E-Portfolios Come of Age

Industry analysts say the systems have reached a mature adolescence, having grown from mere electronic filing cabinets into multimedia platforms that can operate with a variety of e-learning tools. But their fullest potential still lies ahead.

IF YOU WANT TO get a sense of the maturity of a given technology, a good place to start is the hype cycle. Analysts at the IT research firm Gartner coined the term and developed a swoopy, shark-fin graph that illustrates the initial spike of enthusiasm for a new technology that tends to peak and then plunge when unrealistic expectations go unmet-- but then rises again, much more gradually, as the technology stabilizes and finds its market niche.

In Gartner's "Hype Cycle for Education" report, published in July, electronic portfolios-- better known as e-portfolios-- were among a handful of maturing educational technologies that have cleared the fin and are now heading, slowly, toward mainstream adoption.

Although Gartner ranks the overall e-portfolio product category as "adolescent," the company's research director, Jan-Martin Lowendahl, allows that what he calls organizational e-portfolios are actually relatively mature systems.

"The holy grail is a personal digital portfolio, where you can store your accomplishments and have them verified by your mentors, teachers, or employers, and then take it all with you wherever you go . We're nowhere near that at the moment."

"That's the middle level," Lowendahl says. "At the lowest level, you have e-portfolios being used for students within an educational institution as an informal way of collecting proof of achievements. The next level-- organizational portfolios-- is where you see a more formal approach that allows you to attach grades and also control who can look at the e-portfolio and what their role is when they are looking at it. And the holy grail is a personal digital portfolio, where you can store your accomplishments and have them verified by your mentors, teachers, or employers, and then take it all with you wherever you go. We're nowhere near that at the moment."

That day may rest far in the future, but it's fair to say that eportfolios have come a long way in recent years. Systems that were once little more than digital filing cabinets have evolved into sophisticated multimedia environments that can integrate with a range of e-learning technologies.

Virtually all of the available e-portfolio systems come with the same basic ability to collect and organize student work-- or "artifacts"-- in a variety of digital file types to demonstrate the achievement of specific goals and objectives. Most support storage and presentation of text files, spreadsheets, audio files, photos, graphics, and video clips. Some are integrated with broader e-learning environments. And most are hosted systems accessed through a browser.

"One thing to keep in mind about the current crop of e-portfolios," says Gartner analyst Bill Rust, who co-authored "Hype Cycle for Education" with Lowendahl and several others, "is that most were developed originally for colleges and universities. There just aren't that many that were developed specifically for K-12."

Higher ed may have been their original target, but e-portfolio vendors now have K-12 firmly in their sights. And some are taking the longer view with products designed to follow the student from secondary education through higher education and on into the workplace.

Embracing Social Networking

The sexiest e-portfolio enhancement of the moment is social networking technology (blogs, wikis, IM, etc.). Helen Chen, research scientist at Stanford University's Center for Innovations in Learning, has been investigating how social networking services, such as Facebook and MySpace, might help e-portfolio developers evolve their systems to better serve the digital natives who use them.

"People are turning to online tools to organize their lives," Chen says. "They're signing up for online photo sharing, they've got MySpace pages, they go online to look for jobs, and they blog like crazy." The question she hopes to answer with her research, she says, is how e-portfolio developers can take advantage of these technologies to help users support e-portfolio-related activities.

A number of e-portfolio vendors have added blogging capabilities to their products in recent years, but few have embraced the spectrum of social networking tools as ardently as Epsilen. The Epsilen Environment combines a set of e-portfolio tools with a social networking framework, which the provider bills as a new model for the next generation of lifelong learners. The Epsilen Environment comprises 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, among other features.

"We have built Epsilen to the specifications of a new, online culture," says Ali Jafari, director of the CyberLab at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which developed Epsilen.

One unique feature of this system is its connection to the archives of The New York Times. The newspaper provides Epsilen users with access to 150 years of articles and interactive features in its own online content repository.

This fall the company announced that its e-portfolio component now supports integration with the open-source course management system Moodle via single sign-on. Moodle users can create an Epsilen account from within Moodle and log on to their Epsilen web page by clicking the My Epsilen Portal tab-- no additional user name or password required.

Desire2Learn is another e-portfolio provider that has baked social networking into its product offering. Just over a year old, the system comes with a set of Web 2.0 standard interface components, including a browser-based dashboard and social tagging tools. These tagging tools, which allow users to attach so-called metadata to their files in the form of keywords, are something of a differentiator. The Desire2Learn repository can be managed manually or can be dynamically populated with artifacts, and the artifacts can be grouped into collections that share tags to facilitate the sharing of content.

