As most educators know, teaching is undergoing a fundamental change from that of a “one to many” broadcast model — teacher as expert, students as information consumers — to a networked social learning model where teachers act as guides and help create environments where students can learn from each other, from experts around the world and from their local communities.
Just like the printing press was a disruptive technology that transformed the world back in the 15th century, the Internet with its strong communications and social network capabilities has been the catalyst behind this equally disruptive change in education.
Students are rapidly embracing this new paradigm and are on their own initiative developing their learning networks with external Web 2.0 tools. This is making most teachers and educational institutions look slow and unable to adapt and unsuited to their mission of preparing learners for today’s modern society, a society with rapidly changing work and citizenship responsibilities.
In many ways, it is challenging the fundamental value that academic institutions used to almost exclusively offer, to prepare learners for society, and has threatened to reduce their value to that of a hollow shell, providing credentials that only they are legally allowed to do. Yet that are being increasingly bypassed by industry that just wants an employee capable of being successful in the modern context, regardless of whether they have a piece of paper saying they are capable or not. They want real tangible evidence, not a rubber stamp.
Outdated teaching tools
Unfortunately our teaching tools have largely not made this transition to the new learning paradigm. They were developed for a time that has passed, for a closed, silo-based world where students were “trapped” in their classes within “walls around silos around walls around silo”. Rather than helping, teachers and the associated, traditional textbook model ironically have in many cases became more like bottlenecks to learning, rather than learning enablers.
The teachers that have have realized the power of social learning and have broken free from the “sage on the stage” and “exclusive textbook” approach are stuck with outdated tools.
They say it’s better to have a good teacher using a bad tool than a bad teacher using a good tool. Wouldn’t it be nice though if we could have good teachers using good tools! Within the e-portfolio tool space, wouldn’t it be nice if there was an e-portfolio tool that:
- Was both pedagogically strong but also fun to use… that could be used in a formal setting as part of a school’s e-portfolio program but that could also be easily and inexpensively used afterwards by graduating students for their lifelong learning.
- Helped teachers and school administrators ensure that students were learning the required curriculum with rich feedback but that also empowered the student to develop their own personal learning network, a network that grows continually stronger over time as the student uses it.
- The tool students used to build their e-portfolio could also be extended to other areas like building a website for a start-up business venture or small business, building a healthfolio, building a project collaboration website, developing a niche blog, etc. Students could then invest more into learning the e-portfolio tool knowing that the skills they would learn could be used in many different areas into the future.
- Students actually developed their e-portfolios because they wanted to, they saw the value in doing so rather than being forced to? Wouldn’t it be nice if students actually continued to use their e-portfolios after graduation instead of the almost zero per cent retention rate of most school e-portfolio programs.
- The e-portfolio tool they used was popular in industry… something that would add value to be added to their resume and something that would help them even get a job.
- There was an e-portfolio tool that did all the above and yet was free so individuals and schools that are on a tight budget can still move forward even with limited resources?
Not only would this all be nice… but it’s now all possible with a versatile and powerful, open-source based tool, WordPress, a tool that has been right under our noses for a number of years. How did we miss this? WordPress has been largely overlooked because it is known as a “blogging” tool, not the content management tool that it has recently grown up to become and because it had not been extended and customized to meet the needs of e-portfolio users… until now.
With the launch of ZEN Portfolios — an e-portfolio dedicated tool, built primarily on the WordPress platform but extended in a way to meet the unique needs of e-portfolio users — you can now get the best of WordPress’ openness, extensibility, personalization and customization, combined with the best of e-Portfolio structure that makes it easy for prospective employers to find you, to manage your privacy, and to leverage a global e-portfolio support network.
Existing e-portfolio tools were focused primarily on the post-secondary institution (e.g. accreditation requirements) and despite a lot of talk about being “learner centred”, students were generally disempowered and disengaged… students built e-portfolios because they were forced to but their heart was usually not into it and once they graduated virtually none of the students would continue keeping their e-portfolio up to date.
In most cases, even if a student wanted to continue with their e-portfolio there was no way to do it! There was no application service providers in the cloud offering the same platform. They might be able to export their data but it was almost like starting from scratch trying to re-purpose that data back into an e-portfolio format.
E-portfolio software was clunky, templates were constricting and stifled student’s creativity… students could do a far better job establishing a creative and professional online identity with a mash-up of different Web 2.0 tools than they could from their institution’s formal e-portfolio software — software that often had been developed in a different time and that mimicked electronically the schools’ silo structure, before the social media paradigm emerged and the growing understanding of the power of social learning.
