ePortfolio & Web 2.0

In a recent post on Web 2.0 & commercial ePortfolios, Helen Barrett commented an article in Campus Computing on commercial e-portfolio systems. She writes: “free Web 2.0 technologies could be a threat to some of the commercial tools, since students could replicate ePortfolio/PLE functions of many of the commercial tools using these Web 2.0 tools.”

In my view, this is debatable as I think we should differentiate between:

  • ePortfolios — that are documents, full stop
  • ePorfolio authoring systems — the tools used by the author
  • ePortfolio management systems — that are tools used by institutions

I formulated this distinction a long time ago in a position paper “For an ePortfolio enabled architecture.” The problem with many discussions on ePortfolios is that by using the same noun to express 3 totally (but connected) objects, it makes it very difficult to reach a common understanding.

For example, let’s take the discussion about “assessment ePortfolios” that some claim alter the “true nature” of ePortfolios — and I’m always a bit wary when people refer to the “true nature” of man made things! One one side, there would be the “good portfolio,” that belongs entirely to the individual, who manages it from start to finish (until death do us part) and, on the other side, the “evil portfolio”, owned by the institution who uses it as support to the grading system. What I claim is that this is like comparing pears and a stove then claim that all stoves are evil as they can be used to transform pears into “Poire Belle Hélène” — I agree that chocolate can be evil!

Let’s take the United Kingdom where around 500,000 qualifications (NVQs) are delivered each year to people who have built a portfolio — and more and more of those are now electronic. These portfolios won’t probably stand out for their creativity, and flowery designs might not be the norm. Nevertheless, these portfolios have provided an opportunity to millions of British citizens, who might have had no previous qualification, to have their contribution to society, their learning, be recognised. So, an assessment portfolio is not necessarily evil especially if it empowers people in their social and professional life.

In order to produce their NVQ ePortfolio, candidates use a platform, an ePortfolio Management System (ePMS) whose main function is to manage the assessment and verification workflow. And in order to facilitate the work of the candidate, these systems provide the basic functions of a contents management systems with one very useful feature: cross referencing (link each piece of evidence to competency statements, range and criteria and link each competency with evidence). The audience for this type of ePortfolio being assessors and verifiers (subject matter experts nominated by an warding body) it is important to elicit what is important to them (authenticity and range of evidence).

So, I’m not going to hold my breath until someone demonstrates how this kind of process will be made better, cheaper (individually and socially) with Web 2.0 tools. What could happen on the other hand is that Web 2.0 tools could transform the need of formal recognition, through a qualification, with the possibility of placing more emphasis on informal recognition by peers and communities of practice — I’m always amazed how the advocates of informal and non-formal learning, when discussing the issue of ‘recognition’ generally have ‘formal recognition’ as sole horizon…

On the other hand, if we accept that there is a clear distinction between ePortfolios and ePortfolio management systems, between individuals and organisations, then it is perfectly possible to have systems that are at the same time 100% centred on the individual and 100% centred on the organisation (or society), having Web 2.0 based individual ePortfolios and ePMS exploiting the information collected and organised in those ePortfolios — micro-formats is a good example of a standard that can be used locally in a document to facilitate interaction with external applications.

In the debate on whether an ePortfolio system should be centred on the individual or the organisation, my position is that it should be 100% focused on learning — the learning individual, and the organisation as a learning entity as well. ePMS should be part of the organisational learning infrastructure, creating a bridge between individual and organisational learning. But this should be a discussion for another post.