Peer Review

The Next Whole Thing in Higher Education

E-portfolios are decidedly not the hottest thing in higher education. They just don’t fit the profile for a sexy ed-tech trend. For example, their success does not threaten to disrupt the entire business model of higher education. In fact, when thoughtfully employed, e-portfolios can be a mechanism for greater institutional coherence. Another serious impediment to e-portfolio’s status as an ed-tech trend is that they don’t fit into a neat ed-tech category. The technology of e-portfolios, though enabling or inhibiting, is not the crux of the “it” that makes e-portfolios effective. E-portfolios are at heart a set of pedagogies and practices that link learners to learning, curriculum to the cocurriculum, and courses and programs to institutional outcomes.

That e-portfolios are practices more than technologies means there is no plug and play “total e-portfolio solution” to be purchase or licensed. Institutions with effective e-portfolio implementations have shown that the value of e-portfolios depends on inclusive planning—building thoughtful linkages among faculty and other stakeholders and connecting with larger systemic efforts and cross-boundary initiatives such as the first-year experience, general education, and institutional outcomes assessment.

The ed-tech trends garnering all the attention—data and learning analytics, MOOCs, online and blended education, open content, competency-based learning, and for-profit companies delivering one or more unbundled services—are all likely to be part of the future transformed landscape of higher education. Indeed, they all carry potential for improving student success, while striving to provide greater access, scale, and control of costs. Like these more visible innovations, e-portfolios are learning-centric. In contrast to hotter trends, however, e-portfolios uniquely privilege the development of the whole student, the integrative nature of education, and the importance of validating the distinctiveness of local institutions and communities.

I don’t mean this conservatively or regressively. E-portfolios are change agents; they belong to an emergent learning paradigm and, as we argue in the Connect to Learning Project, have the capacity to catalyze change toward that paradigm. They do this in at least three crucial ways that are profoundly necessary at this potentially disruptive and disintegrative moment in higher education:

  1. E-portfolios provide a mechanism for integrative learning; they give students a way to make connections across courses and experiences in order to create a whole greater than the sum of the curricular parts. As the options for acquiring isolated and decontextualized educational experiences proliferate, the need to support students in personalizing and contextualizing their learning is more crucial than ever. Indeed, emerging data suggests e-portfolio practice supports both improved student success (e.g. retention) and deep learning.
  2. E-portfolios provide a means for integrating institutional measures of learning. Mature e-portfolio initiatives are sites of integrative assessment, bringing together student success and learning outcomes data in the context of authentic student work. Although the term “learning analytics” is often narrowly construed to refer only to data produced from virtual systems, e-portfolios epitomize the definition of learning analytics, as given by the Society for Learning Analytics Research: “the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning, and the environments in which it occurs”\
  3. E-portfolios can provide a means for clarifying and affirming localized institutional value. As large portions of the curriculum become commodified, generic, and interchangeable, e-portfolios provide an unparalleled means for leveraging the impact of local high-impact educational practices and making visible the distinctive educational contributions of faculty, place, and the local community.

In a landscape of unbundled educational services and increasingly granular learning experiences, e-portfolios are agents of integration. They are demonstrating the capacity to create an integrative and coherent context for students to make sense of their learning and for institutions to get an unmatched, holistic view into the impact of their curricular and institutional designs. All this makes them poorly suited to be the next hottest thing. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Randy Bass is the vice provost for education at Georgetown University and senior a researcher at the Connect to Learning Project.

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