The Benefits and Challenges of Using Electronic Portfolios in Higher Education
Elisa G. Burton
Dr. Anne Nelson
High Point University
April 22, 2004
Electronic Portfolios (e-portfolios) have different meanings for different people. They
can be as simple as static Web sites that link to information such as resumes and reflections, or
they can be dynamic Web sites that are extensions of course management systems and/or
interface with a database of students‟ work. For some they are associated with accreditation,
assessment and career tracking.
There are certain benefits as well as challenges in using e-portfolios. This research shows
that, for now, the challenges of using e-portfolios as an institution wide assessment tool
overshadow the benefits. However, because technology is rapidly changing, educators are
continuously rethinking ways to effectively integrate technology into the learning experience. In
the future, e-portfolios may play a very important role in the changing culture of education.
Portfolios, Webfolios, Electronic Portfolios
For years, artists, architects, and musicians have used portfolios to showcase their work.
Portfolios are collections of work designed for a specific purpose, to provide recognition and a
record of accomplishments. Many students are already using portfolios in various ways, such as
reflection, communication with professors, and showcasing their work for potential employers.
With the development of technology, the ability to collect, store, manipulate and share
information digitally has become very important. Electronic portfolios (e-portfolios) have the
potential to become a vital part of students‟ permanent records and their learning management.
E-portfolios are also beginning to be used by faculty in accreditation review (Electronic
E-portfolios have different meanings for different people. For some, they are associated
with reflection, for others accreditation, assessment, student resumes and career tracking. With
the new wave of technology being developed on campuses of higher education, e-portfolios offer
a means of freeing students from paper and helping them to organize their work in a
transportable form (Batson, 2002).
As opposed to traditional portfolios, electronic portfolios require that information or
knowledge is collected, saved and stored in an electronic format (Wilson, Wright & Stallworth,
2003). E-portfolios are seen also as an extension of course management and assessment
initiatives (Green, 2003).
Webfolios refer to static Web sites that include hypertext links. E-portfolios are dynamic
Web sites that interface with a database of student work artifacts (Batson, 2002). Web based e-
portfolios are portfolios that use the Web to store and display information (Electronic Portfolios).
The Chronicle of Higher Education‟s author Jeffrey Young (2002) describes e-portfolios
as multimedia presentations. An e-portfolio is an extensive resume that links to an electronic
repository of students‟ academic work which could include students‟ papers, study abroad
pictures, and reflection on experiences.
The idea of electronic or digitized portfolios is not new. The portfolio movement started
in the early 1980s primarily to give students in the composition world a means to compile and
reflect upon their work (Dubinsky, 2003).
In the 1990s, portfolios became more prominent as scholars began to study how using
them created value in students‟ learning and assessment. Around 1995, portfolios began to go
on-line. Faculty were then faced with the dilemma of teaching students the necessary writing
skills as well as instruction in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). The development of e-
portfolio software helped to solve some of these problems (Dubinsky, 2003).
The Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI) was developed at the University of
Minnesota (www.theospi.org) to help those less technically savvy. OSPI software makes it
possible for students without any Web page design experience to create and display a portfolio
on-line. This software creates a container for students to collect and display their work
(Dubinsky, 2003). Gartner forecasts open source applications will be successful in higher
education because of the success of Linux and Apache and the generally collaborative nature of
universities (Wheeler, 2004).
Emerging unbundled support models for open source applications are a feature rather
than a problem for higher education‟s future. Bundled software comes with a for-fee license to
use the intellectual property and a for-fee support provided by the Internet provider. Unbundling
creates two separate markets for support and software. Economically, unbundling is a trend that
offers greater efficiency. Recent open source initiatives have created unbundling for higher
education (Wheeler, 2004).
