Frequently-Asked Questions about Electronic Portfolios

I frequently receive e-mails asking different questions about electronic portfolios. I realize that many of the answers are buried on my website. So this page contains links to specific pages or websites where these answers can be found. If you have other questions not addressed here, send me an e-mail.

Electronic Portfolios - A chapter in Educational Technology; An Encyclopedia, published by ABC-CLIO

The Electronic Portfolio Development Process, a chapter published in AAHE's book, Electronic Portfolios. 

Keep in mind that there is a difference between a digital archive of your work (all of your work that you have stored in a digital format in some type digital storage--sometimes called a working portfolio), and a variety of presentation portfolios that you could create for different purposes and audiences. There is also a difference between the portfolio as process (collection, selection, reflection, direction, presentation) and the portfolio as product (the notebook, the website, the CD-ROM or the DVD and the technological tools used to create the portfolio-as-product). Some commercial tools can also facilitate "work flow management" which facilitates formative assessment and feedback on student work.

I propose that there are really two different types of e-portfolios:

You need both types of portfolios. One creates an electronic record of the learning process, complete with work samples and reflections; the other is much more targeted, where students create specific pieces of work to demonstrate the outcomes designated in the portfolio. Most commercial e-portfolio tools tend to emphasize the presentation/assessment aspects of the e-portfolio, and not enough of the reflection/learning/storytelling aspects.

2. Why should I create an electronic portfolio?

Good Question! The reasons are very contextual: it all boils down to purpose and audience. I've written responses to a couple of groups:

For Student Teachers: Foreword written for 2004 book: Digital Portfolios in Teacher Education

For High School Students:  Entry in my blog on February 11, 2005

41 Benefits of an ePortfolio: for students, educators, employers (Karen Barnstable blog entry)

3. How do I get started in creating my own personal electronic portfolio?

The first step is to figure out the purpose for the portfolio and who will be the audience. 

You could read about my own process for developing my latest portfolio, including how I started putting it together (in my latest online portfolio).

Go through your hard drive or your website and collect a list of your best work. 

At-a-Glance Guides - Creating the Digital Archive: Collect or convert all of your work into digital format and put all of those digital documents into a single folder. Then classify that work and reflect on the items that you have selected. Once you have completed your collection, selection and reflection, you are ready to construct your e-portfolio.

I recommend the following structure for a personal portfolio:

I also provided an overview of all of the work that I highlighted in my portfolio in the form of a matrix (Portfolio-at-a-Glance).

I also included a page where I articulate my future goals. 

I believe that a portfolio should answer these questions that tie the past to the future: 

If you need help with reflection, I have another Google Site on Reflection that explain and support that concept/process.

4. How does my educational institution get started in implementing electronic portfolios?

The first step here is also to figure out the purpose for the portfolio, and who will be the audience. However, that is not an individual decision, which makes it much more complex. There are a variety of dilemmas involved with this decision, and the consequences may not be obvious at first. Some educational institutions have been very successful in implementating electronic portfolios, others have run into major problems. A clear sense of purpose seems to be the most critical component, and understanding that multiple purposes can lead to problems. Here are several articles that outline some of these issues:

Electronic Portfolios as Digital Stories of Deep Learning

Competing Paradigms in Portfolio Approaches

Differentiating Electronic Portfolios and Online Assessment Management Systems (PDF)

TaskStream White Paper (PDF)

Another major question to ask is whether the institution is looking for an assessment management system for aggregating quantitative data, a work flow management system for managing feedback between learners and teachers, or an electronic portfolio as a personal showcase or a reflective learning environment. Again, purpose drives that decision.

5. What technology tools can I/we use to construct an electronic portfolios?

Once these critical issues have been determined, then start looking at the software and services that you will use to implement your electronic portfolio strategy. I have a set of links that identify the commercial tools available. Are you looking for something for free or low cost? There are a variety of free and Open Source options available, described in My Online Portfolio Adventure, where I explored a variety of software, services and strategies for publishing online portfolios. I have also published a discussion of "Authentic Assessment with Electronic Portfolios using Common Software and Web 2.0 Tools" where I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of different common tools and non-commercial online services.

