Enter your email address to receive a twice-weekly newsletter on learning/technology.

Powered by ymlp.com

| Starting | Enabling | Doing | Evaluating | Managing | Resources | Home

December 16, 2004
George Siemens


Electronic portfolios (also referred to as eportfolios or webfolios) are gaining recognition as a valuable tool for learners, instructors, and academic organizations. Bold proclamations laud webfolios as “higher education’s new “got to have it” tool – the show-and-tell platform of the millennium” (Cohen and Hibbitts, 2004), and as a tool that “may have the most significant effect on education since the introduction of formal schooling” (Love, McKean, and Gathercoal, 2004). Laying aside new-technology hype and enthusiasm, eportfolios can best be viewed as a reactionary response to fundamental shifts in learning, teaching, technology, and learner needs in a climate where learning is no longer perceived as confined to formal education.


Portfolios have long been the showcase tools of artists – expressions of competencies and work completed. Eportfolios and webfolios are digital enactments of portfolios. Some authors have drawn distinctions between terms, (Love et al, 2004) defining eportfolios as information that resides on a CD ROM or other physical media, and webfolios as web-based portfolio. This distinction is reminiscent of the discussions deciding on which term to use “elearning” or “web-based-training”. The debate was resolved through common use of the term elearning to encompass both. Due to the popular use of the term, this paper treats eportfolios as an umbrella concept that includes webfolios.

Definitions of eportfolios vary, but generally include the notion of a digital resource (personal artifacts, instructor comments) demonstrating growth, allowing for flexible expression (i.e. customized folders and site areas to meet the skill requirements of a particular job), and permitting access to varied interested parties (parents, potential employers, fellow learners, and instructors).

Additional definitions:

  • “Portfolios are collections of work designed for a specific objective—that is, to provide a record of accomplishments” (National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII, 2004)
  • “An eportfolio is a web-based information management system that uses electronic media and services. The learner builds and maintains a digital repository of artifacts, which they can use to demonstrate competence and reflect on their learning.” (ePortfolio Portal, 2004)
  • Portfolios are collections of realia that have been assembled by a person and are retained and curated by them because the objects contained in the collection evidence or attest to claims that a person might make to themselves or to others about their life.” (The E-Learning Framework, 2004)

Portfolio implementations can best be viewed as a continuum. Portfolios are driven by the intended task: assessment, professional/personal development, learning portfolio, or group portfolio. The expressions of learning in an eportfolio can range from simple blogs to enterprise-level implementations. The intended task of the portfolio is the ultimate determinant of value. For certain courses or programs, a blog may be all that is required. Regardless of the format selected, each eportfolio effort should encourage learners to develop the skills to continue building their own personal portfolio as a life-long learning tool.

Influencing Factors (Adoption and Need)

The growth of eportfolios is fuelled by three broad factors: the dynamics of functioning in a knowledge economy, the changing nature of learning, and the changing needs of the learner.

In a knowledge economy, the most valuable resource is obviously knowledge. A person’s ability to express his/her knowledge effectively (through artifacts, examples of work, progression of growth, and instructor comments) improves opportunities for employment and access to education. A portfolio permits the learner to display competence, outside of a static transcript. The richness of an individual’s learning can be portrayed through multiple media. For example, using an actual website to communicate web development skills is far more effective than simply listing a certificate on a resume.

Learning is also changing. The traditional lecture model is giving way to alternative approaches like Problem Based Learning, Competency Based Learning and Assessment. In some instances, even the very model of “a course” is experiencing pressure as organizations recognize the significance of learning that happens in communities, on the job, and from personal knowledge networks. Learning is now a process of living. Formal education is only a stage of learning. Learning continues in virtually all aspects of life. Schools assign grades to demonstrate competency. Learning through life experiences creates artifacts instead. The ability to include these is an important motivation for eportfolio development.

The needs of learners are being recognized, especially in light of the social impact of technology. Many learners entering higher education are technically proficient. They are used to the online domain. John Seely Brown (2002) describes young learners as multi-processors who think in hyperlinked fashion (not linear), and are comfortable with various media. Eportfolios may be as familiar to many of today’s learners as writing pads were to previous generations.

Benefits and Uses

The main participants of the eportfolio development process are: learners, instructors, and institutions. The end-users of eportfolios are: prospective employers, instructors (for assessment), parents, and award granting agencies.