Changing Culture of Education
Pennsylvania State (Penn State) University completed a study in 1998, with funding from
the AT & T foundation, to address the changing demographics of students and emerging new
technologies. The team also evaluated the concept of an “educational event” (Ragan, 2000). With
the advances in instructional technologies and the changing dynamics of classroom instruction, it
was necessary to rethink the roles of instructors and students. New standards were defined based
on a student-centered model that included increased interactive learning, integration of
technology into the educational system, and ways for students to collaborate with each other
Barone (2003) says that today‟s students posses an “information-age mindset.” They take
Internet access for granted. They are accustomed to using technology to manage information.
They want to try things rather than hear about things. Students need stimulation. They are used to
applying technology to organize and integrate knowledge. Mobile learning (m-learning) could be
the wave of the future. Students do not want meeting times to be limited by professors‟ office
hours. They use e-mail, cell phones, and instant messaging to communicate (Barone, 2003).
Students learn best from direct, hands-on experiences that engage them, structured and sequential
teaching, and learning that starts with practice and ends with theory (Miller, 1995).
There is pressure for institutions of higher education to respond to the information age
(Foster, 2001). One scholar maintains that it is not the lack of creativity or commitment that
inhibits the organizations‟ management and integration of new technology, rather it is the
campus‟ strategic vision that lacks direction on how to reach out to the needs of a new group of
students (Foster, 2001).
Community matters. Professors use course management systems such as Blackboard to
engage students in group work. According to Barone (2003), there is a push for technology
standards among faculty. But as DiBiase (2002) points out, standardized portfolio templates and
wizards are likely to discourage more than attract potential users because of widely used
activities and objectives for using e-portfolios. Where technological standards are concerned,
faculty may misconstrue standards to be constraining on individual learning. According to the
IMS Global Learning Consortium (http://www.imsglobal.org), technical interoperability would
be crucial to enabling the transformation of teaching and learning (Barone, 2003).
The University of Washington mapped out a set of institution-wide learning objectives
for its students, the student learning objective system (SLO). SLO has defined course objectives
for almost all of its 6,000 undergraduate classes. With SLO and e-portfolios, Debra Friedman,
Associate Provost for Academic Programs, says that students have the tools to manage their
learning, select courses based on objectives and then evaluate whether their course work met
objectives (Barone, 2003).
Professor Koper (2002) says in his speech about information and communication
technology that, in the future, institutions of higher education must focus on offering electronic
learning environments. This does not involve using some type of “dead” digital learning
environment; rather, Koper (2002) is referring to advanced, flexible, social systems supported
with information and communication technologies. Institutions of higher education should
provide new technology for educational purposes to give students cutting-edge experiences
Information Technology (IT) in Education
The 2003 Campus Computing Survey, which is completed by campus CIOs or senior IT
professionals, reports that about one third of college courses make use of a course management
system (CMS). This represents a fifteen percent increase since 2000. In addition, 82 percent of
the approximately 600 two and four-year colleges and universities participating in the survey
report that they have established a single product standard for course management, typically
Blackboard or WebCT. There is also an increase in campus wireless networks (WiFi), campus
Web portals, and Web-based campus services (Green, 2003). The Campus Computing Project
began in 1990 and tracks the role of information technology in American education. According
to the survey, a key institutional priority is to help faculty integrate technology into instruction
and provide adequate user support (Technology Infusion). Green (2003) says that while
integrating technology into instruction is still very much a priority, other issues such as IT
financing, enterprise resource planning (ERP) upgrades and wireless are now competing with
Just announced on January 22, 2004, is the Sakai Project which was formed by four
universities: Indiana, Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford.
Sakai‟s goal is to develop and distribute a complete course management system that draws on the
best uses and experiences of users‟ current CMS. Sakai seeks to develop an open source CMS
that is better than current or future CMS. These four universities believe they can provide a
better product, service, and better code than commercial firms. Sakai wants to have control over
CMS and the accompanying and supplemental applications such as e-portfolios and assessment
modules (Green, 2004).
The creation of a knowledge based system, Module Organization and Teaching System
(MOATS), at the University of Arizona will provide support to faculty not only in teaching
faculty how to use the technology, but will also focus on students‟ learning problems the faculty
member wants to address. MOATS will then provide templates and use cases in accordance with
the learning principle (Barone, 2003).
