In the Driver's Seat


Web 2.0 is turning the traditional electronic portfolio into a diversepersonal learning space, putting students at the helm of theiracademic experience.

In the Driver's Seat WHEN JULIE BOHNENKAMP, director of technologyfor the Center Grove Community School Corporation inGreenwood, IN, introduced the Epsilen Environment to herdistrict last August, she expected a few of the more tech-savvyteachers to take the new electronic portfolio system for a spin,and then gradually spread the word. She didn't expect whatshe calls an "Epsilen epidemic." What began last year as asmall pilot project aimed at half a dozen teachers now comprises495 teachers, 1,908 students, 88 online courses, and 33online collaborative groups.

"We thought we'd have between five and seven teachers who might like to utilize the system for online learning enhancements to their traditional courses," Bohnenkamp says. "But people really responded to the connectedness designed into it, the way Epsilen combines Web 2.0 technologies with the e-portfolio piece."

The Epsilen Environment is an example of what can fairly be called a new species of electronic portfolios. No longer merely a handy digital means for collecting and displaying student work or the professional achievements of teachers, this new breed adds internet-based applications and services that are fundamental to the Web 2.0 phenomenon-- things like social networks, blogs, wikis, folksonomies, and mashup tools.

"This is a paradigm shift towardprogressively richer learningenvironments…and educatorsaren't ready for it."

The result is a powerful combination of capabilities that trend watchers say is transforming the e-portfolio into a diversified personal learning space rich with academic opportunities. The most profound effect is likely to be on students, whom these enhancements will effectively place at the helm of their own learning experiences, able to interact online around shared interests with their peers virtually anywhere in the world; report on school projects, news, or events; and edit and modify documents collectively. And both teachers and students can utilize this rich environment to maintain and refine their digital résumés for years to come.

"We have built Epsilen to the specifications of a new online culture," says Ali Jafari, professor of computer and information technology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). "There are a lot of goodies in there to encourage people to continue using and maintaining their Epsilen accounts."

A Term for Our Times

Tim O'Reilly YOU MAY NOT KNOW TIM O'REILLY, butyou've heard him referenced countlesstimes. Every utterance of the term Web2.0 traces back to O'Reilly, perhaps theworld's best-known publisher of booksabout high tech. Recognized as a keenobserver and interpreter of bleedingedgeinformation age movements, he introduced the expression atthe first Web 2.0 Conference in spring 2004, coproduced by hispublishing company, O'Reilly Media.

The term took on a life of its own after the conference and cameto represent nothing short of a revolution in the way the internetcould be used. And the revolution, according to O'Reilly, is still inprocess. Speaking to attendees at the Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco in April, he declared that the internet is fastbecoming "a global platform for everything," and an "amazing toolfor harnessing collective intelligence."

"It's not just about participation or building a platform," O'Reillywent on to say, "but, literally, about making the world smarter. This isan amazing revolution in human augmentation.We're at a turningpoint akin to [the development of] literacy or the formation of cities.This is a huge change in the way the world works." At the heart ofthis change, O'Reilly believes, is the group of emerging, network-basedapplications and services he collectively tagged Web 2.0.

Every techie worth his Jolt Cola would recognize one of O'ReillyMedia's In a Nutshell books by their distinctive cover designs, whichfeature intricate wood-cut prints of exotic animals. Many of O'Reilly'sother series (Head First, Missing Manuals, Pocket Guides, Cookbooks,Hacks, and Annoyances), though not as graphically distinctive as the"animal books," are nearly as well known.

But O'Reilly's personal fame stems from his many public appearancesand regular online commentaries on tech trends. He is a popularfigure on the tech conference keynote-speaker circuit, and through hisblog, "O'Reilly Radar", he shares hisobservations on the industry and advocates for his pet issues-- chiefamong these being the value of the open source software model.

O'Reilly is also an avid conference organizer in his own right. Hiscompany's conference group puts together events around a range oftopics, from broad areas-- such as Web 2.0 and emerging technology-- to narrow-interest events-- such as the MySQL Conference and Expo,and RailsConf.

Jafari is the founder of the Electronic Portfolio Consortium, a global association of individuals from both educational and commercial groups interested in the development of academic e-portfolio systems. He also directs the CyberLab at IUPUI, which developed Epsilen. The system was the result of six years of research at the university, and only became commercially available last year.

Those "goodies" Jafari speaks of that come bundled with Epsilen include an e-portfolio management system, a global learning system, group collaboration software, an object repository, blogging tools, a wiki application, messaging capabilities, and résumé-writing software.

Together, these technologies help to make the Epsilen's web pages "sticky"-- that is, appealing to users for an extended length of time, and likely to draw them back frequently. On the web, the term is generally used to describe entertaining content, Jafari says. In an e-portfolio, it's about providing useful tools for the users.

