Thursday, 1 October 2009

‘e-portfolios’ by George Siemens (2004) - a summary

Core activity 2.3 was to write a summary of the issues raised in en eportfolio paper. I selected ‘e-portfolios’ (Siemens, G. 2004) Available from: 

This short paper (only 5 pages) provides a balanced and considered overview of eportfolios, including definition, influences, benefits, comments on the creation process, issues, tools, trends and implementation needs.

Siemens makes the argument that portfolio implementations can be viewed as a continuum, that is, that they are driven by the task (either "assessment, PDP, learning portfolio, or group portfolio"). This makes sense: given the many and varied definitions and conceptions of eportfolios, the argument that "the intended task of the portfolio is the ultimate determinant of value" goes some way to explaining why eportfolios are many things to many people. Siemens also argues that, regardless of the format selected, eportfolios should encourage learners to develop the skills to continue building their portfolio as a life-long learning tool. This relates to one of the anticipated outcomes of using an eportfolio identified by this paper, namely that in a knowledge economy the ability to express knowledge effectively improves one's opportunities for employment and access to education. This does however assume that that learners will be motivated to develop a portfolio, and see value in maintaining it beyond compulsory education - something which is far from guaranteed, and which Siemens doesn't really address, except for a single sentence in his conclusion.

Siemens suggests a number of benefits that learners may receive from using an eportfolio to reflect on their experiences. Crucially, he sees eportfolios as a skill for lifelong learning. He suggests that eportfolios support this through (amongst other things) their ability to incorporate artifacts from informal learning and learning through life experiences. Siemens considers that this offers learners personal knowledge management and a history of their development and growth. Perhaps the most powerful benefits to learners identified by Siemens are the use of eportfolios as a planning/goal setting tool, as assistance in making connections between their learning experiences, and in providing the metacognitive elements necessary to assist in planning future learning needs. However, he does not articulate how an eportfolio will achieve these (not insubstantial) aims. My feeling (not yet supported by research evidence) would be that the eportfolio can be a tool in supporting these goals, but that they are processes undertaken by the learner which need support to develop, may require training, and certainly the opportunity to practice. Reflection is often not an easy or natural process, and simply having a tool available will not automatically make the benefits available to learners.

Siemens makes a number of interesting comments on implementation challenges. Unlike some others (refs?), he considers that the "standardization of eportfolios is a potential challenge" and that regulation may stifle creativity and innovation. He also considers that institutions should not be in control of the portfolio, and that learners themselves should retain control over their own portfolios. This is in contrast to arguments such as Jafari (2004) which consider institutional control over alumni eportfolios may be a useful revenue stream!

Siemens notes the need for eportfolios to be embedded into the process of instruction and assessment - that learners require time, training, advice, and promotion of eportfolios by faculty. These are all requirements of culture or attitude - it is not the technology that will make or break an eportfolio implementation. As Siemens concludes, "for many institutions, the challenge is ... to integrate various activities and extend current practices" and to recognise that "effective life-changing use is dependent on the learners themselves seeing the value and benefits".

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