In Lenoar Foster‟s (2001) essay, he discusses different authors‟ writings on the subject of
technology and higher education. He notes that the corporate sector is at the center of new
technology and that universities are usually playing catch-up. There is pressure for institutions of
higher education to respond to the information age. One of Foster‟s (2001) sources maintains
that it is not the lack of creativity or commitment that inhibits the organizations‟ management
and integration of new technology, but it is the campus‟ strategic vision that lacks direction on
how to reach out to the needs of a new group of students. Institutions of higher education should
provide new technology for educational purposes to give students cutting-edge experiences
Of the participating 600 institutions in The Campus Computing Project, it was reported
that a large obstacle facing infusion of technology is the recruitment and retainment of IT staff.
This obstacle is mainly caused by the competition for IT staff by the private sector (Technology
Portfolio Systems Being Developed By Collaborating Universities
The Epsilen Portfolio System, directed by Indiana University-Purdue University of
Indianapolis (IUPUI), is being developed, defined and designed by an e-portfolio consortium
consisting of several colleges and universities such as Bowling Green State University, Penn
State University, and University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to name a few (IUPUI,
2003). The consortium expects to develop software that is expected to interface with existing
technology. Other universities and colleges can join the consortium and would be expected to
pay $10,000 per year. Member colleges and universities would help develop the e-portfolio
system and then have full access to the resulting software and the code (Young, 2002).
IUPUI professor Ali Jafari, creator of Epsilen portfolios, intends for the new software to
be useful in assessing students‟ progress throughout their academic careers. The goal is to
develop this software system, with the help of the collaborating universities and corporate
institutions, to be compatible and easily integrated with commercial course management
software and campus portals (IUPUI, 2003).
As Dr. Jafari describes the system, universities would store digital products of students‟
work including letter grades and related summary data. Students could submit products to the
system either directly or indirectly through a faculty member. Only the work sent through the
faculty member could be certified for authenticity. This proposed system would provide an
environment in which intelligent agents might be applied to perform several functions, one of
which might be to check the academic integrity of documents within a class or among different
classes across the campus (IUPUI, 2003). Anti plagiarism tools might be one of the most
attractive benefits to faculty members. (DiBiase, 2002).
Professor Milt Hakel of Bowling Green State University envisions the e-portfolios to be a
great facilitator of the student learning process and plans to study how the use of e-portfolios
enhances student learning (IUPUI, 2003).
The Process of Creating an E-portfolio
DiBiase‟s (2002) research suggests there are five stages to e-portfolio development. First,
in the collection stage, students and teachers electronically save their work that shows learning
successes. Second, the selection process involves selecting artifacts that demonstrate
achievement of specific standards. The third stage, reflection, involves collaboration between
students and teachers to enable evaluation of achievement and growth, as well as gaps in
development. Projection, or direction, is the fourth stage that turns portfolio development into
professional development. During projection, students work with teachers to measure their
reflections against standards and performance indicators. Also during this stage, learning goals
are set for the future. Last is the presentation stage in which appropriate public views are shared
with peers, professors, and future employers.
It is not just the act of compiling a portfolio that creates reflection and learning, rather it
is the process of developing the e-portfolio that encourages students to become more active and
responsible for achieving their own educational goals (DiBiase, 2002).
According to the research done by Lynch and Purnawarman (2004), portfolios are
developed for three reasons. First, a learning portfolio is used as a formative evaluation method
to support professional development. Second, the assessment portfolio is developed to evaluate
the learning processes of students. And last is the development of an employment portfolio to
share with potential employers to convey competencies.
How are E-portfolios Being Used in Education?