Center Grove Community was one of the first K-12 districts to implement the Epsilen Environment, which was initially marketed to colleges and universities. The district, which serves more than 7,500 students in one high school, one middle school, and six elementary schools, is now the second-largest user of Epsilen nationally, as measured by daily logins. Bohnenkamp says that the combination of an e-portfolio system with a set of Web 2.0 collaboration tools is expanding the educational opportunities of the district's students. A good example of that, Center Grove High School is hosting the National Association of Student Councils National Conference in 2010, and the CG student council members are collaborating online via Epsilen's blog and wiki features to plan the event with students from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia.

The system is also being used to bring teachers together in new and important ways, Bohnenkamp says. Recently, 110 educators from all over the Center Grove district used Epsilen to form an online professional development group. The group uses blogs and wikis to help each other study new learning technologies.

In fact, the teachers were generally a bit quicker to embrace the new technologies than were the students, Bohnenkamp says, probably because it was a teacher-driven initiative with no top-down mandate. "We just put it out there and opened it up as something they could use if it suited their needs," she says. "It succeeded in part at least because it was there to serve them, and not some plan of the administration."

Thanks to the success of the Epsilen pilot program, Center Grove High plans to implement a required e-portfolio program starting next year, Bohnenkamp says. Students will begin constructing their electronic portfolios with a career exploration course they take as freshmen, and then build from there.

Epsilen is hardly alone among e-portfolio vendors adding Web 2.0 capabilities to their offerings. John Baker, CEO and founder of Ontario-based e-learning solutions provider Desire2Learn, sees Web 2.0 as a source of inspiration for the capabilities included in his company's first eportfolio product, launched in March of this year. He expects Web 2.0 to have a significant effect on the evolution of the e-portfolio, and e-learning systems in general.

Angel Learning to LetUsers Mash It Up

In the Driver's SeatONE OF THE LEADING PROVIDERS of learning management systems isabout to jump into the Web 2.0 whirlwind in a big way with a majorenhancement of its flagship LMS and a sojourn in a virtual world. Angel Learning will unveil a new framework formashups in the next release of theAngel LMS, says Ray Henderson, thecompany's chief products officer."Mashup" emerged early as the Web2.0 buzzword, describing a lightweightweb application that combinescontent and services from unrelated,even competing websites.

The mashup framework in theAngel LMS will employ Google's publicly availableapplication programming interfaces, which will allow mashup makers to integratecontent from sources outside Angel's learning systems. For example,students will be able to mash up the Google Docs online word processing application with the Angel LMS.

YouTube's video-sharing site and Google's Picasa photo organizer will also be supported. "Sayyou're writing a response to a test question-- or, if you're a teacher, buildinga test question," Henderson explains. "You search for a keyword, find aYouTube video, and then embed it directly into the document inside Angel.That content will live at YouTube, but the experience will be brought into theAngel environment.We're providing more building blocks for students withexisting building blocks from other places."

Angel has also staked out territory in Linden Lab'spopular virtual world, Second Life-- an island thatit shares with a group called the Second Life Education Community. Second Life is a 3-D online world in whichplayers assume roles embodied in avatars, through which they interactwith other avatars. Since its 2003 launch, Second Life has become aninternational phenomenon filled with thousands of "residents" whoexplore the environment and participate in individual and group activities.

Angel Learning Isle is open now to educators as a kind of testingground to help them understand how to use a virtual world to create aneducational experience. But, Henderson warns, it's still pure R&D. "It's anisland built entirely by educators," he says. "It's our contribution to thecommunity of educators at large. But it's a work in progress. Keep that inmind and come for a visit."

"I think Web 2.0 is having a big impact on the technology behind the scenes," he says, "in terms of things like Ajax, the user-interface controls around tagging, and social folksonomies. All of that is being embedded in our products."

Desire2Learn aims to use Web 2.0 tools to "harness the power of the social network," Baker says, and in the process to develop a more student-directed approach to education. The company, which offers a range of educational software solutions, views its new e-portfolio system as a "social learning" platform that extends the learning experience beyond the classroom to a network of peers and external experts, whom students can share academic experiences with or draw on as knowledgeable resources.

One example of the Web 2.0-enhanced electronic portfolio at workis seen in the preparations under way for the National Associationof Student Councils National Conference in 2010. Student councilmembers nationwide and in Puerto Rico, Canada, and Australia arecollaborating online to plan the event via an eportfolio'sblog and wiki features.

The Desire2Learn e-portfolio comes with social networking tools and Web 2.0 standard interface components, such as a dashboard and tagging capabilities. As the company puts it, the social networking tools "put [the users] in the driver's seat."

"Many people out there are talking about a shift from a formal learning environment to a personal learning environment [PLE]," Baker says. "But personal, formal, and social learning have always been a part of the overall learning experience. I think what we're seeing are people building tools and technologies that reflect what's happening in the real world, and improving on that."

So what exactly is this new incarnation of the e-portfolio-- the personal learning environment? Definitions vary a bit, but most agree that a PLE is a dynamic, web-based system that hands off much of the control and management of the learning process to the learners themselves. The generally accepted list of critical PLE features includes the same Web 2.0 technologies that are transforming the e-portfolio: social networking, news and blog feeds, and a high degree of personalization.

