E-portfolios and how researchers can use them


This post considers the relevance of e-portfolios as assessment tools and as evidence of learning, suggesting that researchers might usefully engage with them. I recently attended a workshop run by the TEL (Teaching Enhanced Learning) team at the University of Sussex, and wanted to provide an update on developments using Mahara e-portfolios. It also considers the implications, including pitfalls, of using free commercial alternatives.
Mahara Portfolios  are open-source and free to use, often integrated into Moodle
What is an e-Portfolio?
This is a well known and useful, if general, definition:
‘..a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits to the student, or others, […] efforts or achievement in one or more areas.’ (Arter & Spandel 1991 in www.eportfolios.ac.uk/definition)

Another is Lorenzo & Ittelson’s 2005 description: “a digitised collection of artefacts including demonstrations, resources, and accomplishments that represent an individual, group, or institution.”
(Lorenzo & Ittelson, 2005)
E-portfolios have been around for years, often highly valued by careers departments in universities, who are keen to both support and track learners on their learning journey.
What are the benefits of e-portfolios?

E-portfolios allow students a level of autonomy in controlling their learning environment, very much in the way that blogs do. Students can organise and showcase their work, both for formative and summative assessment. E-portfolios also fit with the idea of lifelong learning; that we continue to grow and adapt as learners, something that might also resonate for researchers. They can also be integrated into a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment), such as the University of Sussex’s Study Direct (Moodle), meaning that students do not need to go to an external site to upload evidence of learning.

(image: screenshot TEL Sussex presentation)
What are the drawbacks of e-portfolios?
E-portfolios need to be hosted somewhere, so even if your institution provides you with one it is very unlikely that it is for life, which means that when you leave you probably will not have access to it anymore. Some of the more attractive e-portfolios, such as PebblePad are expensive; others like Mahara are free and open source.
Why is the University of Sussex running pilot schemes with Mahara e-portfolios within the Moodle VLE environoment?
The university is looking at ways of finding further suitable ways of allowing students to submit assessement within e-Submission and e-Feedback environments. Mahara alllows a wide range of media formats to to be submitted, so this is ideal when sound, video or other formats need to be accommodated. These are some of the things that can also be submitted:
  • any file
  • journal entries
  • embedded images and videos
  • CV
  • Google content (such as maps, books)
  • Open Badges (evidencing new skills you’ve developed; Mozilla Backpack or Open Badge Passport needs to have been set up)
Early trials seem to have been successful, and a single sign-on to both Moodle and Mahara has meant that students can upload work securely in Mahara, but within the Moodle environment.
What are the implications for doctoral staff and researchers?

It is becoming increasingly important for early career researchers to have a strong profile: the academic and professional world is extremely competitive, and being able to showcase one’s research, talents and work is paramount. In the case of practice based researchers, an environment that can handle high resolution files might be able to help convey the subtleties and detail of work that a low-res, compressed format, such as YouTube cannot. Furthermore, e-portfolios may enable researchers to connect better by linking to one another’s work. Why not check out if your institution is using Mahara, or something similar? If you are at the University of Sussex, you can always contact the TEL team with enquiries you may have: tel@sussex.ac.uk.

Key words: definition, evidence, assessment, summative, formative, research, journey, Mahara, TEL, employability, lifelong learning
Tom Ottway is Research Hive Scholar and lecturer, and is doing his PhD in Creative Practice in the School of Media, Film & Music.

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