A story about the failure of institutional eportfolios

In which I relate a personal story about how the one eportfolio I was required as a student to make on an institutional eportfolio system has now disappeared for good (to me) with no communication from the institution.

I’m a long-term skeptic when it comes to institutionally chosen eportfolio systems like Mahara, PebblePad etc. Back in January 2009 I expressed my first disquiet with eportfolios in terms of how institutions approach innovation around e-learning. i.e. Ohh, everyone is installing eportfolios, let’s leap on that bandwagon and expends lots of resources encouraging/requiring everyone to use this fad while we ignore all the contextual opportunities and issues within the institution. This is a cycle you can see repeated with new values for eportfolio: open source LMS, learning analytics, OERs, MOOCs….

I’ve also wondered just how long institutions were going to continue supporting the eportfolios created by their students. I know have an answer for one institution, about 3 years.

2011 – Reluctant eportfolio author

Given my skepticism about eportfolios it was somewhat ironic that I was required as a student to create an eportfolio when studying to become a high school teacher. My fellow students and I were all required to use Mahara to create an eportfolio showing off evidence that we had met each of the relevant teacher standards. This was a requirement as part of the course and came with the expectation that we’d use it in interviews.

2012 – Ongoing use

As it happened, I didn’t become a school teacher and didn’t use my eportfolio in interviews.

Instead I got a job at another university teaching a course on ICT and Pedagogy. The course design I had to use in the first year of teaching that course required the students to create their assignments in the new institution’s instance of Mahara. Mahara’s not the easiest of tools to learn, so I used my existing eportfolio as an example in the course.

It appears that I wasn’t the only one. My alma mater also appeared to be using the eportfolio I created as an example. This is based on the following request from one of their students

Since you’re the guru of the e.portfolio I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind telling me how to create the little tabs at the top of each page as you have in yours.

2013 – Declining use

Given the hassles in using Mahara for student assignments, I changed the course to remove the use of Mahara. Instead students were creating their own blog on their choice of service. Didn’t point my students to my eportfolio but still got the odd evidence of on-going use at the other institution.

2014 – It’s gone!

This year the program I teach into is trying to encourage students to continually think about gathering evidence against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST) and preparing their eportfolio. We’re also encouraged to link our course activities to the APST.

Being the good corporate citizen that I am, I was modifying my course site to add these reminders in. It seemed a good opportunity to point to my eportfolio as an example of what is required. Where was that link? Ahh, there it is? Oops!!

Missing eportfolio by David T Jones, on Flickr

It’s gone! The entire Mahara site no longer exists. How could that be?

It appears that what was once an externally hosted site is now hosted internal to the organisation.

What’s more the eportfolios on that site cannot be accessed unless you go through the institution’s version of Moodle. My student account – which was working for the old system – will no longer give me access via this new method.

Would’ve been nice to be told

I understand the need to re-evaluate how services are provided, but it would’ve been nice to be told that the system was moving so that I could have made use of the eportfolio communities much vaunted standards for sharing content. A dump of the site and move to a new one would make sense.

Perhaps this is something I should have done ages ago. However, I also think there’s an argument to be made that the institution could of informed ex-students of the move. After all, the institution’s Alumni association still communicates regularly with me.

If institution’s provide an institutional eportfolio system, doesn’t this imply a larger burden of support? Moving beyond the forget about the student once they graduate approach to maintaining a life-long relationship?
I’m sure I read something like that in some marketing spiel.

If that additional burden isn’t going to be picked up, then isn’t there at least the expectation that you will clearly communicate what the service level will be? After all, SLAs are the beloved of all central IT departments.

If this burden isn’t being picked up, then what does this mean for institutions that are requiring students to create eportfolios for use in interviews and other post-enrolment requirements?

A sign of limitations of institution hosted e-portfolios? And cost as the ultimate driver

E-portfolios have increasingly been seen as a good thing. A welcome innovation in assessment practices that show evidence of institutions improving their learning and teaching. At the same time, there’s been an increasing question about whether a student’s e-portfolio should be hosted on an institutionally owned system. Various questions arise, including

  • What happens when the student, as many often do, start studying at another institution?
  • What happens when the institution decides not to support the e-portfolio system any longer?

Around this same time has been the growing question of just how much technology should be provided by the institution given the increasing wide-spread availability of technology? Back in the mid-1990s Australian Universities were providing students with dial-up Internet access. They don’t do this any more. Email addresses? Mostly hosted by Google or other service providers?

How long can/will institutions provide e-portfolio systems?

