Some waffle on ePortfolios

CQUniversity is currently running a feasibility study into the use of ePortfolios. This study started with the shift from Blackboard 6.3 to Moodle 1.9 when we lost the journaling feature that Blackboard provided. We found that our ‘vanilla’ Moodle installation lacked the facility to provide a confidential area where students in clinical placements could reflect on their experiences in collaboration with their clinical supervisors. One example of this was some students who were required to maintain reflective journals based on their real world experiences in their clinical placements. Additionally the clinical supervisor needed the ability to access and comment on these private journals so as to share their experience and knowledge with the student based on real world situations. So essentially the ePortfolio study arose around the gap in functionality between the old and new learning management system (LMS), not to mention, a desire by the participants to see what all the fuss is about in higher education around the use of ePortfolios.

While I quite like Mahara and the way that it is developed and inter-operates with Moodle, I do have some concerns about ePortfolios in general and the way that higher education institutions are rushing to adopt an ePortfolio solution. Some of my concerns align with what David has said on his blog although I am not so scathing of their use in our particular case as I think they probably do have a place in the context of our university given that:

  • Mahara is a reasonable solution to the initial problem we were attempting to solve and provides for some interesting opportunities for authentically extending the existing curriculum.
  • Many of the accrediting professions are demanding that students maintain a portfolio of evidence as they progress through their careers and the electronic approach is probably the future.
  • Like it or not, LMS are here and are not likely to disappear from universities until well after they have outlived their usefulness.

The main point I make in the list above is that it is the likes of the engineering, nursing and the teaching professional bodies that are requiring their members to maintain portfolios which suggests there is a gap for an institution that does not prepare students for their use in the big bad world. That said I am not comfortable with the institution centricity, nor their one size fits all approach that ePortfolio adoption has taken and also the lack of independence from any particular institution. David makes these points in his post and they are hard to disagree with. But!

The fact is that most universities are consolidating eLearning functions into a minimal number of systems for their own convenience. We all hear the terms “single LMS”, “single ePortfolio system” not to mention the old chestnut when folk are talking about open source systems, “we must keep it vanilla for reliability and performance purposes”. To me, this is the reality of the situation and due to the endemic nature of these systems in universities and the risk averse mentalities of the decision makers, changes will most likely be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. So while I agree that there are many reasons to criticize the way that ePortfolios are being adopted by universities, perhaps this is an initial baby step away from institution centricity and a baby step in the right direction. Jeremy Hiebert has an excellent diagram of how ePortfolios sit in relation to the personal learning environment (PLE) model that somewhat aligns with my (limited) view of the eLearning world. I also like the way that this diagram represents ePortfolios and the LMS as only bit players in the whole act.

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