There are two major types of tools: using common software tools or a customized system created just for doing electronic portfolios. At a mininum, select software that will let you create hyperlinks between your narrative/reflections and the artifacts or examples of your work.

David Gibson and I published an extensive article in the CITE Journal on the advantages and trade-offs of both approaches. 

Create Your Own Electronic Portfolio Using Off-the-Shelf Software to Showcase Your Own or Student Work published in Learning & Leading with Technology, April 2000

Do you have any recommendations for portfolio software?

I am careful not to make specific recommendations without knowing the complete portfolio context: purpose, audience, technology available, technology skills of portfolio developers, etc. The answer is usually, "It depends!" Here is a planning document in Word format that elaborates on many of the questions to be asked. Here is also a PDF document that I prepared for my 2005 NECC workshop on free and Open Source tools for online portfolios. The question also becomes, "Do you want an electronic portfolio or work flow management software or an assessment management system?"

In my new new document, Authentic Assessment with Electronic Portfolios using Common Software and Web 2.0 Tools, I give some recommendations on software based on Internet accessibility. 

Here is a document that outlines the characteristics and comparison of different "free" online tools that can be used for ePortfolio development

My blog entries about selecting electronic portfolio tools:

2012: Selecting "Free" Online Tools for ePortfolio Development

2011: Generic Tools Requirement for E-Portfolio Development

2010: Another question about "best" portfolio tools in higher ed 

2010: Which Portfolio Tool?

2009: Motivation and Selecting an ePortfolio System

6. What do I put into an electronic portfolio?

The contents of the portfolio are directly related to the purpose and audience for the portfolio. As an individual, ask yourself, "What are you trying to show?" "What story are you trying to tell with your portfolio?"

Educational institutions may also determine the contents of individual portfolios used for accountability purposes. The real question to ask is, "Who owns the portfolio?" I believe that the owner should determine the contents of a portfolio. These become major philosophical and policy decisions that need to be considered, as discussed in more depth in some of the articles above.

Barton & Collins (1997) have identified four types of evidence that can be placed in an educational portfolio: 

– Artifacts: documents produced during normal academic work

– Reproductions: documents of student work outside the classroom

– Attestations: documentation generated about student’s academic progress

– Productions: documents prepared just for the portfolios. These productions include:

     – Goal Statements: Student’s personal interpretations of each specific purpose for the portfolios

     – Reflective Statements: Students write as they review and organize the evidence in their portfolios

     – Captions: Statement attached to each piece of portfolio evidence, articulating what it is, why it is evidence, and of what it is evidence. 

I believe multimedia is an important component of an electronic portfolio. The following article describes different purposes for adding digital stories to electronic portfolios and gives examples. Purposes of Digital Stories in ePortfolios 

7. How do I publish my electronic portfolio?

You will want to consider a variety of electronic containers for publishing your portfolio: CD-ROM, DVD, and the Internet. Most portfolios today are posted online using a variety of strategies, depending on the tool used to construct the portfolios.

8. What evidence is there that e-portfolios are beneficial to student learning?

We have some evidence that paper portfolios are effective, and we definitely have evidence that reflection contributes to student learning, based on brain research. My research over the next two years is being designed to collect that type of evidence. I have posted one page with reference to some research studies, mostly in higher education: The Research on Portfolios in Education and Dr. Joanne Carney has published several papers on researching electronic portfolios, included in a Symposium at the 2004 AERA conference.

9. How does one assess a student's portfolio?

In a classroom, how is student work assessed? Usually with a rubric? Or is the question really, how do we "grade" a portfolio? Philosophically, I believe that teachers grade the individual artifacts that represent student learning that are placed in a portfolio, but the overall portfolio is simply assessed as "pass" or "not yet" (more work needed). How do we grade student reflections? Grading involves teacher value judgments and reduces student portfolios to just another assignment, when it should be learner-owned and learner-centered. Here is a link to a page that contains examples of rubrics.

©2005, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D. - Updated March 3, 2012 

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