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Electronic Learning Portfolios

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The landscape of portfolio development has expanded astonishingly with the advent of multimedia and hypermedia. Yet, though the mediums have changed from print on paper to electronic hypertext, the fundamental process of learning portfolio development remains steadfast.


The posting below discusses the development and use of student electronic portfolios. It is from Chapter 4, Electronic Learning Portfolios, in The Learning Portfolio, Reflective Practice for Student Learning by John Zubizaretta, Columbia College. Anker Publishing Company, Inc. Bolton, Massachusetts. Copyright ? 2004 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBM 1-882982-66-5. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Reliability and Validity

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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The advent of digital technology has done much to alter the way in which learning is displayed, shared, and analyzed in multimedia and hypermedia environments. The varied accounts of uses of electronic portfolios in Part II and the diverse models in Part III and IV of this volume provide compelling evidence of the increasing popularity of electronic portfolios as a powerful method of enhancing and assessing student learning. Cambridge (2001) and her team of assisting editors invite us "to read about the practices of individuals and institutions" invested in electronic portfolios, imagining, as we study the various cases and models in their volume, "what might be as we move at ever more accelerating rates into new possibilities" (p. viii) for using digital technology in portfolio development.

Browsing the American Association for Higher Education's searchable database at the Electronic Portfolio Clearinghouse site ( htm) reveals a number of institutional programs that use electronic portfolios to foster students' reflection and to assess and evaluate learning. The list includes colleges and universities as diverse as Elmhurst and Messiah, Dartmouth, Kalamazoo, Indiana University, Amsterdam Faculty of Education (Netherlands), GateWay Community College, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and University of Florida, among others. Clearly, for students and faculty increasingly proficient in the ubiquitous technologies that have challenged and redefined traditional pedagogies, reshaping K-12 and higher education in our time, the electronic portfolio is an exciting and effective tool for improving, assessing, and evaluating learning.

Defining the Electronic Portfolio

What exactly is an electronic portfolio? Answers vary as considerably as they do in defining print portfolios because of the many purposes for which portfolios are developed and the multiple technologies available. Kaufman and Jafari (2002) of Cyberlab at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis surveyed an assortment of educators to gather definitions, and the wide range of responses is available online.

One definition is offered by the Alphabet Superhighway, a K-12 initiative of the US Department of Education, a reminder that portfolios-even the electronic varieties-have enjoyed considerable attention in the grade schools. The definition, available online at, is just as applicable to college-level portfolios; its central message is that electronic innovations enhance the virtue of portfolios in representing a learning history.


The same site above also provides a useful set of advantages to electronic portfolios, summarized in the following list:

* Electronic portfolios foster active learning.

* Electronic portfolios motivate students.

* Electronic portfolios are instruments of feedback.

* Electronic portfolios are instruments of discussion on student performance.

* Electronic portfolios exhibit benchmark performance.

* Electronic portfolios are accessible.

* Electronic portfolios can store multiple media.

* Electronic portfolios are easy to upgrade.

* Electronic portfolios allow cross-referencing of student work.

Electronic media choices have introduced an array of strategies for archiving, organizing, and reflecting on information about a student's learning. Using hypertext links, for example, students can present and explore multiple layers of accessible documentary information in a way that reinforces the notion of learning as a shared, interactive process, inviting both the portfolio author and audience progressively deeper and wider into the constructed process of learning. Also, because web portfolio projects, especially, often make much or all of the student's work publicly accessible online, the electronic portfolio heightens what Yancey (2001) calls the "social action" and "interactivity" (p. 20) of learning. Sometimes, electronic portfolios are not posted as web pages but presented instead on conventional floppy disk, Zip disk, or CD-ROM (see Holt and McAllister in this volume). Such mediums also facilitate the shared dimension of learning in a way that is less cumberso!

me and more instant than hard-copy pages and folders.


he versatility of electronic portfolios in providing a high-tech means of collecting and storing information is intriguing but also problematic because of the often daunting amount of training necessary, the potentially confusing variety of hardware and software choices available, and the dizzying pace at which technology evolves. Springfield (2001), for example, mentions such barriers, commenting on problems encountered with numerous products. Barrett (2000a) reviews the advantages and limitations of common technologies for portfolio building. Lankes (1995) also points out various approaches to digitizing portfolios, referring to how some educators have had to develop customized templates for easier implementation of portfolios for assessment and career preparation.

Transferability of files from one type of computer program to another is an additional worry. Barrett's (2000c) solution is to use Adobe Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format) files as the ideal medium for electronic portfolio development because of its user-friendly ability to cross many platforms and applications.

