ePortfolio advocates face a particular tension when convincing others to work with such process-driven, reflection-heavy, multimodal, and typically public-facing artifacts. ePortfolio scholars are often pressured to explicitly tie the value of ePortfolios to career preparation; at worst, people describe ePortfolios as though they are essentially glorified resumes. While evidence suggests that employers do search for and value carefully curated and humanizing material about a potential employee (Hart Research Associates, 2013; Ward & Moser, 2008), for me, it’s not the most compelling aspect of ePortfolio work. Rather, I value the potential to foster deep learning in a way that allows students to retain, synthesize, transfer, and creatively demonstrate their knowledge and skills from several learning experiences in a central location. When students repeatedly perform these actions, they can become habits that will help the students far beyond their time in coursework.
To provide some context for my view on ePortfolios: Old Dominion University fosters an ePortfolio culture primarily through a faculty development approach, emphasizing pedagogy over technology and promoting strategies that adapt to the unique needs of each discipline. In a series of scaffolded workshops, we advocate for free and widely accessible tools such as Wix, WordPress, and Google Drive. This formula has proven successful for us, as it allows faculty to decide which digital tools best serve their purpose and the types of portfolios they want their students to produce. From this on-going community of practice, we’ve seen a steady expansion in ePortfolio use, resulting in the need for a larger unit that provides support to faculty, students, and admin. In addition to faculty development, the ePortfolio team (@ODUePortfolio) now offers individual tutoring, tutorials, asynchronous video support and feedback, workshops, and class visits. The ePortfolio team frequently collaborates with campus partners, particularly Career Development Services (CDS), in an effort to help students prepare for the transition following graduation.
However, to focus only on the job-snagging capabilities misses the real potential of ePortfolios. Effective ePortfolio practice can train a student to do more than land the first job. When done well, an ePortfolio can develop life long habits such as: critical thinking, sophisticated identity construction, reflective practices, and more (Boesch, Reynolds, & Patton, 2015; Hubert, Pickavance, & Hyberger, 2015; Ramírez, 2011; Cambridge, 2010). At ODU, we view ePortfolios as vehicles for integrative learning, drawing on the framework provided by Association of American Colleges & Universities (2014). Ideally, ePortfolio work is scaffolded over time, producing a living document that a student can continually revise, articulating for themselves (and a secondary audience) how experiences have shaped them as learners as well as employable individuals.
Despite ePortfolio scholarship claiming portfolio work can lead to deep learning, it's not unusual to see superficial ePortfolios hastily completed at the last minute. This leads some instructors to wonder if ePortfolios really can do all that is promised if some of the end results are so deficient. More over, these flaccid ePortfolios certainly won't help a student much on the job market. So how do we make sure ePortfolios actually achieve some of these lofty aims? The answer is to focus on the extended process of portfolio production and the habits it fosters, so that a student learns to build, curate, and maintain a portfolio over time and for new contexts. Designing situations which lead students to hastily build a personal website in an isolated experience does not engender any such habits, leading to ePortfolios (if we can call them "portfolios" in this scenario) lacking in compelling content.
Let's consider one small strategy. James Lang (2016) suggests improving student knowledge through the repeated and intentional use of retrieval activities. These low stakes activities task students with recalling and applying information discussed previously. The more students engage with retrieval exercises, the better able they are to recall that information in a future situation (Lang, 2016, p. 20). Drawing on this idea, I would suggest tying retrieval activities and ePortfolios together, harnessing the valuable formative aspect of ePortfolio construction instead of leaning entirely on summative, on-action reflection at the end of the semester or just prior to graduation. For instance, at the start of a class, ask students to first recall course material from a previous class based entirely on memory. Then guide students to provide evidence of that learning or interaction with course content in their ePortfolio, identifying through low-stakes reflections how they have already engaged with these concepts. In the same reflection activity, students could apply that recently recalled material to a new scenario. Through this approach, students actively exercise memory, prepare class discussion, and practice transfer. At the same time, the students are providing evidence of their learning in a central location throughout the course, rather than searching for such evidence at the end. Later, as the purpose for their ePortfolio fluctuates, they can chose to remove or expand on this content, but at least that material is then readily available. This is only one example of how ePortfolios can be used more actively to concurrently support learning rather than merely serve as summative retrospectives as students march towards employment.
This sort of exercise could also help students with another skill that both AAC&U and Lang advocate for: connection. By recalling and synthesizing their learning, and potentially using multimodal evidence of such experiences, an ePortfolio could serve as a springboard for students to draw connections between the classroom and “real” world, as well as their own work and the fields they are seeking to enter. For instance, we can guide students to explore how others in their field represent the same type of experiences and work as mentor texts, encouraging students to adapt those strategies they find effective. Ideally, one would even seek feedback from field professionals, helping students further develop their narrative of learning while beginning professional networks, all via a central artifact.
Thus ePortfolios can drive course engagement, improve knowledge retention, foster synthesis and transfer, invite mentorship, and so on, while also providing a platform for generating and refining a professional identity. If we stress the process-driven nature and learning component of ePortfolios, then we are professionalizing students, arming them with the habits that will help them to identify, apply, and demonstrate the information their field needs from new entrants.
Association of American Colleges & Universities. (2014). Integrative and applied learning VALUE rubric.
Boesch, B., Reynolds, C., & Patton, J. (2015). ePortfolios as a Tool for Integrative Learning: Building Classroom Practices that Work. Handbook of Research on Applied Learning Theory and Design in Modern Education, 439.
Cambridge, D. (2010). Eportfolios for lifelong learning and assessment. John Wiley & Sons.
Eynon, B., & Gambino, L. M. (2017). High-impact ePortfolio practice: A catalyst for student, faculty, and institutional learning. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Hart Research Associates. (2013). It takes more than a major: Employer priorities for college learning and student success. Liberal Education, 99(2).
Hubert, D., Pickavance, J., & Hyberger, A. (2015). Reflective e-portfolios: One HIP to rule them all? Peer Review, 17(4), 15.
Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
Ramírez, K. (2011). ePerformance: Crafting, rehearsing, and presenting the ePortfolio Persona. International Journal of ePortfolio, 1(1), 1-9.
Ward, C., & Moser, C. (2008). E-portfolios as a hiring tool: Do employers really care. Educause Quarterly, 31(4), 13-14.