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Defining "ePortfolio": Four Ways of Seeing an ePortfolio

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, March 16, 2015

Defining “ePortfolio”:  Four Ways of Seeing an ePortfolio

The Problem of Defining “ePortfolio”

Ever since I started working with eportfolios in 2001, the question “what is an eportfolio?” has come up time and again. It is very hard to agree on a definition of “eportfolio” except at the most basic of educational definitions: “An eportfolio is a digital archive that represents student work over time through a broad range of artifacts.” (

As precise and evocative as that definition is from the Georgetown ePortfolio Initiative, it still does not capture the breadth of significance the eportfolio has for our society today. 

For example, we could define an automobile as “a cabin on wheels with a motor that propels it for people to ride in.”  But that definition would miss how the automobile created the suburbs, propelled social mobility, has deeply altered social patterns and has helped contribute to climate change.  The automobile might best be described as one of the defining technologies of the 20th century.

In other words, a definition can miss the essence and importance of something, so may be more misleading than helpful.  The eportfolio community has struggled with defining eportfolios for its entire existence.  Perhaps that’s because we’ve been trying to see it in only one or two ways.

The Georgetown site also includes a quotation that hints at a larger eportfolio significance beyond the simple definition above:

Conversation around ePortfolios lately has turned to the layered benefits of having students use digital workspaces to think more intentionally about their learning and make connections across the curriculum.

The number one hit on Google for “eportfolios” is a 2005 report from the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, “An Overview of E-Portfolios” by George Lorenzo and John Ittelson, edited by Diana Oblinger.  The definition in the abstract to the article from 10 years ago describes “eportfolio” as an academic application featuring three types:  student eportfolios, teaching eportfolios and institutional eportfolios, that have a number of uses.  Somehow, the dedication and excitement I see in the eportfolio community is not because eportfolios are just another educational technology as that 2005 description would imply.  Something else is going on. 

In 2002, I published an article in Campus Technology called “The Electronic Portfolio Boom:  What’s it all About?”  (Retrieved 3-14-15 from 

Toward the end of the article (worth reading to get a sense of how far we’ve come while also recognizing we’ve yet to resolve issues that were pertinent then), I said:

Despite a general recognition of the usefulness of an ePortfolio, the key to success is how well the campus population is prepared for using this new tool. It's not a simple add-on to existing courses; if it is, students may not see the value. Indeed, if ePortfolio tools become just a simpler way to log student work, we've missed the boat.

Experience on one campus shows that, even though 100 percent of the faculty in a program have adopted ePortfolios, students still may not see their value because the faculty have not re-thought their courses to accommodate electronic portfolios.

In the 13 years since this article, despite the spread of eportfolios to a large majority of college campuses in the U. S. and in other countries, and despite a growing percentage of students who use eportfolios for all or most of their courses, (based on the ECAR Annual Survey of Undergraduates and Technology) and despite the rapid growth of eportfolio providers, the two statements above are as relevant today as then.  We still have not generally recognized the value of an institutional learning design based on eportfolios, nor do we have an agreed upon definition of or agreed upon statement about the meaning of eportfolios.

Higher education still has not embraced the potential of eportfolios to serve as the basis for a re-thinking of an institution’s approach to learning. 

A Framework for Understanding the Significance of “ePortfolio”

We see, then, that in 2015, we still have to ask “What’s it All About?”  The answer to that, I believe, will differ depending on the context.  Is it only one more teaching practice?  Or do eportfolios have significance not only in but also beyond classroom practices?

If we look at the various contexts in which eportfolios have significance, we may be able, as a field, to agree on a statement about the meaning and significance of “eportfolio” and we may then energize not only ourselves with this new awareness, but become better able to frame our discourse on campus about eportfolios.

Those eportfolios contexts may be stated as these four:

  1. Learning – what is eportfolio’s meaning for learning for both learners and teachers.
  2. Institutional assessment – how do eportfolios affect institutional assessment?
  3. Technology in education – how are eportfolios different form other technologies used in education?
  4. Culture and economy – what is the cultural significance of eportfolios? 

In these four contexts, the lens through which we see the meaning of eportfolios differs, and the lens in number four – culture and economy – differs among countries as well.

To define eportfolios from just one context undercuts the broader importance and implications of eportfolios. 