At an Elementary School
An e-portfolio project was initially conducted with a third grade class in Maine to assess
students‟ learning of various science topics. By the end of the school year, the e-portfolios had
become a vital part of the classroom and school. E-portfolios were used not only as an
opportunity to develop new technology skills, but were also used by the students to share their
progress with their classmates and parents in teacher-led conferences (Garthwait & Verrill,
A primary purpose of portfolio assessment is to teach students to evaluate their own work
through the use of standards and personal goals. The purpose of e-portfolios is to keep students
focused on learning rather than the individual projects themselves. The e-portfolio is a part of the
learning process not a result of it (Garthwait & Verrill, 2003).
Students were taught how to save their work on the school‟s server and how to later
access their information. Students, with the help of their teacher and peers, evaluated their own
work then used their knowledge to make presentations (using the e-portfolio) to their parents at
parent-teacher conferences. The classroom teacher observed that technology had made a
tremendous impact on the students‟ learning and communication that year (Garthwait & Verrill,
In Higher Education
E-portfolios are being used in the English department at Penn State for business writing
and technical writing classes. The initial assignment requires students to create a home page (or
index page) with designations for links to resumes, professional Web resources, a power point
presentation and writing samples. The second part of the assignment allows students to learn the
technology skills necessary to further build their Web portfolios. Students collaborate with each
other during workshops held in public computer laboratories to develop or build on the technical
skills needed to complete the assignment (DiBiase, 2002).
Also at Penn State, the school of Information Sciences and Technology includes a course
in which students are required to develop professional e-portfolios. This is called the Web
Professional Certificate Program.
DiBiase (2002) has required students in one of his Geographic Information Science
classes at Penn State to publish projects in their personal Web account since 1997. Many of the
students simply choose to link their assignments to their default home page, which they are
required to create using HTML. Graduate teaching assistants and undergraduate teaching interns
provide technical support to inexperienced students and answer questions about HTML and file
transfer protocol (FTP).
There has been no coordinated campus-wide initiation of student e-portfolios at Penn
state. However, numerous individuals and group e-portfolio initiatives are underway within
several of the schools and support units (DiBiase, 2002).
Various teacher education courses of study and the National Educational Technology
Standards (NETS) Project for teachers are encouraging teacher educators to incorporate
technology into their programs in order to prepare teachers to effectively use and integrate
technology into their classrooms. Many teacher education programs are using e-portfolios to
incorporate technology experiences into their learning. Portfolio assessment involves the
collection, selection, and reflection of student learning which is considered by some experts to be
a more authentic measure of the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom (Wilson,
Wright, & Stallworth, 2003). The department of education at Wake Forest University uses e-
portfolios to measure students‟ proficiency in national technology standards.
The University of Washington uses portfolios in several areas, one of which is a service-
learning class in sociology. The professor uses prompts to help guide the students in learning
from their experiences and applying the theories taught in the classroom (Catalyst Profile).
Alverno College is implementing campus-wide e-portfolios and requires all new students
to create a diagnostic digital portfolio (Young, 2002). Alverno College is a small, private,
independent college for women located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Alverno has developed
digitized digital portfolios with support from several foundations and the U.S. Department of
Education. The digitized portfolios were developed to help advisors and students track their on-
going development as learners in general education and initiate strategies for improvement.
Students are required to document key performances in areas such as communication, problem
solving, valuing, social interaction, global perspective and aesthetic response (DiBiase, 2002).
The University of Florida has developed the career-oriented portfolio which is managed
by the University‟s career center. This e-portfolio uses a template system that aims to help
students document their marketable skill sets, including communication, critical thinking,
leadership, life management, social responsibility, and teamwork. The University of Iowa‟s
career center has the “Iowa Advantage” that uses as its outcome an e-portfolio of students‟
professional work samples. The program is open to all students but fewer than two hundred
students had participated partly because there is a lack of academic connection. The University
charges fifty dollars per semester, per student. Students have access to a computer lab, six
megabytes of Web space, portfolio design instruction, individual career counseling and a mock
interview (DiBiase, 2002).
Benefits of E-portfolios for Students
Students use electronic portfolios to demonstrate complex thinking and creativity in using
multimedia and hypertext presentations. Electronic portfolios support student learning and that is
the basis for technology integration in higher education (Lynch and Purnawarman, 2004).