The National Education Association (2000-2001), taking into consideration the potential hurdles in moving from print to digital portfolio formats, issues the following cautions in its web site on portfolio assessment:

Bits & Bytes Advice

Data in digit form can easily be cross-referenced, overlaid, and analyzed?If you want to take advantage of technological tools to create electronic portfolios, you should consider several factors, however, before you make a change from a traditional system:

* Access. The hardware and software used to capture and store the student portfolios must be accessible to both teacher and students. If you computers, scanner, and printer are still down the hall in the Computer Lab, this may not be the time to initiate electronic portfolios.

* High-end Tools. Depending on the subject matter, you'll want to be able to store multiple data sources (text, voice, video, image, etc.). The capacity to store more than a single file format will also give a more well-rounded representation of the student's work. Therefore, you will need access to at least one high-end workstation with scanner, OCR (optical character recognition) software, printer, and perhaps digital camera.

* Space. Graphics and photographic images take up a great deal more system storage than text does. Be sure that your school's system can support large files without compromising other applications. You many also want to develop a regular schedule of backing up files and archiving outdated material to magnetic tape or CD-ROM storage to avoid an unnecessary drain on your system or the loss of vital material.

* Labor. Accumulating information for an electronic portfolio is both labor-intensive and time-consuming. Although you may delegate this task to each student as part of his or her role in compiling a portfolio, always be careful to stay on top of the process.

* Administration. Before starting, determine how you will administer the electronic portfolios. You ill want a database application that establishes an area for each student, stores various file formats, and allows for annotated comments appended to each item. You may also want a tool with security features and password protection, so that the privacy of portfolios cannot be compromised. You'll also want to make sure that the interface (ease of use, appearance, etc.) is "friendly" and appealing to both yourself and your students.

* Hybrid Solutions. More often than not, portfolios are the composite of evaluation techniques, including standardized testing, completed assignments, original works, teacher comments, student reflections, and peer reviews. You may not want-or be able-to capture all of these products into the electronic portfolio, so you should try to develop portfolio content on the basis of your identified goals and the needs of your students.

The assessment portfolio-whether electronic or paper-based-is intended to document student learning and progress, as well as allow students to identify their own goals and accomplishments. Technology can be a powerful tool in your use of the instrument. (pp. 1-2)

Young (2002) reports on several responses to such issues. One is a consortium ( formed by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the University of California, Los Angeles to develop e-portfolio software that, for an institutional membership fee, "will give students and advisers tools to build portfolios" (Young, 20002, p. A32). Another consortium is affiliated with the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative of EDUCAUSE (, and it consists of institutions from several states-including California, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington-all attempting to make the process of developing electronic portfolios more cost and labor efficient with the positive outcome of enhanced student learning.


The landscape of portfolio development has expanded astonishingly with the advent of multimedia and hypermedia. Yet, though the mediums have changed from print on paper to electronic hypertext, the fundamental process of learning portfolio development remains steadfast. Cambridge (2001) points out that reflection is central to learning, and the reflective core of sound learning portfolios is what transforms mere accumulated information to meaningful knowledge, an idea I mentioned earlier. Yancey (2001) follows up with the assertion that "electronic portfolios are created through the same basic processes used for print portfolios: collection, selection, and reflection" (p. 20).

In the interest of clarifying the deep purposes and value of creating electronic portfolios and keeping a premium on meaningful reflection and careful, strategic implementation, Yancey (2001) shares the following heuristic, further developed in her text, for effective design and creation of student electronic portfolios:

* What is/are the purpose/s?

* How familiar is the portfolio concept? Is the familiarity a plus or a minus?

* Who wants to create an electronic portfolio, and why?

* Why electronic? What about electronic is central to the model? And is sufficient infrastructure

(resources, knowledge, commitment) available for the electronic portfolio?

* What processes are entailed? What resources are presumed?

* What faculty development component does the model assume or include?

* What skills will students need to develop?

* What curricular enhancement does the model assume or include?

* How will the portfolio be introduced?

* How will the portfolio be reviewed? (pp. 84-86)

Having reflected carefully on the issues raised in the heuristic, one ca then proceed to more detailed questions of implementation and use. Yancey (2001) follows with an expanded list of recommendations for setting up an electronic portfolio program. Here is a summary of her tips:

* Think rhetorically. Who is creating the portfolio and why? Who is reading it and why?

* Consider how the electronic portfolio needs to be electronic. How will it be interactive? What

relationships and connections does the digital form make possible?

* Consider how the portfolio will be interactive socially.

* Develop some key terms that you can associate with your model of an e-portfolio, and use them


* Be realistic about how long it will take to introduce the model and the skills that faculty and

students will need.

