A Case Study of Implementing a Commercial E-Portfolio System in a Teacher Education Program

Here are some edited suggestions made by a faculty member (who requested to remain anonymous) that came out of her experience with a commercial system that was selected by her dean without careful attention to planning issues and philosophical issues:

I've been interested in e-portfolio adoption and use in teacher education programs, but have decided for political reasons not to pursue investigating this. Below are some notes which may or may not help other schools make a decision, based on our experience. Feel free to use them if they help in your tutorial at SITE, but please delete any reference to me, my school and the vendor we are using.

Suggestion 1: Figure out what you want and what you want it for before you go shopping for it. Write your specs down and show them to potential vendors.
If you were to go to a car dealer without first thinking through what you wanted the car for (pulling a boat to your vacation home in the mountains each summer, or commuting to your office down the street each day), then chances are you might not end up with something you really need. I think this is what happened to my COE (it was before I was hired, so this is all based on hearsay). They knew they needed something with "e-portfolio" for NCATE, but they hadn't thought through what that meant or how that would fit in with their programs. Instead they just invited sales reps. in from two companies that offered online e-portfolio systems. The Dean missed the first demo and decided on the second vendor, and then simply told the faculty that this was what they were going to use. ... If we had written specs beforehand, this would not have been at the top of that list.
Suggestion 2: Make sure the vendor is actually selling what they say they are selling. Stick to your specs and have them demo those features - make sure their service will work with your program, not the other way around.
When the chosen vendor first came to give workshops to the faculty (fall semester 2002), the emphasis was on creating lesson plans, with little mention of e-portfolios. In retrospect, it appears that the vendor did not have much of the e-portfolio functionality they had promised (based on e-mail from the vendor's technical support and a conversation with someone from _____) until the summer of 2003. Their e-portfolio system is now available, but this means we lost a year expending effort on lesson plan templates (and heated debates among the faculty as to the use of them in individual faculty members' courses) - not something we could afford given our NCATE deadline.
Suggestion 3: Make sure you know where you stand with the vendor. Talk to others who use their services and get their opinions.
It appears that with some small startup companies, the primary concern is for the potential funders laying out the venture capital, not the students or faculty who use the product. In order to keep funders happy, the company must put a large part of its effort into expanding its customer base of schools. This means that customer service and technical support may be inadequate if all resources are going into sales and marketing. Unanswered e-mails and phone calls, or worse, e-mails that try to convince you that you really don't need/want what you have asked for, may all be indications that the vendor is not in a position to provide the service are paying for.

So, I'm resigned to using this product and will be presenting our plans later this week to the entire college to use this product to build an Assessment e-portfolio. We are specifically calling it an Assessment E-Portfolio and telling students that we need them to do this so we can assess our program. It will not be used to make evaluative candidate decisions and is based on the new state teaching standards that our students will have to start understanding in any event. Students will be expected to decide for themselves both the artifacts they believe show evidence of each standard as well as a short overview of their interpretation of the standard and how they think their teaching will reflect it - so showing both a theoretical and evidential understanding of each standard. At least, that's the hope - I'm in the early stages of this.

I believe this is a real step forward, compared to what we were doing last year, which was creating lesson plan templates in this product and mandating that they had to be used in each course (you can guess at the cries re. academic freedom). There was absolutely no thought of students using e-portfolios to construct their own deeper learning, etc. - everything was prescribed. Again, I think we fell into this trap partially because we had not thought through what we wanted for e-portfolios and also because the vendors product forced us into this mode because it was all that their tool provided (a long time ago I wrote a paper comparing Whorf's theory of language determining thought and our current use of tools determining approaches).

Of course students are free to go off and create their own portfolios, but we're not giving them the resources or incentives to do this; instead we're asking them to shell out $____ for a buggy product....

We could have, for example, looked at building a cheap system using something like a weblog server with a customized template, which would let them upload artifacts ('gems') and keep a running record of thoughts, etc. - kind of a combination scrapbook/diary. I'm particularly interested in these kinds of solutions because I'm working with some members of the Faculty of Education at the University of [in Africa], and US$___ is a whole lot of money for students there. For our assessment purposes I think we could have done everything this product does in an excel spreadsheet... there may be an advantage to keep in the portfolio and assessment functionality separate. However we would need them to create a version of their portfolio organized around the state teaching standards so we could see how they interpreted those standards and give us a foundation to look at our programs with.

©2004, Helen C. Barrett
updated February 19, 2004