It is true that there are many different ePortfolio definitions and that their range can be disturbing, not only to the newcomer. It is also true that many ePortfolio practitioners feel the urge to create their own version, and I’m not an exception to that. In fact I like to use different definitions, depending on the context and my goal. For example, I like the definition of the ePortfolio as a personal and community knowledge management tool… as well as digital identity construction tool…
So, why so many definitions? What does this diversity say about the ePortfolio and the practitioners who are using/describing it? Is it a problem and should we all agree on one and only definition?
Why so many definitions?
While the ePortfolio is an emerging technology, many of the practices and concepts used to describe it were born in the era of the paper-based portfolio. It is natural that new practices and concepts emerge from a new technology, and that conversely technology is being transformed by emerging practices! One of the most radical changes is probably the use of social computing, making the ePortfolio, not only a ‘paperless portfolio’ but a social object. Another change is the emergence of user generated contents and contexts, the learner being the producer of learning resources and environment used by other learners. With such practices, the ePortfolio is not the mere repository of good students work and reflection, but the repository of knowledge used by others. The ePortfolio is not just a demonstration of one’s learning but the resource used by others to learn, the use by others being the evidence of learning. The ‘learning to learn’ mantra should probably be replaced by ‘learning to share’ or ‘learning to teach’.
What do a paperless portfolio and socially connected portfolio have in common, beyond being both digital and containing some reflections? Probably very little. So, why should definitions be identical?
Should we all agree on one and only definition?
Epistemology tells us that when concepts become fuzzy or contradictory, when the reality can’t be properly described by a concept anymore, then this concept should be abandoned and replaced by a better one. Trying to twist the definition of a portfolio to that of an ePortfolio has probably become counter-productive at this stage.
Using the same name to refer to many different realities is certainly not helpful, and it would be nice to agree on one definition. And this definition should be precise enough to avoid the kind of comments I’ve heard so many times: “so, everything is an ePortfolio.” And the solution might be to say that an ePortfolio is a “portfolio constructed with the help of digital technology”, keeping the current definition of a portfolio. This would suppress the contradictory definitions that were mentioned before. But then, to what concept should we attach those definitions?
I suggest that the range of contradictory/complementary definitions, from paperless portfolios to personal knowledge management tools, should be sublated into another concept. For the lack of better term, I suggest “digital identity” or “eSelf”, i.e. the use of technology as the support of one’s identity construction.
Learning is not about creating portfolios, it is about constructing one’s social identity. The ePortfolio should be a mean, not an end. And just like paper-based portfolios could be an obstacle to the recognition of learning (building a portfolio involve a set of skills that are different from those of “Speaking French”, so obliging a person to construct a portfolio to have their linguistic competencies recognised could be counter-productive), ePortfolios can become an obstacle to learning — ePortfolio of learning are still more common that portfolio for learning…
Why should the ePortfolio be subsumed by eSelf?
The ePortfolio has not escaped from a representation of reality where people are compartmentalised in silos. The fact that to properly describe an ePortfolio, you need to add a modifier such as ‘marketing’, ‘learning’, ‘assessment’ or ‘employment’ means that the concept of ePortfolio on its own is simply a compilation of files with a dash of reflection adapted to a number of pre-defined purposes.
If the objective of the ePortfolio is the demonstration of reflective learning and practice, then does one absolutely need an ePortfolio to perform or even demonstrate reflective learning and practice? Is our objective to perform or demonstrate? Do we need to demonstrate in order to perform effectively, and is the ePortfolio the best way to perform reflective learning and practice? Are their other ways? Shouldn’t we look at naturally occurring opportunities for demonstrating evidence of reflective learning and practice, without the need to spend time in the compilation of a document, that might be useful from the point of view of an institution that delivers a qualification or hire for a job, but not for everyday’s practice? Can discrete compilation of documents be sufficient, or do we need something continuous, more organically linked to our everyday’s life?
The eSelf is a means to break the barriers across silos and information systems, the compartments and roles in which institutions tend to lock us in. I want to exist on the web without the filter of some pre-defined template or procedure, where I communicate with others through my left and right brains — most of ePortfolio are left-brain based, even in the field of media studies…
Should we continue to use the concept of ePortfolio?
It is certain that if we tell those who are starting to support the idea that everyone should have an ePortfolio, that what they should really be supporting is that everyone should have a digital identity, then we might lose some of them. This is not to say that the ePortfolio is a necessary step towards the eSelf but that we need to be advanced, yet acceptable if we want to have our message being heard. This is why I don’t mind about the variety of ePortfolio definitions, so I can continue to use the word while meaning my “digital identity.”