Context 1, Learning

At the Catalyst for Learning site, created by the Connect to Learning Project led by Bret Eynon at LaGuardia Community College, and involving 24 colleges and universities over a 3-year FIPSE funded project (AAEEBL was an early partner in C2L), we find an excellent summary of eportfolio meaning in the context of learning:


ePortfolio pedagogy engages students in a recursive inquiry into their own learning and their evolving identities as learners. Through sustained collective inquiry in ePortfolio-related professional development and outcomes assessment, faculty, staff, and the broader institution construct new knowledge and understandings about the teaching and learning process.


Reflection is pivotal to meaningful student ePortfolios, which function as sites for prompting, documenting, and sharing students’ reflection on their learning. And reflection helps to move outcomes assessment beyond accountability as individuals and programs reflect on assessment findings and their implications for curricular and pedagogical change.


Students use ePortfolios to bring together work from multiple contexts, to consider the relation between their classrooms and their lives outside of class, and to construct new identities as learners. In ePortfolio-related professional development, an integrative approach prompts faculty to develop and test strategies that help students integrate their learning; and also helps faculty and staff to transfer knowledge and insight from specific instances to broader contexts and applications.

Visit the Catalyst for Learning site to see how rich this site is.  Co-leaders of this project included Randy Bass of Georgetown University and Helen Chen of Stanford University. 

Melissa Peet’s Generative Knowledge work helps us understand the “Inquiry” and “Reflection” processes from the Catalyst site:

Although reflective learning is the pillar of authentic and experiential education, reflection alone is not enough to prepare our learners in any arena for the challenges and complexities they will face in their work and personal lives. In order to be successful in today’s world, people and organizations must know how to continually adapt to change and innovate.  Although change is a significant and constant force in all of our lives, most of us do not understand how it occurs, nor how to effectively facilitate it within ourselves and others.  

Generative Coaching is an inquiry-based method wherein people learn how to recognize the underlying processes of change, and then how to identify and build upon the hidden strengths and sources of intelligence they and others have unconsciously developed simply by adapting to change within their everyday life. (Retrieved from on March 14, 2015)

The Catalyst for Learning site and Melissa Peet’s work both suggest that there’s more to eportfolios than other educational technologies, that there may be epistemological aspects to eportfolios that would carry them to the level of “disruptive technology.” 

ePortfolios as a Way of Knowing Thyself

I heard two students at Boston University at the March 12 AAEEBL Conference express a core meaning of Generative Coaching – getting to know what you already know – in these words:

The former me is telling the now me” what I know -- Salma Yehia at the AAEEBL Boston University conference.  (See her own eportfolio)

“The former me is telling the now me.”  Wow.  Her phrase poetically throws light on the whole grand concept of “reflection.” Her phrase is also at the core of Generative Coaching.  It is all about tacit knowledge; it is all about making learning visible (to oneself!).  It is about integrating your past self with your current self. 

And, another student:

I am the personal editor of my own work.”  This is about owning your own work, also a core eportfolio value – the eportfolio learning space is not owned by the institution. The learner can continue to change her or his work over time, to learn from former work, and to curate that work over time. 

Context 2, Institutional Assessment

To understand this context, it helps to think “portfolio” as in paper portfolio, and about the research and tradition of portfolio.  The “eportfolio” can be traced back only 20 years or so to the days of “webfolios” that depended on hyperlinks instead of an online database.  However, portfolios as such are as old as the first instance of a human collecting related artifacts in a “thing.” In other words, during all of human literacy and pre-literacy, humans have used something that can be called a portfolio. 

How does this side-track into history connect with our inquiry into the meaning of “eportfolio”?  (Word just put a red underscore under “eportfolio” notifying me that Word does not know what eportfolio means, either).  Artists, musicians, architects, and writers have all used portfolios to collect and review and “publish” their work for different purposes for centuries.  Recently, since 1986, according to Kathleen Yancey, writing portfolios became one means of assessing student writing – a more holistic assessment than timed essays or testing. 

Research and theory surrounding writing portfolios was itself a strong current in rhetoric and composition after 1986.  This theory and set of practices preceded the advent of webfolios or eportfolios.  Therefore, many of the early advocates of eportfolios were from rhetoric and composition, a prime example being the Inter/National Coalition for ePortfolio Research led by Kathleen Yancey, Barbara Cambridge and Darren Cambridge, all from the rhet and comp field (as am I).  

