eMails on ePortfolios

©2006, Helen C. Barrett, Ph.D.

I have responded to the following eMails in the period of June 25-26, 2006:

  1. Medical School
  2. High Schools
  3. iLife/iDVD for ePortfolios

Medical School Faculty

Hello, I am about to carry out a 1-year feasibility study to see if a student portfolio will be an appropriate, and appropriately reviewed, method for assessing the development of critical thinking skills and reflection in medical students 1 July 06 - 30 June07. Most of this time will focus on rubric generation and planning how reviewers would be trained. I assume(d) that students would include paper-based work products in their portfolios...

Can anyone refer current resources on how to put electronic portfolios together, and particularly on how such documentation can be reviewed by multiple assessors, especially if this has involved rubric development. I am planning a 2nd year application (in 2007) for a longer/larger study of implementation, provided that the feasibility study points to "yes"; when the portfolios are implemented it would be great to give these medical students the opportunity to, eg, include video clips of their best 'bedside manner', or what they consider 'their most challenging simulated patient'. Additionally, I chair a committee on the teaching portfolio and have an online one myself - but my TP is focused on paper-based work; so our discussions of how Tenure and Promotions committees review/evaluate our TPs are also paper-based. So I am particularly interested in developing rubrics for assessment and group reviews.

Thanks for any hints!

My response:

You outline an interesting study to address medical students' development of critical thinking skills and reflection. Your interest in adding video to the system is exciting, and not often considered when institutions implement electronic portfolios. Of course there is the extra work involved with editing the video (but if you are a Mac user, it s a snap!).

Keep in mind that my experience with electronic portfolios is primarily in Teacher Education and High Schools. My biases will show here, but I think you are talking more about an online assessment management system than an electronic portfolio. I consider the former as an institution-centered approach, and the latter as a learner-centered approach, especially if you are scoring these documents with rubrics. I have written about these issues on my website, and soon in an upcoming Electronic Portfolios issue of IRA's Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy (a version of my TaskStream White Paper: In that paper, I outlined the differences between portfolios used to support deep learning (and formative assessment), and those used for summative (or high stakes) assessment.

When you start talking about using portfolios for high stakes accountability, you are moving into an area that I would say is fraught with tension... the tension between different underlying philosophies of learning and assessment. Last week, I sat in on a dissertation committee, where the doctoral student looked at the attitudes of teacher education faculty toward different issues related to electronic portfolios and their use for high stakes assessment. He used the Semantic Differential Technique to discern faculty attitudes toward different concepts involved in implementation of electronic portfolios in teacher education.

A major finding of that dissertation was that those faculty (who chose to complete the instrument) recognized the inherent tension between the two clusters of constructs in terms of their underlying philosophies. One cluster (rated more positively) included such concepts as Self-Reflection, Teaching/Learning Portfolio, Authentic Assessment, Constructivism, Technology Integration. The other cluster (rated more negatively) included such concepts as Electronic Portfolios as High-stakes Assessment, Mandatory electronic Portfolio Implementation, and "Large-scale High-stakes Assessments are Reliable." If the faculty recognized that tension, then you can bet the students will. I just wrote a blog entry about mandatory high school portfolios: a less mature audience, but many of the same issues: and specifically

One of the challenges is using student reflection, which could be very personal and introspective, for high stakes accountability. The temptation is for students to reflect less honestly when they think their work is being judged or graded (what do the assessors want to hear, not what do I really feel?). Joanne Carney's dissertation research also found six dilemmas in implementing electronic portfolios. You can find her research online ( and I participated in a day-long ePortfolio workshop on Reflection at UBC in November 2004, where there was also a student panel at the end of the day. It is very enlightening to hear the students talk about having their reflections scored. The video is online, linked from my website:

We could have a later discussion about tools, but a blog that is capable of linking to digital video would be interesting. I am encouraging people to look at Web 2.0 technologies to implement electronic portfolios ("small pieces, loosely joined)[another of my blog entries]. But if you want a tool that lets students collect and organize their work, and keeps track of faculty scoring/feedback, then you are looking at one of the commercial tools with a database built for that purpose. I've looked at most of them. The challenge is finding a tool that provides that type of data collection while still allowing students to truly express their individuality and creativity. That is the real challenge we have today with the tools: balance. One interesting approach has been taken by the MNSCU ePortfolio project (State of Minnesota), building a scoring system that they can use with their learner-centered eFolio system. Most ePortfolios systems have started the other way around (start with the data collection, then add the portfolio development tool). But I digress...

High School Teacher

I am a secondary school teacher in Arizona. As part of my [graduate] course I am researching electronic portfolios. I ran across your website and was amazed at the amount of useful information I found. I do have additional questions and was hoping you might be able to help me.