  • Learner
  • Instructor
  • Prospective employers
  • Parent
  • Award granting agency

Eportfolios offer many benefits for learners as they seek to create and reflect on life experiences.

  • Personal knowledge management
  • History of development and growth
  • Planning/goal setting tool
  • Assist learners in making connections between learning experiences (his may include formal and informal learning).
  • Provide the metacognitive elements needed to assist learners in planning future learning needs based on previous successes and failures.
  • Personal control of learning history (as compared to organizations controlling learner history).

Faculty members also benefit from the use of eportfolios:

  • Means to share content with others faculty
  • Move to more authentic assessment (as opposed to testing)
  • Preparing learners for life-long learning
  • Create an assessment-trail that is centralized and under leaner control

Institutions also experience direct value in initiating eportfolio use in learning:

  • Providing value for learners by allowing personal control
  • Contribute to the development of a more permanent role in the lives of learners (i.e. education is not viewed as a 2-4 year relationship, but rather a life-long relationship)

An ideal eportfolio system should allow flexible input (each item can carry its own metadata and be treated as a unique object), organization (objects/artifacts can be hierarchically organized in folders), retrieval (objects can be searched based on eportfolio owner’s specifications), and display (items can be grouped and permission granted to intended audience). If these criteria are followed, an eportfolio can be used as a very versatile tool to meet the needs of all potential participants in the process. For example, an eportfolio owner places objects into the system, assigning basic metadata at the time of entry (the metadata is helpful, but not critical. The search system itself can provide the intelligence to locate items). When the learner wishes to provide a course instructor with evidence of having attained a particular learning objective, she/he can draw items from the portfolio and send a link to the instructor. Similarly, when applying for employment, the learner can draw resources from the database which support the required skills. The context for each object is provided based at the time of use.


Eportfolios can include a wide range of information:

  • Personal information
  • Education history
  • Recognition – awards and certificates
  • Reflective comments
  • Coursework – assignment, projects
  • Instructor comments
  • Previous employer comments
  • Goals, plans
  • Personal values and interests
  • Presentations, papers
  • Personal activities – volunteer work, professional development
    All of the artifacts included should have a purpose – they should demonstrate a skill, an attribute, and learning acquired from experience.

Process of Eportfolio Creation

Varying processes exist to detail the portfolio creation process. One of the simpler models (ePortfolio Portal, 2004) is based on four broad activities:

  1. Collecting items for the portfolio
  2. Selecting items best able to demonstrate competence
  3. Reflecting on the items selecting in order to demonstrate learning derived from experiences
  4. Connecting various aspects of life – personal, learning, work, and community

The PLAR process utilized at Red River College suggests these steps for the creation and evaluation of an educational portfolio:


What’s required

Who’s responsible


Identify college/university-level learning gained as a result of life experiences



Explain how the learning experiences relate to course content or learning objectives



Verify and provide evidence to support learner’s claims (when discussing eportfolios, this is the main section most people visualize)

Learner and advisor if institution offers this service


Determine extent of learning in relation to objectives



Decide if learning is at an acceptable standard and if it is credit-equivalent



Record and recognize learning


Diagram 1-1 details the stages of eportfolio development organizationally. As the levels progress, the concerns shift from the learner to implementation challenges for the institution and the industry.

Diagram 1-1

Level 1 may include simple websites and incorporate blogs or wikis. Limited navigation of content is included.
Level 2 consists of dynamic web pages. Navigation and search features are available. Portfolio owners can also create different sections of the site to allow access for different reasons.
Level 3 requires institutional support of eportfolios, including instruction on actual use. The institution may also host the software to allow learners to build their portfolios.
Stage 4 requires the institution integrates portfolio use and development into the process of instruction and assessment
Stage 5 requires the institution adheres to standards, permits interoperability of the portfolio with other institutions.