Much of the excitement surrounding eportfolio, at first, was grounded in hopes that the values in writing portfolio theory and practice would be energized by eportfolios. 

What actually happened is a typical technology story – in 2007, I wrote an article called “The ePortfolio Hijacked.”

As the article points out, inevitably, when new data about student work, especially in the aggregate, becomes available, the gold rush is on!  Instead of universities spending money on adapting the curriculum to take advantage of the enormous learning potential of eportfolios, instead they saw (and understood) the potential to make the case to accrediting agencies, with eportfolios, that they, first, were collecting data on student learning, and, second, they were doing something about their findings:  identifying learning outcomes and tracking progress toward those outcomes with eportfolios. 

Instead of eportfolios revolutionizing learning, they were being used to reinforce the current curriculum.  Many of us in the eportfolio community saw institutional assessment, therefore, as in conflict with learning.  (Since then, institutions have found it possible to both develop new learning forms and integrate assessment into those new learning forms.)

Technology is two-faced.  It can and is used for control.  Without technology control, at this point, our society would stop operating.  But, it can also liberate individuals and groups and generate creativity.  It is democratizing but also controlling.  At the pace of technology development, any digital enterprise can veer toward control or toward liberation overnight, literally.  To us in the field in 2007, it seemed the eportfolio enterprise had veered strongly toward control – centralized and top-down.

An important note:  during a recent webinar hosted by an eportfolio provider, I was led through the process for faculty assessing their students and you know what?  It occurred to me that another way eportfolios are “making knowledge visible” is to help faculty understand the assessment process!  The eportfolio system was laying out a heuristic for faculty to follow as a way to de-mystify assessment!  This is important learning for faculty members. The apparent conflict between institutional assessment and learning seems to have been resolved.

Context 3: Technology in Education. 

The key question about eportfolios in the number 3 context is How do eportfolio affordances shape practice?  For example, in comparison to the LMS (learning management system), which is organized by courses and is therefore segmented, eportfolios are owned by students, so technologically are continuous and integrated.  It would be hard to understand the meaning of eportfolios if one did not know about this vital and key eportfolio affordance. 

Another key technology consideration:  students set permissions in their eportfolio space as to who can see their work.  This control reinforces the perception (and the reality) that learners own their own work. 

Also, unlike other enterprise (campus-wide) applications, students can retain their eportfolio accounts after graduation.  Just these three examples of how eportfolios are technologically unique and theoretically aligned with learning theory should make it clear how important this third context is to understanding what an eportfolio is. 

To the extent that eportfolios are technologically designed to be a personal space and not a university-owned application, they exist in a wholly different world than other educational applications. 

Context 4:  Culture and Economy.

The upcoming AAEEBL Conference (July 27-30, Boston) uses the word “personalization” in its theme.  Throughout our culture, personalization of everything – websites know you, search engines customize your searches, auto companies personalize your car, ad infinitum – and this is true of eportfolios as well.  Except with eportfolios, you can control your own digital identity, your own personalization.

From the AAEEBL site:

While personalized learning can refer to automated tutoring systems, here we use a more contemporary understanding that affirms the core value of one’s capacity to establish an individual learning pathway and to assume responsibility for active learning.  This connotation of personalized learning is at the heart of eportfolio’s value to custom-fit individual learner needs, but it also serves broadened visions for systemic transformation.  As a movement, personalized learning, paired with eportfolios and holistic assessment, can be sized to fit learning requirements of any scope from individual to institutional.  ePortfolio technologies have sufficiently matured to the point where both personal learning and data-driven institutional objectives can be served with authentic evidence.  (

Or, simply put, you don’t try to get through life on the basis of scaffolded learning when life requires you to build the scaffold.  Or, if someone else is always driving, you never learn the way.  ePortfolios, because they can help you make sense of and be recognized for your own personal learning journey, validate that journey.  They make personalization possible. 

ePortfolios, therefore, are part of a general cultural trend toward personalization.  They are more than an educational technology, they are a cultural meme. 