1. Electronic portfolios are becoming more common, what changes do you see in our educational system because of this?
2. I know you just finished year 1 of the REFLECT Initiative, but what have you found so far regarding electronic portfolios.
3. What can school adminstrators and their staff do to integrate this type of program into our schools. And how do we help our students?

Any help you can give me regarding the above questions would be greatly appreciated.

My response:

Thanks for the message and our interest in electronic portfolios. I will respond below, but encourage you to read some of my recent blog entries, where I have discussed some of these issues in more detail.

1. Your first question makes the assumption that electronic portfolios are becoming more common, but I see the major activity in higher education, not in K12 schools. That was not the case prior to NCLB, but I find that many schools are so focused on students passing the high stakes tests, that there is little attention being paid to portfolios. I just wrote an article for the Classroom Connect newsletter [which I attached]. So, I don't see many changes in our educational system, yet. However, the article describes the use of electronic portfolios in formative, classroom-based assessment, rather than in high stakes, summative assessment. I think most electronic portfolios today are either created for accountability purposes or for showcasing student work achievement at the end of a course or program or graduation. I believe the most powerful use of the ePortfolio is for learning, or for formative, classroom-based assessment.

2. Since we have just finished the first year of data collection, I am just beginning to draw some conclusions, based mostly on my site visits to each of the sites who are implementing our research project. My first impression is that the role of the teacher is critical to implementation (more critical than adequate access to technology, which is secondary). Teachers need to understand the role of portfolios in learning, and there is a critical difference in student attitude based on how the teachers introduced the portfolio to students. Most of our research sites are implementing the project with one or two teachers in a school, but there are a few sites who have adopted the ePortfolio school-wide, starting with the freshman class last year, and training the freshman teachers. Next year they will give portfolio accounts to the new freshmen, and will provide professional development to the sophomore teachers, so that last year's students will continue to use the portfolios. I am looking at those sites with a lot of enthusiasm. If you will be at NECC in San Diego, two of the schools will be making a presentation about their experience in the project at 8:30 AM on Wednesday, July 5.

3. The most important role for school administrators is to support the use of portfolios, and create some expectations about minimum participation. In one of our sites, the principal told the teachers that he wanted to see at least one artifact from each class in every student's portfolio by the end of the semester (fall) which put a huge demand on the school's computer resources in the last two weeks of the semester!

If you look at the portfolio development process (collection, selection, reflection, direction, celebration) I think students need support at each stage.

  1. First, in the collection stage, students need to know how to capture (or convert) their work in digital form, and learn how to save that work into a "digital archive" that is hopefully accessible from both home and school. This process implies helping students to organize their work in digital form, probably in electronic folders on the portfolio server. This digital archive provides the raw materials for the portfolio, and can include different sequential versions of an assignment.
  2. In the second stage, selection, students often need help to select that appropriate work that they have stored in their digital archive, to be able to meet the goals of the portfolio activity (what outcome, goal or standard does an artifact demonstrate or which artifacts demonstrate that you have met a specific outcome, goal or standard). Modeling the process, and showing examples to students helps them with the selection process.
  3. In the third stage, reflection, students need to be taught how to reflect on their work. I believe that reflection is the "heart and soul" of a portfolio, and students often need scaffolding. I have observed teachers helping students write their reflections, which is essentially a writing process activity. I have also encouraged schools to consider using multimedia (podcasting, digital storytelling) to capture students' voice in their portfolio reflections, both literally and rhetorically.
  4. In the fourth stage, direction, students receive feedback on their portfolios, so that they recognize their strengths and opportunities for future learning. I ask students to set future learning goals, which uses the portfolio as assessment FOR learning (see the article). This process turns portfolio development into powerful lifelong learning .
  5. In the fifth stage, celebration, students make a formal presentation before an audience. Students need help to prepare a good presentation from their work, to highlight what they have learned, and where that is leading them in terms of their own personal and life work goals.

You must see that this process takes more time than giving students multiple choice tests. However, I believe the outcomes are worth the effort. We need more teachers who understand the power in that process and are willing to learn along with students. I also think the tools are getting better, but are still being developed as institution-centered accountability portfolios (with data bases to collect evaluation data). We need an equal emphasis on an environment where students can tell the story of their learning with pride through individuality and creativity.

I hope that answered some of your questions.

iLife/iDVD for Electronic Portfolios

Hi, everyone! I am a last minute sub for a 6-hour workshop at the Alabama conference this coming week, and I am asking for any ideas, resources, or content you may have that you would be willing to share for this workshop. It is a hands-on workshop showing how you can use iLife/iDVD for creating electronic portfolios.

