More Than Assessment: What ePortfolios Make Possible for Students, Faculty, and Curricula

Lesley Erin Bartlett, Heather C. W. Stuart, Justin K. Owensby, and Jordan R. Davis

In our current cultural clamor for evidence-based everything, ePortfolios have a special kind of allure. Not only do they require students to reflect on their work through the process of writing and thus perform their understanding of their educational experiences, but they also serve as easily accessible and portable repositories for artifacts that demonstrate student learning. As such, ePortfolios can seem like a silver bullet for assessment in higher education. Add to that the proliferation of ePortfolio platforms that offer much-touted backend assessment functionality, and it could seem as though the ePortfolio's raison d-être is academic assessment.

In their 2010 article, “Avoiding the Pitfalls: Current Practices and Recommendations for ePortfolios in Higher Education,” Chatham-Carpenter, Seawal, and Raschig report on a study they conducted “to provide helpful recommendations to other institutions that might be starting or continuing on their journey to use ePortfolios” (450). Drawing from existing literature, the authors identify four primary purposes for ePortfolios: “to facilitate reflection on learning in a course/s, to showcase career skills, to aid in program review and assessment, and to showcase professional standards” (438). They go on to report that “[m]ost of the institutions in our survey indicated they are currently using ePortfolios for more than one of these purposes, with many of them using three or more of them” (450), and ultimately recommend, “Whether new to ePortfolios or evaluating their continued use at an institution, it is essential to determine the purpose(s) for which they will be used” (450). We echo this recommendation, but add important questions: As you determine your purpose(s) for ePortfolios, what will you lead with? When you have to make hard decisions about the structure and implementation of your ePortfolio initiative, which purpose will you prioritize?

ePortfolios can be rich, dynamic writing projects that offer students the opportunity to practice critical thinking and effective communication strategies. They also provide experience with multimodal composing, which helps students increase their visual literacy and technical competency in a communication landscape that increasingly requires these skills for full participation. Moreover, ePortfolios can offer students the opportunity to make connections across their experiences, synthesize their learning, and articulate the meaning and significance of their experiences and learning first to themselves—which is no small feat and should not be undervalued—and then, potentially (but not inevitably), to external audiences. These learning-focused purposes alone offer exciting, complicated pedagogical challenges and opportunities for institutions that want to implement ePortfolios. ePortfolios can promote this kind of learning experience for students. They can, but they won’t unless the educators who inhabit institutions design their initiatives in ways that prioritize student learning.

When it comes to ePortfolio implementation, often the purpose that trumps all others is assessment: ePortfolio platforms are chosen/purchased based on their assessment functionality and data-gathering capabilities; initiatives are structured to optimize uniformity and efficiency; and instructions are designed to standardize the products students produce. Considering the pressures universities and the people who inhabit them are under to offer evidence of their effectiveness, these choices are understandable. But they’re not inevitable. No doubt institutions that choose to lead with assessment in their ePortfolio initiatives also aim to offer students a rich learning experience. In a perfect world, ePortfolios could simultaneously provide students with a meaningful learning experience, faculty with a useful and intellectually engaging academic project that furthers their pedagogical goals, and institutions with an assessment solution. In reality, these purposes are sometimes incompatible—and assessment can end up subsuming the others.

We don’t mean to suggest that assessment writ large is the Big Bad Wolf. Rather, we aim to invite institutions to consider what is made possible when they lead with student learning in the structure and implementation of their ePortfolio initiatives. By lead with student learning, we mean making choices that prioritize the interests, values, and commitments of students and faculty rather than the assessment needs of the institution. While we understand that these priorities aren’t always in competition with one another, we sense that, in practice, there is often a tension between what is best for students and faculty and what might make assessment easier. In their 2014 article, “A Simple Model for Learning Improvement: Weigh Pig, Feed Pig, Weigh Pig,” Fulcher, Good, Coleman, and Smith write, “Often, emphasis is placed on assessment mechanics rather than effective pedagogy and curricula” (4, emphasis in original). While the authors aren’t writing specifically about ePortfolios, their reference to “assessment mechanics” resonates with us as a potential parallel to assessment-focused ePortfolio initiatives. They go on to claim, “Assessment, pedagogy, and curriculum are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they should work hand in hand, yet most institutions have yet to intentionally connect them effectively. For these reasons, Hersh and Keeling (2013) argued that higher education should strive for a culture of learning rather than a culture of assessment” (4). By leading with student learning rather than assessment, we strive to contribute to a culture of learning.

In their 2012 book, Documenting Learning with ePortfolios: A Guide for College Instructors, Penny Light, Chen, and Ittelson write that only 4% of AAC&U member institutions surveyed in 2009 were not considering the use of ePortfolios for assessment (xi). Similarly, one need not look far to find a wealth of literature about using ePortfolios as an assessment tool (Buente et al. 2015; Buyarksi and Landis 2014; Corbin, Carpenter, and Nickoles 2013; Hubert and Lewis 2014; Janosik and Frank 2013; Larkin and Robertson 2013; Lowenthal, White, and Cooley 2011; Richard-Schuster et al. 2014; Ring and Ramirez 2012; Shada et al. 2011; Silva et al. 2015). Less common are illustrations of ePortfolio initiatives that lead with student learning.

This article-as-ePortfolio aims to demonstrate what ePortfolios make possible for students, faculty, and curricula when the structure and implementation of ePortfolio initiatives lead with student learning. The “we” represented here is the team responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the ePortfolio Project at Auburn University: the Assistant Director of University Writing, the Program Administrator, and two graduate assistants. We offer an explanation of our ePortfolio Project Faculty Cohort and provide three illustrative examples of how programs in the Cohort have implemented ePortfolios. The Student Support page describes how the initiative directly supports students who are interested in creating and/or promoting ePortfolios on our campus, and the Looking Ahead page outlines the pedagogical challenges and opportunities we’re currently working on. Leading with student learning has created space for important pedagogical questions that reach far beyond ePortfolio pedagogy. As you explore these pages, we hope you will see the motivation, investment, and inventiveness that leading with student learning makes possible.