It's the latter part of the definition that fits with the Center Grove school district, where the students are expected to log on to their Epsilen web pages on their own, create their own accounts, and then manage those accounts themselves.

Gary Brown, who directs Washington State University's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, believes that Web 2.0 technologies are blurring the lines between the electronic portfolio and these dynamic learning systems. "I'm not big on definitions," Brown says. "Especially in this space, where things are moving and changing so fast."

Teachers and administrators should begin to think about the electronic portfolio as part of a continuum, he adds. On one end is a system that's more like the traditional electronic portfolio; on the other something that better resembles a PLE.

"The Web 2.0 technologies that are emerging now," Brown says, "technologies that incoming students increasingly use to organize their personal lives, are changing what we think of as an e-portfolio."

But some observers don't consider the evolution in the technology to be a metamorphosis. In fact, Jeffrey Yan, co-founder and CEO of Providence, RI-based e-portfolio developer Digication, agrees that the addition of Web 2.0 technologies to e-portfolio systems puts student users in the driver's seat, which makes them look more like PLEs, but that trend, he says, is actually nudging the e-portfolio back to what he sees as its original purpose. "E-portfolios were originally intended to showcase student work and use that as a student-centric learning model," says Yan. "So the concept isn't that far from the personal learning environment to begin with.

Back to the Future

THE LINK BETWEEN e-portfolios and personal learning environmentswas probably first noted by Scott Wilson, assistant director ofthe UK's Center for Educational Technology and InteroperabilityStandards just outside of the city ofManchester. In his 2005 presentation to the University of Sydney,Wilson showed how e-portfolios incorporate the architectural modelsof PLE systems. (The slides of Wilson's presentation are currentlyavailable on Flickr).

In the Driver's SeatAround the same time, a prescient blog entry from Dave Tosh, whoco-created the Elgg social application engine withBen Werdmuller in 2004, anticipated the e-portfolio's evolution. Toshasked in a Feb. 10, 2005, posting: "[Will PLEs] turn out to be what thee-portfolio could have been? A learner-controlled space where [users]can keep a record of what they have done [and] what they are doingand plan where they want to go? All the while making valuable connections,learning for themselves, collaborating with others-- creatingtheir own learning space?"

"Call them what you want: next-generation e-portfolios, e-portfolios 2.0, or PLEs-- I absolutely agree with this direction. And I'm starting to see educators beginning to see the value in it, too….I think we're getting back to what is so intrinsically useful about e-portfolios."

Yan says that the evolution of his company's namesake e-portfolio system has been influenced directly by at least one Web 2.0 trend: social networking. His company bundles its e-portfolio with social networking features designed to encourage the creation of learning communities. "Web 2.0 is very much about building communities," he says, citing the photo-sharing site Flickr as an example. "Flickr isn't just about making slide shows; it's about building a community of photographers who share and celebrate each other's work online."

One educator who remains unconvinced that Web 2.0 technologies are bringing transformative change to e-portfolios is Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English and director of the graduate program in rhetoric and composition at Florida State University. She says the technologies are intersecting in compelling ways, but isn't convinced that much actual evolution has taken place.

"E-portfolios are defined by three features at least," she says, "collection, selection, and reflection. And it's not clear to me that those features are defining characteristics of PLEs."

Yancey is one of the directors of the Inter/National Coalition for Electronic Portfolio Research, which includes more than 45 institutional partners worldwide. She sees the changes brought to the e-portfolio by Web 2.0 tools as coming in bits and pieces. To her point, blogs, for example, are becoming ubiquitous in electronic portfolios, and social software is heading that way. Tagging, too, is gaining some traction, but mashups-- combining the applications of two distinct websites-- the quintessential manifestation of Web 2.0, are still barely in evidence.

Yancey explains that Web 2.0 is fundamentally social in nature, and "doesn't discriminate between formal and informal learning" but instead merges the two, "bringing what students learn outside of school with what they learn inside, remixing the school ‘given' and the everyday ‘found.'"

Yancey makes the point of adding that these emerging technologies spark trends that spawn and evolve at nearly the speed of light, so the evolution of e-portfolio systems is very much in flux, and the ultimate form they will evolve into is hard to predict.

Washington State University's Brown believes that this light-speed change will transform the way K-12 students interact academically just as it has permanently altered the way they interact outside of school, but not without the support of teachers, who have been reluctant to embrace and exploit Web 2.0 technologies for their academic use.

"What we're approaching here isn't so much a convergence as a big bang," he says. "This is a paradigm shift toward progressively richer learning environments... and educators aren't ready for it. We haven't made the shift yet to teaching the kinds of students that a PLE and a personal e-portfolio represent."

It may well be the integration of Web 2.0 applications and services into the familiar e-portfolio environment that gives teachers the tools they need to get on board.

If you would like more information on e-portfolios,visit In the Browse by Topicmenu, click on eLearning/Web.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Mountain View, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2008 issue of THE Journal.