A sign of the limitations of institutional provision of these systems is when you get an email from the folk supporting the institutional e-portfolio asking for details of assignments you’ve set that use the e-portfolio. This is so they can be aware of the peaks and be prepared for them.

I’m pretty sure WordPress.com don’t email their users asking for help in identifying peaks. Instead the have the infrastructure and people in place to deal with the peaks. Can an institutional e-portfolio system ever hope to have the same capability? Or will the expense of doing so be what convinces the institution to allow students to use their own technology?

Cost as the ultimate driver

Central IT and support organisational units are loathe to give up their systems and subsequent control. Even when there are better systems available externally. However, it appears that there is definitely a trend where cost becomes the ultimate driver/change agent. The reason they give up ownership is when its demonstrably cheaper to out source than provide an equivalent level of functionality.

That’s what has happened with the provision of Internet access, student email accounts and increasingly in the school sector it is the driver beyond the adoption of bring your own devices/technology (BYOD/BYOT).

What does it say about organisations – especially educational organisations – when the technology choices are driven more by ownership, control and cost than what is best for the organisations, its members and stakeholders (can’t bring myself to use client/customer).

ePortfolios in universities – forget it?

I continue to have a high level of skepticism around the concept of universities investing in ePortfolios. I feel that it is another example of how people within universities tend to over-emphasize their importance in the scheme of things, extend the university role into areas it where it should never have been and subsequently waste resources and more importantly the time and energy of academic staff that would be better spent focusing on other aspects of improving learning and teaching. In particular, I see ePortfolios being another approach that is being over-run by the technologists alliance.

This latest restating of my prejudice arises from a find from Stephen Downes OLDaily newsletter which eventually traces back to this post from a Spanish higher school teacher which in turn draws on this post from Derek Wenmoth.

Perhaps this is some limitation of mine. I just don’t see the point of ePortfolios. What is all the fuss about?

The diagram

The core of the post is the following image that, at least for me, does a good job of giving a road map of what learner’s do within their learning: do stuff, manage the outcomes, present it to various audiences, share it with others.

ePortfolio roadmap by Perfil de Sonia Guilana

My immediate though was where in any of this is there a need for a formal institution of learning (e.g. university or school) to provide the learner with the tools to perform any of this? Why does the advent of elearning technologies change any of the relationships?

From the discussion it appears that the institution’s role can be seen in providing a VLE – shown as one place the learner might “do stuff” and also talked about one place they may “manage stuff” – and one part of “presenting stuff”. The institution’s role in “presenting stuff” is in assessment and accreditation.

Already the VLE provided by institution’s is falling behind the usability and functionality provided by external tools. Sorry, but having seen both Moodle and Blackboard up close, I’d much prefer to be using external tools. I even prefer, for functionality and ease of use reason, using Google Mail to the email system provided by institution. Given they are already falling behind, why should an institution believe it can provide a better suite of systems for the learner to “present stuff” with.

Institution’s providing portfolio systems becomes a bit more silly when you add in the observations that informal learning far outweighs formal learning and that increasingly learners will engage in formal learning from many different providers. One solution proposed to address these issues is for education systems to standardise portfolio systems so either they are all using the same one or have systems that talk to each other. Given the long history of failure of such attempts at standarisation, I’m surprised anyone still doesn’t laugh uproariously when someone suggests such a project.

What is an alternative?

Only very briefly, have to stop procrastinating and get back to the thesis, the following are some initial suggestions:

  • Ensure that institutional systems integrate/interface simply and effectively with all the other tools that make up the above diagram.
    e.g. it should be easy for learners to export the “stuff” they produce in a VLE into their own tools. As part of this, VLEs should be generating RSS feeds for most if not all of its functions. Ensure institutional systems work within global authentication systems (e.g. OpenID), rather than institutional or system specific authentication systems. (e.g. Australian Access Federation)
  • Focus institutional technology on only those tasks that the institution must perform and aim on doing it well.
    e.g. Rather than providing an ePortfolio system that helps learners present their work (something they can do themselves). Focus on implementing significant improvements on the systems around assessment and accreditation. The assignment submission systems in most VLEs is woeful, and that’s only in simple implementation details that would significantly increase the efficiency of the assessment process. Most don’t offer any support for activities that might significantly improve learning and assessment from an educational perspective.

In part, this is one aspect of the BAM project. One area it is trying to experiment with. Rather than require students to use blogs provided within an institution LMS (which are mostly really limited), allow them to use real-world blog engines and focus the institutional information technology on the assessment aspect.