up teaching and learning approach, rather than as a discrete entity.' (Hartnell-Young, 2007) The portfolio becomes an object of education itself, with activities based on planning, creation, exposition and communication being integrated into the curriculum.

Software to support e-portfolios has been integrated into common learning management systems (LMSs). These systems are connected to the LMS's assessment and grading functions. The e-portfolio provided by Angel, a popular LMS, is typical. ‘[It] provides both students and institutions a digital destination to collect evidence of educational growth and assessment. Students can build electronic portfolios of their educational achievement and personal growth. Institutions can manage evidence of program achievement.' (Angel, 2009)

But there is a tension between the idea of the e-portfolio as being used for institutional purposes, such as the management of assessment, and the e-portfolio being used for a student's purposes, such as the sharing of work they're proud of. If the portfolio becomes one more item students must check off before receiving their certificate, then the benefit of a portfolio may be lost. Even when the portfolio is used for assessment, it needs to support a student's self-assessment, contributing to his or her reflective growth, and not merely some test or assignment forgotten as soon as it is completed.

This means that the portfolio must play a wider role in a student's overall academic life. As Helen Barrett says, ‘It's very important, as we implement ePortfolios, that we look at this in the context of a lifelong process, a lifelong process of self-directed learning. That's one of the challenges I would pose to all of you, as you start implementing ePortfolio: is this something students can continue after they graduate? Not only, what types of skills and competencies are they bringing in? But also, how is this going to fit in the rest of their lives?' (Eynon, 2009)

Most writers are now looking at the e-portfolio in lifelong learning, and not simply for use over a short-term at an academic institution. As a tool for lifelong learning, e-portfolios have multiple applications. The JISC e-Portfolio for Lifelong Learning Reference Model, for example, identifies ‘four broad categories of e-Portfolio: Learning e-Portfolio, Assessment e-Portfolio, Presentation e-Portfolio and Transition e-Portfolio.' (Jones, Smallwood, & Kingston, 2006) The TenCompetence e-portfolio for lifelong learning takes an ‘integrative approach… learners' self-presentation, learning experience, evidences, assessment, connections with communities…' (Berlanga, Sloep, Brouns, Bitter, &
Koper, 2008)

As e-portfolios are becoming more and more integrated, however, they are beginning more and more to resemble other applications on the web. We can see this on Helen Barrett's website where she documents a series of sample portfolios she has created on various systems since 2004. (Barrett, 2009) Earlier versions, such as her 2004 Maricopa e-portfolio, look like traditional websites with contents and 'site maps'. By 2006, she has created a portfolio using Apple's iWeb and begun to more closely integrate multimedia, such as photographs, with her work. Her portfolio created with Zoho tools has less multimedia but a much greater range of content creation tools. And her 2008 portfolio made with Google Sites integrates her calendar and journal entries from distinct sources.

The integration of different types of content creates a challenge. A portfolio is today typically thought of not only as a presentation environment, but also as an authoring environment. Authoring for a single portfolio system, however, may take place on multiple platforms. For example, the same portfolio may need to be updated with content from both a desktop and a mobile device. (Matsuura, Niki, Katayama, & Yano, 2005) Not only that, but an e-portfolio is increasingly used to display different types of content, from text to photos, images, animations, applications, videos, calendars and audio.

As a result, what we are likely to see in the future of e-portfolios is not something that is part of, and only works in, a single application, but rather, a collection of applications working together. This is the approach typified by the Moodle e-portfolio API, currently under development. (Moodle, 2008) ‘The Portfolio API is a core set of interfaces that all Moodle code will/should use so that we can easily publish files to all kinds of external document repository systems…' The portfolio, ultimately, will be an indexing and organization of work created in one place and stored elsewhere, and not a collection of the work itself.


Angel. (2009). Angel E-Portfolio. Retrieved from Angel:

Barrett, H. (2009, April 25). Versions of My Online Presentation*** Portfolio. Retrieved from

Berlanga, A. J., Sloep, P. B., Brouns, F., Bitter, M., & Koper, R. (2008, April 11). Towards a TenCompetence ePortfolio. Retrieved from TenCompetence:

Eynon, B. (2009, January 7). "The Future of ePortfolio" Roundtable. Retrieved from Academic Commons:

Hartnell-Young, E. (2007, June). Impact study of e-portfolios on learning. Retrieved from BECTA:

Jones, P. R., Smallwood, A., & Kingston, S. (2006, August 1). e-Portfolio for Lifelong Learning Reference Model. Retrieved from JISC:

Matsuura, K., Niki, K., Katayama, M., & Yano, Y. (2005). Development of the Digital Portfolio Environment for both PC and PDA. Proceedings of the 2005 IEEE International Workshop on Wireless and Mobile Technologies in Education (WMTE'05).

Moodle. (2008, November 28). Development:Portfolio API. Retrieved from Moodle.
Sutherland, S. A. (2007, July 6). A model relating eportfolios to [portfolio] tools? Retrieved from CETIS-PORTFOLIO.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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