Why use e-portfolios? - CORE breakfast seminar with Nick Rate

17 June 2010

Interest in e-portfolios is very high among educators in Christchurch judging from the high turnout at CORE’s breakfast seminar. 

Nick Rate is the right person to talk about e-portfolios, too, for his research as an eFellow focused on the potential of e-portfolios to support an assessment-for-learning approach in the primary classroom.

nick rate

Nick first answered the question in his topic: Why use e-portfolios? He showed the background and basis for their use from a series of statements from the New Zealand Curriculum and the paper, Directions for Assessment in New Zealand (on the TKI web site). Self-monitoring, and self-assessment supported by the involvement of a wider network of stakeholders than just the teacher is far more effective for developing lifelong learning habits than traditional methods of teaching, learning, and assessment.

He demonstrated the large number of benefits in using digital portfolios (e-portfolios) for accomplishing effective learning goals, as well as the process, types, methods, and tools to use for implementing this. Nick emphasised that the technology or device used does not replace the learning; rather, the technology is a vehicle to accomplish effective learning outcomes.

How should one go about setting up an e-portfolio system? Nick pointed out that it’s not a case of choosing the technology and then fit the teaching; rather, it’s a case of fitting the technology to your learning goals. To do this, careful planning that includes the input of all stakeholders is required. Nick provided a sample template, a checklist of things to consider, and a series of thought provoking questions to assists in the development of an e-portfolio plan.

The issue is: do not just adopt an “off-the-shelf” approach to e-portfolios, but ensure that the underlying pedagogy and goal of establishing students as life-long learners with the skills to self monitor and evaluate is at its heart.

Background on WHY use e-portfolios:

NZ Curriculum and leading educational thought about what we are trying to achieve with our students

Nick opened his presentation by immediately answering the very question within his topic: Why e-portfolios? He presented a series of statements from Ministry of Education publications such as the NZ Curriculum, and the DANZ report, Directions for Assessment in New Zealand, showing the research and pedagogical thought underlying his argument for the use of e-portfolios.

The NZ Curriculum states, “Schools should explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching, but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning”.

The things that have impact on a student’s learning

From the various sources Nick quoted, he highlighted the following areas that have a positive impact on student learning:

  • Need to explore not only how ICT can supplement traditional ways of teaching, but also how it can open up new and different ways of learning.
  • Parents and caregivers have a unique knowledge of their children, and therefore have the greatest of opportunities to further their children’s learning, should be a part of the process
  • Students learn through engaging in shared activities and discussing with others
  • Assessment should not be a mere rating of a child, it should be for the improvement of the child’s learning
  • Students can increase their ability to learn by taking ownership of and developing strategies for self-assessment, and monitoring their own development
  • A student’s ability to self-assess is increased by the meaningful assistance and involvement of parents, caregivers, family, friends, and any other stakeholder in the student’s development.

The e-portfolio fits splendidly with all these objectives. At the heart of the e-portfolio concept is that it assists the student to learn ways of assuming control of their own learning by developing the capability to assess their own learning.

E-portfolios enable other stakeholders in a child’s learning to assist with meaningful feedback and support in a far more effective way than paper-based methods.

It is imperative, for the process to work that parents, caregivers, support people, and other stakeholders understand and interpret assessment information well, so that they effectively support the child’s learning. The e-portfolio concept, therefore, requires effort in educating and getting buy-in from a wider network than just the student, but this is what works, and the e-portfolio itself has the potential to facilitate this wider education process than conventional methods.

Technology is not the teacher, but it can be used as an effective vehicle for learning

Nevertheless, as Nick pointed out, the technology is not the teacher; the technology is the tool or vehicle to enable effective learning. That’s why Nick prefers to call the e-portfolio “the container”.

In summary, the e-portfolio, or container, is a means for providing:

  • Feedback
  • Support
  • Control
  • Capability
  • E-learning
  • Engagement
  • Collaboration
  • Success criteria
  • Self-monitoring
  • Learning conversations
  • Partnerships in learning
  • Assessments as learning

Ian Fox has developed this "learning to learn" model, which reinforces Nick's thinking about the purpose of eportfolios.

ian fox learning model

What makes a good e-portfolio?

And so, what is an e-portfolio? The JISC ePorfolio Infokit says, “…ideas of what an e-portfolio ‘is’ are complex and to an extent the definition and purpose will vary depending on the perspective from which a particular person is approaching the concept”.

Styles of e-portfolios:

While there are many types of e-portfolios, Nick said that there are three basic forms and often an eportfolio can be a blend of each:

  1. The Process e-portfolio
  2. The Showcase e-portfolio
  3. The Accountability e-portfolio

The Showcase type is the traditional portfolio that most would be familiar with. Graphic artists, designers, photographers, architects and the like have always made use of this type of portfolio to showcase their work. It still has a significant place in the learning environment, but it’s not the only type. The reasons for each of the main types can be summarised as:

  • Process e-portfolio: supports students towards achieving their learning goals
  • Showcase e-portfolio: celebrates learning outcomes and shows the highest level of achievement
  • Accountability e-portfolio: documents learning for achievement of specific outcomes or standards.

It all depends on the purpose for the e-portfolio.