* Be realistic about the difficulty that teachers may have in designing reflective texts, that

students may experience in writing reflections, and that teachers may have in responding to and

evaluating those reflections.

* Perhaps more than other innovative practices, the development of e-portfolios calls for a collaborative process of development. (pp. 86-87)


The amount of information on electronic portfolios available online is staggering. A simple query on a standard Internet search engine produces over a half-million sites, though not all are relevant to higher education; many are K-12 projects, student samples, commercial ventures, or simply inoperative links. Here are just a few that may prove useful, listed alphabetically:

Albion College Digital Portfolio site with extensive information, template, student samples:

Alverno College Diagnostic Digital Portfolio. Password protected information but brief details available:

Helen Barrett's educational and entrepreneurial e-portfolio site with many links to information, guidelines, resources: http://electronic

California State University, Los Angeles, Webfolio Project with information, student samples:

"Creating an Electronic Portfolio" site includes links to resources and rudimentary information on process, evaluation rubric:

Dartmouth College electronic Career Services Portfolio site:

GateWay Community College, Maricopa, e-portfolio information:

Kalamazoo College portfolio page with extensive links to e-portfolio information, student samples:

LaGuardia Community College's site with many links to information, guidelines, resources, students samples:

Ohio University e-portfolio site with extensive information, guidelines, instructions:

Seton Hall University samples of teacher education e-portfolios:

St. Olaf College's Web Portfolios site with extensive information about educational purposes, goals, guidelines, templates, models:

Stanford University Learning Laboratory E-Folio project site with brief information about Stanford's prototype of "electronic knowledge database":

Tidewater Community College, Donna Reiss's Webfolio Project with templates, resources, students samples:

University of Florida e-portfolio information, templates, student samples:

University of Pennsylvania e-portfolio site with information, guidelines, content and design strategies, resources:

University of South Dakota Technology Literacy Center e-portfolio site, offering guidelines, do's and don'ts, common problems:

University of Virginia, Curry School of Education portfolio information with links to student samples:

University of Wisconsin, Superior, e-portfolio information, guidelines, with available manual in MS Word:

Utah State University Digital Portfolio Project site with extensive information, links to grade schools using e-portfolios, student samples:

Valdosta State University e-portfolio page with links to PowerPoint information, student samples: htm

Virginia Wesleyan College e-portfolio information, student samples:

Wesleyan University's site for electronic portfolios used for advisement:


According to Cambridge (2001), technology, as it turns out, is "only one component of decision-making about the use of electronic portfolios and...not the most crucial one" (p. 11). The real link to promoting learning with portfolios, regardless of the technologies pressed into service, is holding fast to the fundamentals. Discerning the foundational value of portfolios underneath the technology, Yancey (2001) puts it this way:

[M]ore generally, portfolios bring with them three key characteristics:

*They function as means of both review and planning.

*They are social in nature.

*They are grounded in reflection (p. 19).

The key elements of effective portfolio projects, then, as identified in Chapter 3, remain the most salient issues in portfolio development:



*Collaboration and mentoring

Just as in teaching portfolios (Seldin, 1993, 1997), these three dimensions are the most strongly determining factors in successful use of learning portfolios, whether the format is print or electronic. What all three components are present in the process of constructing, reviewing, and revising the portfolio, student learning is richer, more lasting, and more transformative. We will then have realized the full, authentic value of the learning portfolio.


Barrett, H. (2000a). Create your own electronic portfolio: Using off-the-self software to showcase your own or student work. Learning & Leading with Technology. Retrieved from

Barrett, H. (2000c). Using Adobe Acrobat for electronic portfolio development. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Retrieved from

Cambridge, B.L. (Ed.). (2001). Electronic portfolios: Emerging practices in student, faculty, and institutional learning. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Kaufman, C., & Jafari, A. (2002, March 26). What is an electronic portfolio? Retrieved from

Lankes, A. M. D. (1995). Electronic portfolios: A new idea in assessment. Syracuse, NY: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED3903777)

National Education Association. (2000-2001). Technology and portfolio assessment. Retrieved from

Springfield, E. (2001). A major redesign of the Kalamazoo portfolio. In B. L. Cambridge (Ed.), Electronic portfolios: Emerging practices in student, faculty, and institutional learning (pp. 53-59). Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Yancey, K. B. (2001). Digitized student portfolios. In B. L. Cambridge (Ed.), Electronic portfolios: Emerging practices in student, faculty, and institutional learning (pp. 15-30). Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Young, J. R. (2002, March 8). "E-portfolios" could give students a new sense of their accomplishments. The Chronicle of Higher Education, pp. A31-A32.