ePortfolios: What? Why?

ePortfolios: What? & Why?

© 2014 Dr. Gary L. Ackerman

Portfolios are a tool whereby learners can demonstrate their abilities. They document complex skills, knowledge, and habits for learners and other audiences.

In the 21st century, there appears to me a growing schism in education based on the nature of educative experiences. The extreme focus on standardized tests is well-known. It is also well-known that education for those tests (instructionism) has been heavily criticized for many reasons. It is also well-known that the predictive validity of those tests is very dubious.

On the other side of the schism is what can best be described as authentic teaching and learning. The skills and knowledge developed in these experiences tend to be:

  • Transferable so that what is developed in one area can be applied to problems in other fields;
  • “No threshold, no ceiling” which means everyone can perform at a particular level, but there is no mastery.
  • Multidimensional so various aspects of the skill and knowledge can be improved.
  • Performed and each performance can be judged independently from others. 

Portfolios have been used by generations of craftsmen, educators, and learners to demonstrate their ability to perform complex tasks. It is an unfortunate reality that the portfolio process and product has been misapplied in many circumstances. Essential aspects of a successful portfolio project is:

  • Clear expectations of purpose and audience;
  • Flexible organizational guidelines;
  • Learner choice regarding artifacts to include;
  • Learner driven reflection.

The role of the learner in selecting the artifacts and reflecting on the meaning of the portfolio cannot be overstated. Learners must have absolute discretion in deciding what to include and what meaning to make of the artifacts. Mentors can advise on technical aspects of digitizing and editing, but selection and reflection lies firmly in the portfolio creator’s domain.

The Portfolio Content

The content of the portfolio is drawn from three aspects of one’s education: authentic experiences, academic experiences, and expectations:

  • Authentic experiences comprise those formal activities perceived to be meaningful and educative to the learner. These can include (but are not limited to) work in clubs, athletics, internships, the arts, serious hobbies, community service, and employment.
  • Academic experiences include those that are part of the formal curriculum in school.
  • Expectations come from documents such as curriculum standards, learning expectations, outcomes, or professional competencies. These represent the particular skills, knowledge, and habits the learner seeks to demonstrate.
the learner at the center of eportfolio processes.

Role of the Learner

While the expectations give structure and organization to the portfolio, the learner who is compiling the portfolio decides which artifacts to include and how to compose the reflection that connects the artifacts to the experience to the expectation. The self-selection of artifacts and composition of the reflection is based on the discovery from cognitive science that learners who self-identify certain characteristics are more likely to be able to generalize those and use them in other contexts.


The first and most important audience for the portfolio is the learner himself or herself. The work of revisiting work and examining it in light of emerging understanding of the work and its quality is the essential aspects of developing an eportfolio. In this way, the portfolio facilitates metacognition as the learners perceive themselves as learners who are changing.

The authentic work that goes into an eportfolio is valuable to audiences outside of the classroom and the school These audiences include both lay audiences who attend but bring no critical perspective to the performance and also professional audiences who offer the learner and the learners’ teaches valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of particular projects and artifacts in the portfolio. These professional audiences are perhaps the most relevant to the learner. 

A final audience for eportfolios is the institutional researcher. Through the work and learning captured in the eportfolio, faculty, academic leaders, and others gain a unique perspective on what learners can do, what learners value, and how graduates will be representing the school.