Purpose for the e-portfolio:

This graphic illustrates Nick's thinking that the purpose of an eportfolio transforms over time.

e portfolio purpose

The benefits of using e-portfolios:

The benefits of using e-portfolios over that of traditional (paper-based) versions abound:

  • The use of rich media is often a hook for the learners. “The use of multimedia tools is one strategy that involves and engages learners” (Barret, 2005)
  • The paper portfolio can't reflect the learning process as well as an e-portfolio. As Ian Fox said: “The power of ‘student voice' should not be underestimated. To hear students reflecting on their own work, in their own voice, with their own intonations and expressions, conveys meaning in a manner that is simply not possible in written form."
  • The e-portfolio encourages and facilitates the learner’s support network to participate through appealing social networking resources
  • The quality, not just the quantity, of feedback is enhanced and facilitated via social mediums.
  • The e-portfolio encourages and enables the process of reflection, self-evaluation, and action planning as a process for lifelong learning. The e-portfolio not only develops skills, it develops approaches to learning.
  • The student ought to be able to carry the e-portfolio device with him or her wherever he or she goes, and use it to record, assess, evaluate, and reflect at any time.

All this begs the question, When does the e-portfolio start and stop? Reality is that access to the e-portfolio is capturing the student’s learning in and outside of school. It is engaging with the support network at any given time. It also demonstrates that an e-portfolio isn’t just a device, a technological product; it’s a process.

The process for using an e-portfolio:

The traditional process is:

  • Collect
  • Select
  • Reflect
  • Project

But the use of an e-portfolio enhances the possibilities. Using an e-portfolio process can mean:

  • Collect and organise
  • Select learning
  • Interject personality
  • Reflect metacognitively
  • Inspect to self-assess
  • Perfect and evaluate
  • Connect and conference
  • Inject/Eject personality
  • Respect accomplishments

(Burke, Fogarty & Belgrade (1994)

To demonstrate this, Nick explained the following e-portfolio learning cycle illustration:

e portfolio process 1

Nick then demonstrated how the beginning of the process could utilise current technologies to facilitate this process:

e portfolio process 2

What e-portfolio solution should I use? How should we go about implementing an e-portfolio system?

The thoughts thus far have centred on why we should use e-portfolios, the benefits, and the process that can be utilised to enhance a student’s learning. Now we look at solutions, or how this can be implemented. What kind of e-portfolio technology (container) should we use?

The technology you use does affect the look and feel of your portfolio. So what’s the best? There are a lot of options out there. For example:

  • Wordpress
  • Mahara
  • elgg
  • KnowledgeNet
  • Blogger
  • Drupal
  • Blackboard
  • Pebble Pad
  • eFolio Minnesota
  • myPortfolio
  • edublogs
  • netvibes
  • twitter
  • Evernote
  • Ultranet
  • Google sites
  • Moodle
  • tumblr

All these options are worth exploring and evaluating. But, as already intimated, you shouldn’t fit your pedagogical goals and process to the technology; you should look for the technology that fits your goals! First, you must plan.

Planning what you need for an e-portfolio solution

The first thing to do is establish your purpose and perspectives. This should involve all the stakeholders. In order to get ideas and buy-in, the stakeholders should include:

  • The student
  • Parents/caregiver
  • Teacher
  • School management/leadership

Added to this list could be:

  • Government policy: as it does affect what we do, so it ought to be considered part of the equation
  • Technician/network admin: for they can give advice on what options are available to meet the purpose and perspectives decided

Nick showed the process that he has used. “We discussed with each of the above. We all sat down and asked: What’s the purpose behind having a digital portfolio? We collected all the ideas using a template…”

planning template

He then illustrated what the results of these discussions may look like for the student:


  • Support assessment for learning (criteria, feedback, feedforward, peer/self-assessment, reflection)
  • Celebrate and share achievement
  • Ownership of learning

Under the “non-negotiable criteria/features required to support the purpose, they had:

  • Upload/embed post-learning examples (photos, movies, Web 2.0 creations)
  • Allow comments
  • Ability to customize/personalize

Under Additional criteria/features:

  • Student retains ownership even if leaving or transferring schools.

There’s a lot of factors to be considered in the planning stage. Once you have considered the purpose from all the stakeholders, you will have created a checklist of criteria for selecting your tool. Here’s one school's checklist:

  • Web based (anywhere, anytime, and device)
  • Web 2.0 tool integration/embedding
  • Ability to comment, reflect and feedforared on learning
  • Ability to demonstarate learning
  • Facilitate social networking
  • Secure
  • User-friendly
  • Aesthetics
  • User storage space
  • Manageability
  • Expandability
  • Availability of technical support
  • Cost
  • Access/edit/contribute from mobile device

Some questions that need to be considered

  • Should an e-portfolio include all aspects of a student’s life and learning?
  • What happens when a student leaves school, transfers, moves to a new class?
  • Who retains ownership and control?
  • Should the e-portfolio be open to the world, or just for those given permission to view it?
  • Are your parents and teachers ready? Do they have the skills, the desire to use the technology, the understanding?
  • Do your current internet policies cater for e-portfolios and use of Web 2.0 tools?
  • Will your e-portfolios play a role in reporting achievement against the National Standards?
  • Do you need a proprietary system or is a mash-up of Web 2.0 tools suitable?
  • Is it important for e-portfolios in your school to have a consistent look and feel?
  • Should your school expect the teachers to have a reflective e-portfolio just as the students do?

The management of an e-portfolio system

In order to be effective and support the process of student learning, e-portfolios:

  • Should be embedded into your teaching and learning
  • Require a high level of access to technology
  • Require you to set aside time for students to first learn how, and then to actively reflect and give feedback on learning.

Nick suggested that it’s best to start small, and then work your way up. Get students actively blogging in a class blog first, and then move on to individual spaces.

Changes in the way you do things

Nick also assured the audience that e-portfolios don’t add to your workload. But it does mean changing some of the ways you do things, such as the way you give feed back, facilitate reflection, engage students in self and peer assessments, and you need to adapt learning and teaching so that the process and outcomes can be shared digitally within the e-portfolio platform.


Nick Rate's slides from his "Why use e-portfolios?" seminar