Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why isn't an ePortfolio accessible by everyone?

Sarah Stewart is a midwife and Senior Lecturer in Midwifery at Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand who has been investigating the use of e-Portfolios (ePF) as part of a requirement of her recertification as set down by the Midwifery Council of New Zealand to maintain a professional portfolio.

Recently Sarah participated in a presentation about the ePF Tool 'My Portfolio', and was concerned about the fact "that at the moment it is associated with educational institutions in New Zealand which means only students of the institution can use it. Once the students have left the institution, they are no longer able to use it."

Sarah has raised a very important issue about e-Portfolios - the issue of accessibility of e-Portfolios (ePF) for people who are no longer a part of a formal education/training system. And unfortunately, this is not one which will be easily resolved in the near future.

One idea to overcome this problem would be to create a 'thin e-Portfolio on legs' – an ePF which is more of an interface that will connect an individual’s digital artifacts/identities together, and one in which the individual would ‘carry’ with them from the ‘cradle to grave’. This interface would be similar to an iGoggle or Protopage, however, it would give greater control to the owner of the ePF as to who 'views' what sections of the ePF and would allow access to secure information stored about the individual in educational/organisational databases. This would require a ‘national’ approach to ePF and would require a lot less ‘storage’ space than the current ePF tools, as the information would be ‘hosted’ in a number of locations, and would therefore be a lot less ‘costly’ to the organisation hosting the ePF interface.

This concept, however, is a little while away.

A more tangible and immediate option will be to make the information housed in ePFs 'transferable' from one ePF to another as an individual moves from Secondary School to Higher Ed to Employment, or at least have the information contained in an ePF readable in its own right in other web and digital environments. This way a person will always have access to their ‘information’ by burning it to a CD or onto some other storage device, even if they don’t have access to the tools and wizards to generate this information in an ePF tool.

I have also been playing with the Mahara e-Portfolio tool, and a couple of other e-PF tools, and although they are restrictive in one way or another, they do create a structure for people to develop their skills in using an e-Portfolio.

So, for people like Sarah, who already have the skills of file management, being organised, able to plan and reflection, as well as know the value of good record keeping etc - than an ePF tool will seem restrictive and less useful, but for those people who are yet to develop these skills or develop the confidence to show themselves to the world (warts and all), than an ePF tool will really be of grat benefit, as long as they have access to some guidance and structure in developing the ePF and the skills that come with this process


Sarah Stewart said...

You're absolutely right in your comment about 'people like me'. I forget that the majority of people in my field who need a portfolio wouldn't know where to start unless they had guidance in a more formalised portfolio system. The challenge for people in my profession is to even get people to recognise the value of ePortfolios let alone anything else.

Leigh Blackall said...

really? How did people like you become people like you Sarah? You didn't have access this so called 'structure'. How will people like 'them' become people like you if they are given an 'out' to relevance and engagement? These ePortfolios are snake oil that educational institutions (and sadly the vast majority of institutionlised people within them) need to maintain a sense of relevance. They did it with email, content management systems, learning management systems, and now they are doing it with the suite of socially networked software. By the time they actually get it all working, the world will have moved on and Education will be left redundant and backward again. All for the false belief that ePortfolios offer more structure than the tools that MILLIONS of people already use. Go home and ask your family "who here has heard of Blogger?" Then ask, "who here has heard of ePortfolios, Mahara, MyPortfolio and the rest of the snake merchants?"

If we want education to maintain relevence, then we need people willing to take a very small risk and engage with the REAL world.

You second wavers need be stronger in the face of this reinstitutionalisation.

Good suggestions though, especially the open data. What a shame the middle ground has to be here :(

theother66 (formally MadMiller) said...

Thanks Sarah and Leigh for your comments.

People like Sarah and I have developed some of the soft skills required to develop electronic profiles/portfolios through being independent learners and risk takers. However, these are not skills that everyone has - whether they are connected to an educational institution or not.

I agree with your points Leigh - education has to engage with the 'real' world and for some part the VET sector does - it engages with 'industry', and industry wants quick and easy ways of identifying workers who have the 'soft skills' like organisation, planning, initiative etc.

Industry also holds more credence in documents like statements of attainment, parchments and academic transcripts, than they do in the actual ability of the individual. Again - this is because someone else has determined the skills and abilities of their potential workforce - a task they don't have the time to complete.

The concept of an e-portfolio, in whatever its existence, has many benefits for education, employment and personal development.

However, an e-portfolio tool is a stepping stone along the road of life long and life wide learning.

Leigh Blackall said...

That's a good point about industry connection - I'm glad you brought it up. What does industry look like in a post industrial economy? I haven't yet heard the VET sector confront that question, and are instead sticking with what they know - industry reps, usually of a generation that is not yet aware of the post industrial economy we are now in.

