ePortfolio: a student-centred learning space

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! Did you ever wonder how to make your students reflect more on what they learn and also on how they learn? Is one of your learning goals having students dive deeper into a specific topic throughout the course? And if that is the case, would you like to have a platform where you can follow their progress and where they can collect, curate and reflect upon their “learning moments”? Then ePortfolios might be just what you are looking for. This week we’re going to explore the various aspects of the ePortfolio, hoping that some of them will resonate with you and inspire you to try this approach in your courses. As usual, I’ve also put together some resources (and especially resource hubs) on the topic and to end this issue I’m inviting you to read two brilliant guest post on my blog. Hope you enjoy reading and have a nice and well-deserved summer break!

What are ePortfolios?

ePortfolios can be defined as “personal learning spaces”. An ePortfolio is a collection of materials that documents student accomplishments. Unlike an “analogue” portfolio, the digital element allows for the inclusion of different media (video, audio, infographics, etc), thereby providing students with various means of expression as well as the possibility to easily connect resources and ideas. But ePortfolios go further than that. A space for deep learning, ePortfolios enable the visualisation of one’s own learning path. They can be seen as a “learning diary”, where students reflect on their learning process.

Types of ePortfolios

There are various ways to categorise ePortfolios according to their main objectives and the task design. To keep it simple, I’ll stick to these three broad types:

  • learning ePortfolios,

  • assessment ePortfolios,

  • personal development ePortfolios.

The difference is mainly one of focus: while learning ePortfolios emphasise and support the learning process, as a meta-tool, assessment ePortfolios have a mainly evaluative purpose and are usually connected to specific assignments. Personal development ePortfolios go a step further, allowing students to reflect on and document their own learning process. These can be developed further and turned into showcase ePortfolios used to present students’ work while accessing the labour market.

Why use ePortfolios?

ePortfolios are a versatile learning tool that can be used in a variety of tasks, with a focus on self-directed learning, collaborative knowledge building, or a combination of both. There are many reasons why I believe ePortfolios can be a very effective learning tool, but I decided to elaborate on a few of them which I consider more generally applicable, regardless of the discipline:

  • ePortfolios enable a deeper, integrative form of learning, whereby students build connections, reflect, analyse and transfer ideas and concepts;

  • ePortfolios provide students with a personal learning space while also enabling teachers to monitor, scaffold and assess knowledge and skill building;

  • ePortfolios offer a more personalised and authentic way of assessing students’ attainment of learning outcomes, as compared to quizzes and exams, especially on assignments designed to facilitate higher order thinking.

ePortfolio as a tool for integrative learning

“Integrative learning” refers to the idea of purposefully making connections between concepts and experiences and being able to apply them in new situations and challenges. An ePortfolio activity can capture and document students’ learning beyond the final product, be it an essay, an exam, or a presentation. This gives teachers the chance to gain deeper insights into learners as persons and to connect to them at a different level, which adds authenticity and enriches the overall learning experience. By facilitating these various angles of the learning process, the ePortfolio is valuable both as process (how one learns) and as outcome (what one learns).

ePortfolio as a space for independent learning

ePortfolios provide a space for self-regulated learning, where students are in charge of when, where and how they learn. This does not come without its challenges, as it requires self-discipline and a sustained sense of purpose. But ultimately the existence of such an environment, where students have ownership of their own learning, is intrinsically valuable for their self-development process.

Depending on the task design, this space can sometimes be structured by the teacher who provides reflection prompts and guidance. ePortfolio content can be brought back into the classroom to feed into group activities. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the learners, who can personalise the style and content of the ePortfolio to reflect their own perspective.

The e in ePortfolio

By facilitating the use of various media, ePortfolio activities encourage creativity, allowing students to express themselves in a more personalised manner. Moreover, research shows that electronic linking (i.e. hypertextuality) within ePortfolios and cognitive linking (i.e. integrative learning) might be connected.

ePortfolios also offer students the opportunity to train in writing using different styles, and they allow them to create work in an authentic digital environment, equipping them with a very useful skill for their future careers. The use of digital technologies brings about new features to how we process information, such as nonlinearity, multimodality, visibility, persistence, editability and association. Used in an effective manner, in a well-designed ePortfolio activity, these can enhance learners’ experience by adding a new layer to the purely academic content consumption and production.

Integration of ePortfolios in the course design

To be used effectively, ePortfolio activities need to be strongly connected with the rest of the course- in terms of knowledge building, assessment and workload- as well as carefully aligned with the learning objectives.

ePortfolios are ideally as formative assessment tools, in line with the assessment for learning paradigm. Their authentic nature, as compared to essays or exams, serves both an evaluative and a developmental purpose. However, there is one dilemma: the teacher needs to strike a balance between a rigorous assignment with a prescribed outcome and a clear assessment rubric and providing students the freedom and flexibility to express themselves. They also need to constantly adjust the amount of guidance they provide so that they don’t impinge on students’ ownership.

ePortfolios facilitate various forms of feedback from both teacher and peers, which constitutes cognitive and social support. Because the ePortfolio documents the learning process, the teacher is able to provide ipsative feedback at various stages of the assignment, commenting directly on students’ progress.

You can read more about using ePortfolios in political science in a recently published article “ePortfolios in Political Science: The Interplay Between Independent Learning Space and Collective Knowledge Building”, which I co-authored with Frederik Questier and Chang Zhu (VUB) and was part of my PhD.


What’s new @ The Educationalist?

In the meantime I’ve been very happy to host two more amazing guest posts on my blog, which I wholeheartedly invite you to read:

As this is the last newsletter issue before the summer break, I wanted to wish you a relaxing break, do take time for yourselves and recharge before the fall semester starts. See you back in a few weeks, with some more inspiration for the new academic year!