Students can review their work and read the instructor‟s comments as they study for tests. And
e-portfolio data can make the process of transferring to another university easier by providing a
measurement of students‟ work (Batson, 2002).
According to a Wake Forest University student just completing the requirements for her
degree in education, the skills she learned while creating an electronic portfolio will help her
throughout her career as a teacher. She learned how to request permission from the server to
upload her portfolio. She learned about file transfer protocol and a little about HTML. This
student feels that having the e-portfolio will help give her an advantage in searching for a job
because potential employers can be directed to her site to experience and see some of her
competencies (Cattolica, 2004).
For many students, the benefits are realized while job hunting. Students feel that if
potential employers can view their e-portfolio and see their skills and talents, they would have a
definite advantage (Young, 2002). E-portfolios are easy to store in a digitized format, easier to
copy and distribute, more versatile and easy to maintain, and “demonstrate more quality in
providing evidence of competence” than paper portfolios (Lynch and Purnawarman, 2004).
Benefits for Faculty
Just as students use e-portfolios as resume builders, so can faculty use the tool as a
resume builder providing more teaching data in their promotion and tenure reviews. But the
primary benefit of e-portfolios to faculty is that they provide a tool to comment on, better
manage, review and reflect on students‟ work (Batson, 2002). For administrators and faculty, the
benefits come by helping students reflect on how their different activities come together to form
a well rounded education (Young, 2002).
A commercial e-portfolio application service provider, Chalk and Wire, lists several
benefits for faculty. One benefit would be having the ability to show evidence of student learning
or progress. Second, the e-portfolio could be used as part of a review process for lead, rank and
tenure and could be shared only with user-selected colleagues. It could also be e-mailed in part
or as a whole to conference organizers who need to know more about the professional work of
the faculty member (Eight Ways).
Benefits for Administrators
E-portfolios create a system for tracking students‟ work in a particular course. The work
of many students could be aggregated to determine if, as a whole, students are progressing
toward learning goals in a particular course. Administrators may discover how to encourage
continuity in linked courses such as history (HST 101 and 102) or English (ENG 101 and 102)
from semester to semester (Batson, 2002).
If seen as only a repository for students‟ work, the mission is lost. Studies at some
campuses have shown that even though one hundred percent of faculty are on board with e-
portfolios, students may not see their full value. Unless faculty plan their courses to
accommodate using e-portfolios, the initiative may be undermined in that program (Batson,
Challenges Associated With E-portfolios
Process management refers to the management of processes either using a computer for
calculations, transaction processing and workflow processes, etc.; or process management may
refer to the new educational models that are based on modern forms of assessment like portfolio
assessment that are much harder to manage and administer. The management of portfolio
assessment could be one of the greatest barriers to undertaking educational innovation
dynamically (Koper, 2002).
Some pre-service teachers discussed concerns about e-portfolios. While they believed the
e-portfolios were helpful while seeking employment, they did not make the connection of using
e-portfolios in their teaching careers. The findings of one study showed that the pre-service
teachers gained more technology experience than reflective growth. E-portfolios were viewed by
some as a product of work rather than a process of reflection (Wilson, Wright, & Stallworth,
2003). E-portfolios are time consuming to create, maintain and evaluate. For students with no
previous Web publishing experience, e-portfolios are labor intensive (DiBiase, 2002).
Getting the support of faculty members may be one of the challenges facing the
implementation of e-portfolios (Young, 2002). Some individuals will not participate in using
new technologies because their use requires time to learn, time they feel they cannot spare. Lack
of training affects technology use. Individuals who are already overloaded with work do not or
cannot take the extra time to learn a new technology (Watson-Manheim & Belanger, 2002).
Teachers must spend a large amount of time planning, monitoring, and providing feedback to
students (DiBaise, 2002).
Storage is a key challenge in e-portfolios. With more students storing more information,
how will organizations manage this challenge (Batson, 2002)? Security poses another challenge.