But we are now talking to something where we need to be specific. Different vocational sectors require different specific skills, yes.. but how does this relate to the ePortfolios we are talking about, where the skills implicit in that should be general.

But sticking with the industry point you raise and becoming specific.. lets look at the vocation of design. Like all sectors that we offer training for, it has an industry rep group who we consult to tick the "industry consultation box" but design is a sector that can easily be seen as being post industrial. There are possibly more designers working for themselves than there are working for some sort of industrial scale company. So what is the industry standards that we are to teach for in this example? Do we listen to the industry reps who speak to their industrial needs - or do we somehow consult the diversity in the post industrial and niche vocation of design?

But what I really mean to say is more general. What are industry needs really? How might we teach those needs in a way that services the individual people we call students better? I don't think setting up an ePortfolio so as to service industrial scale assessment needs is doing people any favors. And I certainly don't think that slipping an ePortfolio in under the guise of "making it easier for people" is doing anyone any favors.

Richard Millwood said...

Three things:
a) If an eportfolio could be written to a CD then I could store over 4,000 on the last USB stick I bought in a supermarket for under £10 - it seems to me storage cost is not the main issue, although infrastructure management and support might be.
b) So, the big question is, who is offering a lifetime (and beyond) guarantee that my career-crucial eportfolio can be developed and accessed?
c) Another vital issue is control over privacy - surely this should be like a switch for the author - they choose to whom and when the material becomes available, only switching on things they feel confident to make public and able to retract anything which compromises the image they wish to portray.

RhysatWork said...

I'm not sure why you are so anti EPF Leigh, surely any tool added to the mix which aids people in connecting has its value.

For me, the possibility of maintaining a lifelong record of my learning achievements and creativity history in one easily managed location, is an extremely attractive scenario. I look back at my career movements, my habitation movements and my thinking movements and wonder how I can possibly collate and organise such a varied and seemingly unrelated history. My organisational habits are dodgy at the very best and I think over the years I have probably spent the best part of a month of real time in gathering pieces of my life for this job application or that funding document. I don't think I am alone in the world as a person who has had such career/habitation/thinking movement.

I have the soft skills to use just about any piece of software but at the end of the day maintaining any profile, website or portfolio is about habit, routine and desire.
I don't think advocating EPF has anything to do with institutionalisation. It's encouraging community and maintaining personal history.

Equally, I don't think industry has become so enamoured with certificates that it has forgotten about the desirable attributes of it's future employees. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and any who hide behind their credentials will soon be outed in their workplace.

The real potential benefits of EPF, I beleive, need to be looked at like all new things, that is, each user will find their own benefits. In developing the tools to create EPF, usability and portability need to be at the forefront. Whether I use an EPF to gain RPL or to get a job or to gain a friend doesn't really matter. What matters is that I should have the choice to use it for these things.

Industry needs, Educational needs, Personal needs. The package that wins the upcoming EPF war will be the one that meets all of these and probably a heap more.

Sarah Stewart said...

Leigh, I totally get where you are coming from and I love that you challenge me and make me think, and you so often take me a step further but I find that so frustrating at times because I really think you under estimate where people are at times.

I am thinking in terms of registered health practitioners when I think about eportfolios, not so much undergraduates in the education facilities. The people I am talking about have only just come across paper portfolios 3 years ago. They hate them. They do them because they have to. These are also people who just about use email and probably tinker around with trademe/ebay. Yes, their kids may have FB accounts but they won't. They wouldn't have heard of Skype but they may do a little bit of database searching, most of which is contained in a system that they have on the computers at the places where they work, which are mainly hospitals. I was talking to an e-learning professor the other day in my field and she/he had only just started using Skype and was still working it out! This is a professor in e-learning!!

I have been experimenting with my portfolio & developing it in wikispaces, ie engaging with the 'real world', or is it? There has been no engagement with me through this concept apart from one person. It is taking me a huge amount of time and I am using skills that the average health practitioner will not have in a month of Sundays. Now I know you will disagree, but surely it is better to introduce people to the concept of ePortfolios in something like My Portfolio than them not engaging with the concept at all. I started my journey in BlackBoard. Now look where I am. It is like when I an talking to people about paper based portfolios when they ask about its format. I tell them they can use a formally devised portfolio that will give them a framework or totally do their own thing. Complete newbies will go with formal portfolio. I don't think that it necessarily a good thing because that is where they learn about the concept and gain their confidence in using it - at least they are using this learning tool!

I am resisting this concept as I am sure you would have seen by my original post. But the question of privacy is a huge one for health professionals. As a HP, the thing that would sell something like My Portfolio to me is that there is the ability to be totally private and show different views to people depending on what I need the portfolio for.

My portfolio is here:

Leigh Blackall said...