And also a means to succeed in work and career.  Our culture has changed in its perception of job experience:  decades ago, if you changed jobs often, there were suspicions that maybe you had something wrong with you.  Now, I hear from young people (and statistics back this up), if you stay in a job more than three or four years, people wonder why you lack ambition.    What is the challenge, then?  It is to be able to learn new skills and concepts constantly.  If you were not allowed to discover knowledge yourself while in college, you may not be prepared for work as it has become.

ePortfolios support “off the path” discovery learning, challenging learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning, constructivist learning and other forms of active and social learning.  How?  Because evidence of the off-the-path learning is collected and can be certified using eportfolios. 

What IS an ePortfolio?

An eportfolio is not an automobile – moving us around physically – but it is a “knowmobile” – moving us around virtually.  Seeing eportfolios this way enlarges our conceptual space in thinking about eportfolios and may help us understand and explain eportfolios better.

To extend the analogy:  a car offers an interior space:  in the 1900s it became – unwittingly – a private courting space for young couples, a space they had not had before that thereby weakened parental supervision.  An eportfolio is also a private or personal learning space (whether it is a courting space has not been researched as far as I know).  A car can serve to reinforce a personal identity – a status symbol, or a statement about your youthfulness or spirit; an eportfolio published on the Web also adds to a personal identity; an automobile supports employability in obvious ways; and so does an eportfolio that is kept up to date for getting a job.  A car can help you explore the world and enjoy learning new things, so does an eportoflio.  The comparisons can go on. 

Each research field can and does see eportfolios differently but none can claim their own disciplinary definition applies to the multiple uses and overall cultural significance of eportfolios. At the same time, if, at its core, eportfolios were not extraordinarily effective to improve learning, the broader significance of eportfolios would evaporate. 

The comparisons between one of last century’s most disruptive technologies and the eportfolio is, however, useful to us educators because it helps us understand the broad sweep of contexts in which eportfolios – the aggregating space for knowledge and self and identity and discovery – are important and therefore helps us understand why our eportfolio work is so important:  we are using eportfolios in a set of educational practices to be sure but we are also helping learners be mobile and successful in this digital world.  The knowmobile comes in many styles with many options and has a multitude of uses.  As far as I know, its co2 emissions are negligible.




If you are interested, see and search “Trent Batson” to see the roughly 80 articles I published in Campus Technology between 2002 and 2014, many of which were about eportfolios.

Tags:  Overview of eportfolio;definition eportfolio 

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Comments on this post...

Stephen Parsons says...
Posted Wednesday, April 1, 2015
I'd be careful to try to capture all possible uses of portfolio in its definition. An automobile, after all could be used for alternate housing, for sport, and as a lawn decoration but the value of such definition does not add to clarity for someone who has never seen an automobile. Moreover, many would disagree as to the use of any technology outside of its bespoke or primary intent. I do agree that making the case for ePortfolio and describing it for Wikipedia might include lots of additional detail. IMHO, we should consider a definition as to the most acceptable, common descriptor and than layer on detail in other contexts. There seems to be a resurgence in competency-based learning and if this is so, the ePortfolio might be a tremendous way to accomplish (or support) the goals of both holistic learning/ transformation as well as individual and institutional assessment.
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Christopher Sheehan says...
Posted Wednesday, April 1, 2015
The original "mobile phone" when it was created was a great new technology. From today's perspective it is archaic. Today, we no longer use the original cell phone as both the technology platforms and the end users have accepted the evolution of the cell phone. Today, the design and structure have significantly changed. This is the big problem with the ePortfolio community in my opinion. Instead of allowing for a transition to an expectation that the new minimum functionality of "what an ePortfolio is from a technology perspective" becomes a platform that can do everything an ePortfolio has done in the past and everything an ePortfolio can do today, we continue to add new sub-categories to the definition of what an ePortfolio is, which in my opinion promotes a confusing story. Is a front facing website an ePortfolio or is it just a front facing website. Is a wiki an ePortfolio? Are all 80 of the tools listed on the EPAC website all ePortfolios?

This confusion makes the community of ePortfolio seem very much in it’s infancy from an outside observer. To be clear most of the decision makers at institutions of higher learning are outsiders from the ePortfolio community. It is very realistic to have a minimum technology expectation for what an ePortfolio is. We must STOP the ongoing process of answering what an ePortfolio is with the immediate follow up question of how are you going to use it? I look forward to this continued dialogue

Christopher Sheehan
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