It is important to maintain a high level of security for personal information stored on a server. A
hands-off approach to maintaining e-portfolios may invite hacking and open the university to a
lawsuit (Batson, 2002).
Cyber plagiarism is also an issue to be considered. Administrators and students share
concerns of their academic work being stolen once published on line. However, Web-based tools
are now available to detect plagiarism (DiBiase, 2002).
Privacy plays an important role when considering e-portfolios. One of the results of a
Penn State survey revealed that students are concerned about the privacy of their personal
information being revealed on-line. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act
(FERPA), every college and university receiving federal funding is subject to FERPA
regulations. Colleges and universities must notify students about published student directory
information. Instructors must be careful not to release any information about students that is in
violation of FERPA. Furthermore, students retain the right not to have personal information
released publicly. Students should be informed as to how much and what kind of personal
information to publish on-line. The results of too much information disclosure could result in
stalking, identity theft, harassing phone calls or e-mails (DiBiase, 2002).
Another point of consideration according to Penn State‟s evaluation of e-portfolios is the
issue of free speech. Slander, libel, and harassment are illegal. Professors should consider this
before assigning projects that might encourage students to express controversial viewpoints
Questions for the industry may include understanding how universities can commit to a
project that is in its first release and not yet established in the market. Universities also need to
consider if small vendors will remain in business over the years (Batson, 2002).
Should the students‟ work in e-portfolios be considered authentic and should this be part
of an official transcript? If so, the professor needs to be able to close the access to students so the
work can be graded and authenticated. The student would then only be able to view the
information, not make changes to the original version (Batson, 2002).
Research shows that there is difficulty in scoring e-portfolios because of inconsistencies
by graders. Other studies suggest that with proper planning and specific guidelines, acceptable
reliability can be obtained (DiBiase, 2002).
Advantages of Vendors and Application Service Providers
Application service providers (ASP) provide some advantages. Ease of use is one of their
claims. According to one ASP, students or faculty can construct a sophisticated e-portfolio in
less than forty minutes. Help files are available from any page; and there is no software to load.
A computer that supports any standard Web browser and access to the Internet is all that is
needed to access an e-portfolio. All of a subscriber‟s e-portfolio information is stored on the
vendor‟s server. Also, sections of the e-portfolio or the entire e-portfolio can be protected by a
password. In addition to help screens, the ASP will also provide, for a fee, support in the form of
on-site training. Technical experts would be assigned to work with technical staff at the
institution to ensure a smooth deployment. There are costs associated with using these service
providers. The institution could pay a fee and/or each subscriber would pay a fee for the use of
space and access to the system (Eight Ways).
Electronic Portfolios are creating quite a buzz in education. Some see using them a threat
by creating more work, while others see them as a wonderful tool. E-portfolios are being used in
different ways by different schools. Several universities have formed consortia to develop open
source software solutions because they feel so strongly about the future of e-portfolios and their
ability to change the institution of education, as it is known. Students today have come to depend
on technology and cannot imagine life without it. Instant messaging and cell phones are
replacing e-mail as a way to stay connected. Technology is changing rapidly and in order to stay
competitive, businesses, corporations, educational institutions have to keep up. Application
service providers are offering their e-portfolio services.
Teacher education departments are requiring their students to show competency in
technology as part of their degree. But, according to research done by Lynch and Purnawarman
(2004), only a small percentage of programs are using e-portfolios correctly by using rubrics to
support proper evaluation and assessment. Additional research is being conducted to find out
why more educational technology programs are not using e-portfolios to enhance student
learning. Perhaps the main challenge in using e-portfolios is getting the support of faculty.
There was a time, not too long ago, when email was thought to be a trend. Could e-
portfolios become the next “must have” technology tool in education? If administrators,
professors and students realize the benefits of e-portfolios and consider how technologies such as
Blackboard have helped support instruction, perhaps they will become a “must have.”
This view shows the options for building an E-Portfolio through the Open Source Portfolio
A portfolio view has been shared.
Those with whom you have chosen to share a portfolio can view it here.
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