The infancy of the eportfolio field is most evident in the limited toolset available for their creation. On a basic level, any tool that allows an individual to design and publish digital content could be used for eportfolios. This need is currently being met through a variety of tools. Some examples:

  • HTML editors – Dreamweaver, FrontPage
  • Web Design tools – Flash, Authorware
  • Blogs, wikis
  • Content management systems – Plone, Drupal, Typo3
  • Eportfolio software:
    - “The Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI) is a community of individuals and organizations collaborating on the development of the leading non-proprietary, open source electronic portfolio software available.”
    - “Elgg is a fully featured electronic portfolio, weblog and social networking system, connecting learners and creating communities of learning”

Simple tools are important in order to accelerate eportfolio adoption. Many of the potential developers of eportfolios are not be technically skilled. Eventually, the tools will need to become extremely simple to use (templated in nature) –essentially “push-button” simplicity. Tools like Elgg are examples of the simple technology that is required to increase adoption of portfolios.


Standardization of eportfolios is a potential challenge. Heavily regulated efforts may stifle creativity and innovation. Ultimately, in order for a tool or technology to succeed, it must be adopted at the end user level. The field of learning objects, as an example, seem to be hindered in development due to the proliferation of complex standards. The flaw in learning objects standardization appears to be the attempt to create the system on the assumptions that interoperability is what end users need. Many people are sharing learning objects with colleagues (in the form of Word documents, PowerPoint notes, graphics, lesson plans), and it works because people don’t have to repackage the object with detailed metadata. With eportfolios, a similar concern exists. Eportfolios will be successful if the urge to excessively standardize is resisted. Simple technologies like RSS and SOAP reveal that content can be shared when interoperability is built into the sharing structure, not the content itself.

One of the most critical aspects of successful eportfolio use is the creation of neutral eportfolio providers. The institution should not be in control of the portfolio. As a personal life-learning tool, there is no place for organizational control. The current lack of portfolio software providers is being addressed through Elgg and OSPI. Institutions should direct their learners to approved eportfolio providers. Then, as learners move onto other institutions, the learners themselves retain control over their own portfolios. This is a central principle that must not be compromised in order for portfolios to function as personal learning representation tools.

Death of anonymity is another issue that has not been addressed. The social implications of living your learning life in a “fish bowl” are not fully understood. An online portfolio remembers more than successes – it is also a compilation of work-in-progress as a learner, and taken out of context, could misrepresent intended meaning. Like any web resource, eportfolios are subject to security and privacy risks.

Additional issues and concerns:

  • Technical complexity of full implementation in an institution
  • Faculty and leaner resistance to eportfolio implementation and use
  • Who has ultimate control – the learner or institution?
  • Life long access, separate from institution – a concern impacted by limited eportfolio software options


One of the most inevitable trends in eportfolios is the move to increased centralization and standardization of tools and services. This may be seen as a necessary development in order for the larger market to adopt the use of portfolios. It will, however, come at a cost of freedom and flexibility. The internet itself is an example of this. SGML was originally created to assist researchers in sharing and managing information. Due to its complexity, its use was limited. The creation of HTML (an SGML derivative) resulted in an explosion in online development. The reason? HTML was flexible, simple to learn, and anyone could create webpages with only limited experience. A healthy culture of sharing and documenting learning is already occurring in the field of bloggers. To assume that a standardized portfolio is required for interoperability ignores the successful growth of simple social technologies like blogs, wikis, Rich Site Summary (RSS), and social networking tools.

Eportfolio specifications are at an early stage. The main intention of standards is to permit the interoperability of eportfolios. IMS ePortfolio seeks specifically to “enable eportfolios to be interoperable across different systems and institutions”. (IMS Global Learning Consortium). To accommodate the different ways eportfolios might be used, the specification centres on “two broad types of information you might want to collect in a portfolio: artefacts that were created by whoever the portfolio is about (i.e. its 'subject'), and formal records of achievement about the subject” (Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards). It is critical to note that the value of standards in eportfolio development needs to be carefully weighed with the freedom and usability of the tools given to the end-users.

The inclusion of collaborative tools will add an additional dimension to eportfolios. Allowing learners to interact with instructors, other learners, and mentors will provide a more personal portfolio. This model reveals the collaboration and in-process work habits of the subjects of the eportfolio. Some have suggested that the eportfolio concept be replaced with a concept of “lifetime personal web page” (Cohn and Hibbitts, 2004): “The virtual structure could consist of multiple cells with flexible entrance points. It would allow connections between internal cells, as well as seamless connections to external entities (Web based courses, mentors, peer reviewers, libraries, and so forth).”


