Today I received another request for recommendations for e-portfolio software in a K-12 school. I probably get one request a week, and my answer is always, "It depends!" In the last month, I have received messages from several commercial companies who have software or e-portfolio services for sale. A major need in this field is for a "Consumer's Guide" to Electronic Portfolios. Kathryn Chang Barker of FuturEd presented the first draft of such a Guide at the LIFIA conference in Vancouver (B.C.) last April, based on her previous Guide to providers of Distance Learning. I thought her guide had some problems, since an e-portfolio is very different from a distance learning environment; a portfolio is more individual-centered compared to an institution-centered distance learning program or service. I thought her Guide did not consider the "common tools" approach to developing e-portfolios. There are many strategies for creating e-portfolios, and her document appeared to help consumers select e-portfolio online SYSTEMS, rather than using common desktop tools. However, it is a good supplement to my article published in Learning & Leading with Technology in April 2000, which addressed using common desktop tools.
I think there are some underlying philosophical issues that need to be addressed before decisions about which approach or software to use. I believe that electronic portfolios can have multiple purposes: as assessment tools to document the attainment of standards (a positivist model--an assessment portfolio); as digital stories of deep learning (a constructivist model--a learning portfolio); and as digital resumes to highlight competence (a showcase model-- a marketing/employment portfolio). These models are often at odds, philosophically, with each other. While administrators often implement electronic portfolios for the first purpose (the assessment portfolio), the students usually view this portfolio as something "done to them" rather than something they WANT to maintain as a lifelong learning tool. A portfolio that is truly a story of learning is OWNED by the learner, structured by the learner, and told in the learner's own VOICE (literally and rhetorically).
I haven't found a commercial electronic portfolio system or software package that meets my definition of a learning portfolio, although there are a few web server-based systems that come close. I started this blog because I wanted to explore using a blog as a reflective journal with artifacts... as my own learning portfolio. Most commercial systems have been designed to appeal to administrators' needs for assessment data (in higher ed, we call it "deanware") based on a positivist model.
This philosophical discussion is further elaborated on my website in three recent publications: Electronic Portfolios as Digital Stories of Deep Learning (not finished, and thus not online yet)
Competing Paradigms in Portfolio Approaches (a work in progress)
Differentiating Electronic Portfolios and Online Assessment Management Systems
I am very concerned that the current crop of commercial tools are "perversions" (Lee Shulman's term) of the portfolio concept. I am concerned that in the name of high stakes assessment, we are losing a powerful tool to support deep learning. I am concerned that that we are losing the "stories" in e-portfolios in favor of the skills checklists. Portfolios should support an environment of reflection and collaboration. It is a rare system that supports those multiple needs. That is why I often advocate for three interconnected systems: an archive of student work, an assessment management system to document achievement of standards, and an authoring environment where students can construct their own electronic portfolios and reflective, digital stories of learning.
Essentially, electronic portfolio development is a content management process with reflection on learning represented in the stored artifacts. There are two major directions in electronic portfolio development. One path uses generic tools (GT) such as word processors, presentation software, HTML editors, multimedia authoring tools, portable document format (PDF), or other commonly used productivity tool software found on most desktop computers. The second path uses an "information technology" customized systems approaches (CS) that involve servers, programming, and databases. In the article that David Gibson and I published online, we discuss the pros and cons of each approach and the quality issues under each environment: (http://www.citejournal.org/vol2/iss4/general/article3.cfm).
My assumption is that educators want a system that is very open, and allows for multiple purposes, so that learners can develop a portfolio that meets THEIR goals. I have seen effective use of Userland's Manila content management software as an open environment that is very close to a GT approach in a web-based environment. While not specifically an electronic portfolio program, the software allows the accumulation of a digital archive of artifacts (called "gems" and "pictures") and allows the user to build a series of web pages (called "stories") using those documents. I have other examples highlighted in my "paradigms" article noted above. I welcome comments about choosing appropriate technology tools to support the portfolio development process.