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Why are portfolios popular now?


ePortfolios are a reinvention of an old idea: portfolios have long been used by professional bodies and by skills-based programmes as a means of recording continuous development. As of 2007, the prefix ‘e’ is still frequently applied to portfolios but as over 60% (and rising) of UK households now have internet access and 84% of that is broadband1 the ‘e’ becomes ever more redundant: people are used to recording and sharing information using computers.  The roll-out of computer access within schools is still patchy but improving and supported by wider public access through libraries, community centres and local initiatives.  Television broadcasters and newspaper and magazine publishers assume that most people have computer access as they publicise online support materials or give email addresses in preference to land addresses.  This adds to a climate in which ‘e’ is the norm; a climate which is not without dangers of a deep digital divide but, provided that is actively managed, one in which portfolios can be reinvented in the wider public arena in support of current and future political and economic objectives.


In the wider strategic framework, there are two main areas to note that are encouraging the use of portfolios.  Firstly, the goals of the OECD for the development of digital and lifelong learning. These are being variously interpreted in different countries but the underlying climate of 'digital' and 'lifetime' has been set.  This will affect the materials available in the education retail market and this is a global market where individuals search for tools and techniques that might help them whether or not they are specified by a course.  Secondly and currently of lesser strategic importance within the UK than it is elsewhere, is the effect of the Bologna Process which encourages ease of transfer from one university and one country to another.


In the educational arena, portfolios fit with modern pedagogical design: outcomes assessment is about meeting standards and what you know, not where or how you learned it.  In theory, if not in practice, if you can prove you meet the assessment criteria, you can qualify for an award.


In the past year, lifelong learning has again entered mainstream news throughout the Western world, largely in connection with changing demographics and the need to raise retirement ages.  The scope of this change is perhaps under-reported as, in 2005, a search for grants for lifelong learning found one organisation that stopped ‘lifelong’ maths support aged eight (!) and UK continuing education classes were making headline news as whole departments closed.  The change is profound as governments the world over are raising targets for the number of adults in higher education yet universities are often made of solid classrooms of finite size and adults are often working long and irregular hours but would attend university courses if the programmes could be more flexible.


Within this changing climate, portfolios have steadily been embedding themselves within learning programmes at all levels from primary school to apprenticeships and university, not forgetting their continuing use within the professions.  Yet their use still encounters some image problems depending upon where and when people first encountered them.  From bemused 16 year olds filling in ‘this learning thing for Mrs James’, to those struggling with crates of 1990s NVQ evidence, not all the experiences have been positive.  However, the new learner-centred, digital portfolios can be, and often are, very different, with highly positive outcomes.  Moreover, what was a somewhat British idea is now international: the French are using portfolios for university admissions and the Americans use portfolios for both assessment and admissions.


It is on this positive aspect that ePortfolios are set to develop within a clearly defined strategic context.  This context includes the elearning framework (including e-assessment and design of learning resources and activities) of the UK-government funded JISC, the DfES eLearning strategy 20052 and the BECTA3 strategic goals plus the recently renewed commitment (admittedly contained in both the DfES and BECTA goals) to lifelong learning.  All three organisations are committed to the cost-effective development of an integrated technological infrastructure to support learning in all its forms and have agreed that it is essential that materials, tools and techniques recognise and contribute to this overall vision; a vision that is technology enhanced, not technology driven.


Challenges ahead

In practical terms, in 2007 there are still considerable administrative challenges to overcome before use for third-party reasons (academic assessment, employment, appraisal, professional memberships, life-coaching) can become widespread and these are being addressed.  Problems include:


  1. Promotion of Portfolios as mainstream tools for modern Outcomes-based and continuous learning.

  2. Cost-effective use of portfolios for admissions and AP(E)L in widespread and frequent discontinuous higher education

  3. Bandwidth.  Students and staff working offsite can still have considerable difficulties in uploading large documents through institutional servers.

  4. Archiving of portfolio content in secure, accessible, enduring formats

  5. Creation of semi-automated evaluation of portfolios produced for assessment purposes to reduce the financial, staffing and time costs involved

  6. Data protection as a separate legal issue likely to gain headlines against such headings as the unique learner number

  7. Rights management of content in all its aspects from the point of entry to formal learning programmes to employment contracts, employer liabilities, personal ownership, team ownership, authorship.

  8. More widespread awareness of the need for liabilities management on the part of portfolio systems providers

  9. Guidance and training in the use of portfolios for all stakeholders: learning providers, technology providers, learners and employers.

  10. Differentiating clearly for all stakeholders between the various uses of portfolios: assessment, reflection, recording

  11. Usability.  Without usability, no system will be accepted because learners, teachers and employers will find other solutions and there will be continued fragmentation of understanding and application.  The portfolio-lite approach is a recognition of this; a user-held portfolio from which extracts can be made available to different people at different times.

  12. Overcoming the various resistances to portfolios from potential users especially those in non-traditional learning (non-employed adults 25-125, school drop-outs, employed on-the-job-learners).

  13. Developing a professional discipline in portfolio supervision and evaluation.

  14. Integrating with other initiatives including psychometrically valid assessment, use of common terminology.