Implementing an institutional approach for eportfolios can be a difficult task. To be effective, the concept needs to be embedded into the process of instruction and assessment. In an ideal implementation (for an educational institution) portfolios would possess the following characteristics:

  • The portfolio is viewed as a personal, learner-in-control tool. It is treated as central to the learning and assessment process.
  • Learners are introduced to the concept, and instructed on how to use the system (both from a technical and from a “how will this help you” perspective)
  • The curriculum has been designed to require learners to use the portfolio in completing their course work and assignments
  • The portfolio is used for assessment of learning objectives. Instructor feedback can be integrated back into the portfolio and treated as an artifact.
  • Learners are provided staged advising sessions evaluating their effective use of portfolios (this is a meta-cognitive evaluation of portfolio use)
  • An eportfolio culture (Gathercoal, Love, Bryde, and McKean, 2002) exists, encouraging learners to include personal life experiences, awards, non-academic activities, and other character/learning revealing artefacts in their portfolio.
  • Dialogue, debate, discussion, and examples of eportfolio use are common.
  • Time is allotted for portfolio development
  • Faculty understand and promote the value of eportfolios
  • Technical details are well managed, resulting in a simple, positive end user experience


The concept of portfolios is not new, and they are currently already being used in informal ways. For many institutions, the challenge is not to begin building the portfolio culture, but rather to integrate various activities and extend current practices. “Many students already produce portfolios for various uses, such as reflection, communication with instructors, or presenting examples of outstanding work and credentials to potential employers.” (Cohen and Hibbits).
Ultimately, to ensure life-long use of eportfolios, the learner needs to be in control. Institution-level implementations can introduce learners to the concept, but effective use needs to be driven by the learner’s understanding of applicability and use. As an example, an institution may require learners to use a portfolio process to demonstrate competence against learning objectives, or may use it as an assessment tool. However, the value of portfolios is largely lost when learners discontinue using them at graduation of course/program conclusion. Those enamoured with the concept may find that they would like to spoon-feed adoption, but effective life-changing use is dependant on the learners themselves seeing the value and benefits.

In situations where full-scale implementation of eportfolios is not possible, instructors can begin to foster a culture of digital documentation by encouraging learners to practice blogging, developing simple websites, or storing their content online (in a content management system like Plone). Encouraging learners to develop an online identity in recently developed (or soon to be released) systems like Elgg can also be an effective introduction to the process.

Additional Resources





Blower, Deb, (2003), Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition Foundation Training Course – Workshop 4. Red River College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Brown, J. S., (2002). Growing Up Digital: How the Web Changes Work, Education, and the Ways People Learn. United States Distance Learning Association. Retrieved on December 10, 2004, from http://www.usdla.org/html/journal/FEB02_Issue/article01.html

Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards (2004), IMS Releases ePortfolio Spec. Retrieved on December 10, 2004, from http://www.cetis.ac.uk/content2/20041102005853

Cohn, E. R., Hibbitts, B. J., (2004). Beyond the Electronic Portfolio: A Lifetime Personal Web Space. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.educause.edu/apps/eq/eqm04/eqm0441.asp.

ePortfolio Portal, (2004). What is an ePortfolio. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.deskootenays.ca/wilton/eportfolios/whatitis.php.

ePortfolio Portal, (2004). Preparing an ePortfolio. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.deskootenays.ca/wilton/eportfolios/preparing.php.

Gathercoal, P., Love, D., Bryde, B., McKean, G., (2002). On Implementing Web-Based Electronic Portfolios. Educause Quarterly 25(2): 29-37. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0224.pdf

IMS Global Learning Consortium (2004), IMS ePortfolio Specification. Retrieved on December 10, 2004, from http://www.imsglobal.org/ep/index.html

Love, D., McKean, G., Gathercoal P., (2004) Portfolios to Webfolios and Beyond: Levels of Maturation. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.educause.edu/pub/eq/eqm04/eqm0423.asp.

National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, (2004). Definition and Importance of ePortfolios. Retrieved on December 10, 2004 from http://www.educause.edu/ElectronicPortfolios/2600.

The E-Learning Framework, (2004). What is an ePortfolio?. Retrived on December 10, 2004 from http://www.cetis.ac.uk:8080/frameworks/learning_domain_services/eportfolio/petal/whatiseportfolio/view


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License