Desire2Learn CEO John Baker says his company is "harnessing the power of the social network" to provide an e-portfolio that's more of a social learning platform. It's all about a personalized learning experience, Baker says, but also extending it beyond the classroom with a network of peers, evaluators, and external experts. Recently, Desire2Learn became the first e-portfolio provider to be certified by the IMS Global Learning Consortium for achieving compliance with IMS Common Cartridge learning content standards. Common Cartridge standards were created to enable interoperability between digital learning content and e-learning systems.

What's Out There: The E-Portfolio Landscape

EVEN IF YOUR SCHOOL DISTRICT has yet to add an e-portfolio solution to its digital-learning toolbox, it's a safe bet you'll be working with one sooner or later. What follows is a sampling of some of the major providers jostling for position in the marketplace. They're not all targeting K-12, but acquainting yourself with their e-portfolio offerings will give you a solid footing on a shifting landscape.

Adobe Systems: Adobe's PDF portfolios are based on the company's ubiquitous Portable Document Format (PDF). Users can organize disparate PDF files into what the company calls "logical collections" that can be linked for customized navigation and search. Each file can be opened, read, edited, and formatted independently of the others.

Angel Learning: Angel bills its e-portfolio as a complement to its learning management system. It supports the collection and storage of documents, spreadsheets, audio, photos, and video clips. It also features blogging, RSS feeds for streaming blog postings, rubrics, and customizable templates and themes.

Chalk & Wire: A no-frills e-portfolio authoring system with tools for educators and students to use to build customized e-portfolios. Features a dashboard, tools for editing and commenting on work directly in a portfolio, artifact annotation, and audio commenting. Hosted or on-premise environments.

Desire2Learn: A hosted system supporting rich media artifacts. Includes reflection tools, presentation templates, reporting tools, import-export capabilities, and a browser-based dashboard. Assessment features are available via integration with the company's competency and learning-outcome tools. Digication (www.digication.com): Provides e-portfolio editions designed for K-12 and higher education, as well as a Personal Edition. Features include a hosted repository, dashboard, rich media file support, and customizable templates and menus. Includes Web 2.0 tools, such as tagging.

Elgg: An open source e-portfolio project originally aimed at higher education, but getting some serious attention from K-12. Includes an online repository, blogging and tagging tools, social networking components, and podcasting capabilities. The demo site is well worth a visit.

ePortfolio.org: A student-centered platform that provides students and teachers with tools for creating and customizing e-portfolios for academics, but also for career and personal use. Features an online repository, rich media support, project builder, assessment module. Integrates with the Blackboard learning management system.

Epsilen: A centrally managed e-portfolio for, as the company says, "lifelong learning." Provides a platform for collecting work from student portfolios to document longitudinal progress, which can be used for institutional assessments at the course, department, program, and institution levels. Supports rich media artifacts.

Foliotek: The company's student portfolio organizes many of the features also provided in other e-portfolio solutions into a three-part bundle that includes an assessment portfolio (for assessing student work), a presentation portfolio (for showcasing a student's best work), and a scrapbook portfolio (a private, student-controlled repository).

Google: Google's e-portfolio solution is essentially a blueprint for mashing up Google apps. Google Sites serves as a host for e-portfolios that combine capabilities and content from Google Docs, Gmail, Picasa, Google Groups, iGoogle, Google Reader, and Blogger.

LiveText: LiveText's C1 is a web-based e-learning solution with a simple e-portfolio development tool set for students. Includes a dashboard, a digital repository, and an online workspace for document authoring and e-portfolio assembly. One nice feature: the Help Center, which includes instructional menu guides, screen shot illustrations, flash demonstrations, and tips designed to help the student navigate C1's various tools and features.

Mahara: An open source, stand-alone e-portfolio system designed for integration with a learning management system. Its architecture was inspired by the Moodle LMS. Supports single sign-on between the two systems. Comes with blogging tool; supports Skype, MSN, Yahoo, and Yabber.

Nuventive: Makers of the iWebfolio, a trifold model: learning portfolios for reflection and formative evaluations; assessment portfolios based on accrediting or local standards; and presentation portfolios for showcasing achievements. Supports rich media.

The popular Mahara open source e-portfolio project also offers core social networking capabilities. In fact, Mahara gives the social networking component equal billing, calling its product a "user-centric, open source e-portfolio and social networking system." The Mahara e-portfolio bundle includes a blogging tool with a WYSIWYG editor and support for embedded images. There's a feature for creating and maintaining a list of "friends" among other e-portfolio users. And Skype, MSN, Yahoo, and Yabber are also supported.

