Apr 17 2013

Many Forms, Many Functions: E-Portfolios at College

E-portfolios grow in popularity, even as higher ed users continue to define their purpose.

While physical portfolios have long been a staple in disciplines such as graphic design and architecture, e-portfolios are now being required of students in other fields. Ask three people in higher education to define how an e-portfolio is used and you’ll get three different answers.

With the specifics of what defines an e-portfolio still up for debate, university administrators should consider two factors, function and form, when establishing an e-portfolio program.

The Role of E-Portfolios

At Pennsylvania State University, e-portfolios serve as a place for students, as well as faculty and staff, to engage in wider conversations in their fields and aggregate their professional selves, says Jeff Swain, the university’s project manager for educational technology initiatives. “You’re trying to show a well-rounded picture of yourself.”

E-portfolios can show off badges earned during certification processes, and a blog element can demonstrate a user’s thought process — things a static CV or resume cannot do.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham sees e-portfolios as a way to showcase professional skills and accomplishments. Senior instructional designer Terry Harrington says e-portfolios are sometimes used in place of a comprehensive exam. As an evaluation tool, an e-portfolio can powerfully and succinctly present the full picture of an educational journey.

Students within the University Honors Program at the University of Cincinnati are required to maintain e-portfolios — called learning portfolios — to document their educational progress. Jessica King, an honors program assistant director and academic adviser, says the primary goal is to drive student reflection. Erin Alanson, one of King’s colleagues, agrees: “Our [e-portfolio program] is one in which students are taking ownership of their education.”

A Place to Build

The intended purpose of an e-portfolio can drive the decisions on how it will be built. The University of Alabama at Birmingham uses the Taskstream platform, chosen at the request of the School of Education. One advantage of Taskstream is the analytics provided to administrators, Harrington says.

Cincinnati initially used the platform iWebfolio but now encourages students to use web-based services, such as Weebly, WordPress and Tumblr. “Students wanted a more user-friendly interface,” King says.

Penn State also relies on blogging services, primarily Movable Type and WordPress. Using programs that students are likely to be familiar with helps to “take the technology out of the way,” Swain says, leading to increased use.

A Portfolio for the Future?

Who is using e-portfolios?

  • University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education and School of Business graduate students
  • Pennsylvania State University select course enrollees; individual students, faculty and staff
  • University of Cincinnati honors students in all disciplines (top 7% of undergraduates)

Whatever the goal of an e-portfolio initiative, implementing such a program helps to prepare students for life after college while deepening their involvement in their own education.

Swain has received positive feedback from Penn State alumni who use their e-portfolios as part of a graduate school application or to land a job. An e-portfolio trumps a resume because “it’s always fresh,” Swain says.

While seeking employment is not the goal of Cincinnati’s e-portfolio program, alumni nevertheless see benefits when the time comes to find a job. “A number of students have indicated that the final process of going back through their electronic portfolio . . . has been helpful for them in preparing for the interview environment,” King says.

Adoption of e-portfolios is expected to increase as their unique benefits become apparent to higher ed users. “This is the way the world is going,” Swain says. “Your online presence is an extension of your physical self.”

<p>Digital Vision/Thinkstock</p>