E-portfolios signal a digital dawn

In a sign of accelerating trend towards digitisation of tertiary education, using e-portfolios for student assessment is firmly on the teaching and learning agenda.

A report commissioned by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council, formerly the Carrick Institute, is due next month to complete its investigation of e-portfolios and the project team is expected to recommend steps to encourage their use.

It also may recommend seeking government help in developing national systems or ensuring inter-operability across institutions.

'We would like to see an environment that encourages e-portfolio practices, and that could be some government support in understanding the inter-operability issue,' project leader Gillian Hallam of Queensland University of Technology told the HES. 'If it isn't going to be one size fits all in a national system, then how do people transport the data into other systems?'

But the report is likely to fall short of echoing the European Institute for E-Learning's 2003 blanket campaign for all European citizens to have access to an e-portfolio by 2010.

E-portfolios, which combine narrative digital and multimedia work with a student's wider experiences, are so far being used in a patchwork way across the sector, as a way to bring a greater focus on individual learning in an age of mass education. They are seen as a way of feeding off the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook.

Education management services provider Blackboard has produced an e-portfolio product specifically to link with the Facebook site.

In the context of a sector working to expand participation among mature-age and disadvantaged students, e-portfolios offer an expanded way of assessing students by taking account of previous experiences and prior learning.

The concept is also in tune with the Rudd Government's promotion of life-long learning skills. And as an expanded CV tool they are attractive to some industries and professions as a way to better prepare students for work.

The health and teaching sectors are particularly keen to make more use of e-portfolios, while the engineering profession is interested.

The University of South Australia has started using them in first-year undergraduate law this year.

However, there remain concerns over the degree to which 'reflective' work in an e-portfolio is assessable. There also are fears that such portfolios could be vulnerable to 'cut and paste' plagiarism and invented narratives and reflections. Privacy is another issue, raising questions over whether assessors should have access to the entire e-portfolio and who owns it once a student graduates.

'An e-portfolio is a process as well as a tool to capture different competencies and capacities,' Associate Professor Hallam said.'The evidence seems to be that students are better prepared in understanding their skill sets, how they achieved them, and where the gaps might be. They can actually prepare for the transition to employment better.'

QUT, RMIT University, Wollongong University and UniSA are among institutions taking a strong interest.

'That is something that could be represented in an essay, but with the e-portfolio one can collect the reflection in one place and make these kinds of connections throughout different levels of the law degree, which I think is an important aspect of the student's learning,' Professor Waye said.