The Mahara e-portfolio is also an example of an e-portfolio designed to be integrated into a learning management system. According to the project maintainers, its architecture was inspired by the modular and extensible architecture of the Moodle LMS, and, like the Epsilen offering, it supports single sign-on between itself and Moodle so that users can automatically log on to both their Mahara and Moodle accounts.

The system's plug-in architecture is an important part of its appeal. Because it was designed as a web application composed of plug-in components, the Mahara e-portfolio can be scaled up by separating hardware for search, database, file storage, and web servers.

Epsilen says it built its e-portfolio, which comes equipped with blogging tools, a wiki application, and messaging capabilities, "to the specifications of a new, online culture."

LMS Integration

This integration of e-portfolio and e-learning platform presents a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario, says Gartner's Lowendahl. "The e-portfolio really started in the higher education space as a capability within course management systems, which evolved into e-learning platforms, such as BlackBoard," he explains. "So, historically, the e-portfolio is really an add-on to that platform. But if your first encounter with e-learning tools is an e-portfolio, it's going to look like the technology is expanding to include the LMS."

If Mahara is an example of the latter, Angel Learning represents the former. The latest version (2.2) of Angel's e-portfolio emphasizes integration with its well-known learning management system. The company even calls it "an integrated option to the Angel LMS." But the e-portfolio product can stand on its own, largely because of its impressive tools bundle.

The system supports the collection and storage of the usual range of file types-- documents, spreadsheets, audio, photos, video clips, etc.-- collected via drag-and-drop and accessed though a browser. Also at the user's disposal are blogging capabilities, RSS feeds to stream blog postings to which instructors and others can subscribe, rubrics, customizable templates and themes for publishing student work, a password-protected document-sharing feature, and an HTML editor.

In addition, the Angel e-portfolio comes with a user-by-user permissions tool that lets students control who sees what in their e-portfolio. Users can use the tool to set several levels of access, including: private, which allows only those who know a specific URL to see it; individual, which allows selected users to find a web page within the e-portfolio; and public, which permits anyone within the e-portfolio to find a web page. There's also a setting that lets users share published materials via e-mail.

Another product designed to integrate with an LMS-- in this case, Blackboard's-- is ePortfolio.org, which provides support for single sign-on from within both of those environments. A useful consequence of this integration is that students using ePortfolio.org are able to select previously uploaded files in Blackboard's learning management system and include those files in their portfolios.

The ePortfolio.org software bundle also includes a project builder and an assessment module. The project builder is designed to allow educators to create portfolio assignments for classes and for "institutional and/or programmatic assessment," the company says. Those projects can then be submitted to the assessment module, where they are stored and "locked"-- no longer available to the student for changes or editing.

"We see so much overlapping functionality in these different software suites," says Lowendahl "that [a colleague of mine] has predicted the imminent demise of the e-learning platform as we know it."

A Move Toward Mashups

The bleeding edge of the e-portfolio's evolution can be described in one word: mashups. Mashups are web applications that integrate information and functionality from different sources. Fans call them "situational applications"; elite coders call them "crap on a map," referring to the most common data source for these applications-- Google Maps.

Google is probably the leading provider of mashup services and software for the creation of e-portfolios. The search giant isn't yet offering an e-portfolio product, per se, but in 2007 educator Helen Barrett, who has been researching strategies and technologies for e-portfolios since 1991, began publishing a step-by-step process for combining Google Apps software into e-portfolio mashups. On her "Google Apps E-Portfolios Mashup" web page, she describes how to join such applications as Google Docs, Gmail, Google Notebook, Blogger, and the iGoogle portal to create an e-portfolio.

Barrett also provides guidance specifically aimed at K-12 education. She has published descriptions of three levels of K-12 e-portfolios: e-portfolio as storage; e-portfolio as workspace; and e-portfolio as showcase.

Lowendahl would like to see Google get into the e-portfolio business.

"In order to get to the holy grail, someone else needs to own these e-portfolios so that we can be sure that we have a lifelong access and relationship to them. Who would be better to do that than Google, or maybe Microsoft? These companies have a long life, and they would give users of the e-portfolios the confidence that they would be there in the future."

For more information on e-portfolios, visit our website at www.thejournal.com. In the Browse by Topic menu, click on eLearning & LMS.

This article originally appeared in the November-December 2009 issue of THE Journal.