My response:

Have you looked on the Apple website? They have an online tutorial:
Their version of a portfolio is for the creative professional, to showcase their work to a potential employer. In education, we most often have other purposes. In fact, the first question to ask is, What is the purpose for this portfolio? Purpose drives all other decisions, including which tools to use, which content to include, etc. In my opinion, Apple's tutorial covers the technical skills very well, but does not address the pedagogical issues in schools.

Since you are using iLife, the decision about the tools is assumed. So, with iLife, there are two ways to publish your portfolios: on the Web or on an optical disc (CD or DVD). The form of publishing makes a huge difference as to the type of documents that are included. I also noticed that Apple's website mentions nothing about reflection, which I think is the "heart and soul" of a portfolio in education. So, you will need to add that pedagogical component to the technical/tool tutorial that Apple has provided.

If you are publishing to DVD, then you are including slide shows and video clips with students reflecting on their learning, showing examples of their work, including digital stories, etc. Of course, you can add a folder with a lot of other types documents, which is accessible on the DVD from the Finder, but to my knowledge, in iDVD you cannot link from your DVD video menu directly to any documents. I think you need DVD Studio Pro to do that hyperlinking. That is the weakness of using iDVD. You get wonderful video, but most of student's academic work is not created in video format. (The exception to that assumption is with early childhood portfolios, where all of the work must be scanned or photographed, and so a DVD would work there... if the teacher has the time!)

The trend today is to move away from optical media (whether on CD or DVD) to publishing electronic portfolios. Students want to see their work online. Work that is posted to the Web can more easily be included in assessment management systems, or work flow managers that facilitate feedback on student work. The trade-off is the quality of the video, but the benefits of interactivity make up for it.

I am starting to explore using iWeb to create an electronic portfolio, since it is so integrated with the rest of the iLife tools. It also includes a blog, which I think is central to a learning portfolio. (I've published a blog entry about using Web 2.0 technologies in electronic portfolios. These include blogs, wikis and other dynamic tools, including links to social networking sites.) I used iWeb to create a travel blog on my .Mac account for our European trip: or the main page is: - Not really a portfolio or a digital story in multimedia, but it certainly tells the story of our journey, which is what I think a portfolio should do: tell the story of the learning journey.

If you want to demonstrate iWeb, then include a blog or a podcast page, which students can use to reflect on their learning. The blog section is for written reflections (with images, as in my travel blog), the podcast section is for audio reflections. And you don't have to have a .Mac account to publish your iWeb files. You can Publish to a Folder, and then upload the folder to a school server, or publish the whole thing on a CD.

Finally, I think digital storytelling can be a powerful addition to an electronic portfolio (using iMovie or even Garage Band, now). I am currently working on a presentation showcasing different purposes of digital stories in ePortfolios. Here are some of the purposes that I have identified so far: Introduction (Voice & Personality), Reflection, Transition, Benchmarking Development, Memoir, Biography, Legacy, Collaboration, Decision, Documentary. I hope to collect (or create) examples to illustrate these different types of digital stories in ePortfolios.

So I hope this gives you some ideas for your workshop. Electronic portfolios in education are more than just collections of digital work. To be truly portfolios, they must include reflection, narrative, stories, or rationale (whatever you want to call it).

A later question:

The comments and suggestions on electronic portfolios have been wonderful, but I'd like some feedback on where an electronic portfolio is published. I notice Helen said that the trend is to web-based, but how do I plan or manage for that with privacy issues, and detailed information about students that I try to keep off the school websites.Are these portfolio pieces username/password accessible only?

I'm living in the K-12 environment where so much is blocked or filtered.

My response: I was simply responding to [the] question about using iLife software to create electronic portfolios. I recognized privacy (and security) as a major issue when I switched from higher ed to my current research on ePortfolios in secondary schools. That is where a commercial service has a real advantage over some of the open source and free tools available. One of their major selling points is the security that they have built into their systems. Unless you have access to a server where you can require a password before anyone can view any student website, then you might stick with publishing ePortfolios on CD or DVD. Perhaps you who are more familiar with server technology know how to implement this type of password requirement. I noticed that iWeb allows you to require a user name and password before opening a site, so that may be the solution. Does that password protection only work on a .Mac account, or will it work on any server?

There is another advantage of the commercial systems and online portfolios, though, and that is how many of them facilitate the interaction between students and teachers. A student submits work, the teacher sees a list of student work that has been submitted for review, and feedback can be sent back to the student. At the same time, evaluation data can be accumulated in the system's database. That type of system is what I call a work flow management system, or an assessment management system. The challenge with these systems is a reduction in creativity and student choice. I've spent the last two years writing about the differences between an electronic portfolio and these assessment management systems. So, there are trade-offs.