Rhysatwork: One thing - probably the biggest thing about managing an online identity - is NOT to have all your eggs in the one basket. Who is it that is going to host and provide the ePortfolio? A school? A State education department? a health department? a non government organisation? All of these I look at with a great deal of skepticism when it comes to developing and implementing anything with 'e' in front of it. Like I said in a previous comment, by the time they get it running - it will be so corrupted and watered down by the organisation's technical inabilities, their limitations, their fear of liability and all that, that it will be redundant and the world will have moved on. Look at NSW DET Webservices,, ELG, and...

Sarah: Sorry for making you feel like that. You are probably right - the people you describe will for the meantime need a sense of familiarity to the way they currently do things (even though they don't like doing them!?), but if any of us are in the position of influencing institutional decisions regarding attempts at going 'e', then I hope we can acknowledge that this is a transition era we are in, and that anything we try to set up institutionally will likely miss the mark and that we would be attempting to reach. So, in a time when no one fully understands what is going on around us in relation to media and communications changes we should probably spend our time and public money using popular and 'real world' tools to better affect, rather than sidetrack into even further niches.

Imagine if we had of implemented an internal blog, wiki, video, audio and image sharing system at Otago Polytechnic? Thankfully there are not many merchants trying to rebadge and sell these systems because they are already catered for by real world providers. One thing is, if we did take that route, we'd still be working on finding the funding and political support for such a system. The other thing is that in all that time, we would not have been working with staff on developing critical literacies in popular and relevant media today.

I don't think we (generally) are anywhere near a need for an internal system, and will quite likely end up having our needs satisfied using 'real world' tools. What IS for sure - our perceptions of our practice will change as we try out these tools (privacy most of all!) Obviously the same can be said for portfolios.

Perhaps, with the impact that socially networked media is having of society generally, it will only be a matter of 2 years before more health professionals are actually interested in keeping portfolios - let alone digitally networked ones.

Howard said...

If an institutionally based eportfolio has the context to prompt a participant to think “why bother – I could do this better on my MySpace page” (already the standard eportfolio in industries such as music), then it will have been worth the effort? I think so. Some learners need hand holding and some need a starting point for which eportfolios could be the answer. (After all Sarah did start with Blackboard!) Once learners are given some confidence then they will find their way to the platform that suits their personality and for some that could be within a structured walled garden, and for others in open space. Making available the choice is what matters.

Leigh Blackall said...

Well, we seem to be down to a "no it isn't, yes it is" type of argument. I am clearly out numbered and it seems like we need mediation byond the yes/no. Perhaps Allison could mediate it on, or provide some closure at this point?

Sarah Stewart said...

Actually, thinking about it, I didn't start in BlackBoard - I misled you. I actually started in 1997 by creating an email discussion group for midwives. Then I had a web site in 2001 which was the precursor to my blog. So maybe I am not second wave after all. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the price of eggs.

What I am loving is trying things out and finding what suits me. What I am extremely bad at doing is acknowledging that not everyone has the same needs as me or wants to do the same as me. I guess it's important that individual learning needs are attended to.

theother66 (formally MadMiller) said...

Thanks Sarah, Leigh, Richard, Rhys and Howard for offering your views on the use of ePFs.

I think this will be the begin on many discussions around the use of ePFs.

This is only the beginning of the ePF path for me as I learn more in my role as E-portfolios Project Manager for the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (

And like any 'tool' or 'methodology' it will up to the individual - whether that be the learner and the facilitator of learner or organisation - to decide what best suits them/their learner's needs.

I do believe ePF have a role to play in our lifelong learning journey - however - in varying degrees and in various facets.

Leigh has asked for the discussion to be either mediated or concluded - and as the perpetual optomist - I would like to see that everyone's opinions are accepted and valued - as there is not right or wrong answer here.

Whether we need to 'conclude' this conversation - is up to the group ;-)

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Allison, its just that I feel myslef drawing back from this discussion, and I hate havingto just go silent. I think all that could have been said has been said. Of course I am pro individual choice - just wish the education sector with all its industrial scale and rhetoric was with that too. If there are organisations out that that don't mind investing in a system and then leaving it up to individuals to decide then great! They would not only be a 1 in a million organisation, but one with a lot of resources to spend too.

Howard, I suspect most people have their origins far outside our institutions and what they 'provide'. I'd wager that Sarah started learning on and about online media and communication before Blackboard also. My point here has always been that the organisation systems that have been set up to meet "needs" have almost always been more affective at diverting our time away from what is relavent here and now, and have created their own needs and self service instead.

But I think I've said enough. I'm on record all over the Internet for taking this line. After 4 years of it, you'd think I'd get the hint. Die LMS Die, You Too PLE.

Thanks for having me Allison. See you all out in teh Network somewhere...