After trying several different approaches to engage students in creating their e-portfolio, one tool emerged that not only met their needs, but actually very much exceeded them and took on a natural, organic growth and adoption. The adoption has been strong, students continue to develop their e-portfolios after graduation, and they have begun using them as their personal learning network.
They have also extended the technology skills they have learned with their e-portfolios to other areas like building project collaboration sites, creating “fitness folios”, writing collaborative business plans, building websites for start-up companies and small businesses, and even building social networks for their new employers. Some students are even subsidizing their studies by the revenue they are earning from these additional websites created with the same tool.
And the tool is… WordPress!
The tool that brought this magic is one of the leading blogging and content management tools, WordPress. Other schools that have
adopted WordPress for student e-portfolios / personal learning networks have experienced the same results so much so that some have dropped their previous, commercial, dedicated e-portfolio tools.
The only problem was that some aspects of the blogging approach weren’t specifically suited to e-portfolios and personal learning networks so ZEN Portfolios was developed, a service built on top of the open source WordPress platform.
ZEN Portfolios extends WordPress
ZEN Portfolios adds extra features like an e-Portfolio directory where users can promote their e-portfolio to prospective employers so that the efforts in making an e-portfolio can be rewarded by facilitating the job finding process.
ZEN Portfolios pulls together the best WordPress plugins and themes for building e-portfolios so that the user interface is as simple, yet as powerful as possible.
For example a powerful privacy plugin is included so that users can have complete control over what parts of their e-portfolio they want to share with others and which parts they want to keep private. They can protect their privacy through passwords on parts or all of their portfolio or they can limit access to parts of their site to registered users they have invited.
They can even set the roles of the different users they have invited to participate so some may be able to even collaborate on some of the content while others only have the authority to view content.
Social media integration
Plugins are included that help integrate the various social media like YouTube, Flickr, Delicious, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. so that users can easily convert their e-portfolio into a dynamic personal learning network that can be used for their lifetime. Plugins are included that help the user track statistics of the visitors viewing their e-portfolio.
Custom posts have been added so that instead of just having a generic blog post as the framework for their writing, users can easily write posts and populate with files, pictures, etc. for specific e-portfolio artifacts like events attended, certifications and awards received, hobbies and personal interests, samples of project work, and a bio type summary post with keyword tags that make it easy for employers to find their e-portfolios without having to wade through too much content.
This way they get the benefits of structure while still retaining the openness, flexibility, personalization, and extensibility of WordPress.
e-Portfolio Community Forum
It’s more fun and effective to create your e-portfolio and keep it up to date when you are doing so while interacting with a community of users, whether that is on a small scale like classmates or a broader scale with a diverse group from across the world.
ZEN Portfolios uses the powerful social networking tool and WordPress integrated framework, BuddyPress, so that users can interact with each other in a similar fashion to external networking sites like Facebook, and LinkedIn.
Students and teachers can access this e-portfolio community to learn primarily from each other, but also from “experts” about how to improve their e-portfolios and to resolve any technical hurdles that inevitably come up with any software tool, even one like WordPress known for its simplicity, design and ease of use.
Application Service Provider
ZEN Portfolios is set up as an application service provider “in the cloud” that is centrally managed so users don’t need to worry about security, performance, regular backups, compatibility and quality of plugins and themes, etc. all issues that can be very costly from a financial and time perspective for users trying to host their own WordPress installation.
WordPress.com provides a similar cloud hosting environment but it is a generic blogging service, not a niche content management service so it is not customized to e-portfolio needs, does not have a surrounding e-portfolio community of practice, doesn’t have a dedicated e-portfolio directory, and does not offer a free version that is free of advertisements, a big issue for most e-portfolio owners, that don’t want random third party ads showing up on their e-portfolio and detracting from its professionalism.
ZEN Portfolios Beta
About 5000 students from a number of different schools have used the ZEN Portfolios services during its Beta launch this past year and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Students understand right away the importance of establishing a professional web presence where you have full control over privacy and where you can show your creativity, accomplishments and reflections. They find ZEN Portfolios fun to use and appreciate how it can act as an anchor for their various social media tools they are quite commonly already using (e.g. Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) turning their e-portfolio into a powerful, personal learning network.
Here are some of the features and benefits that make ZEN Portfolios your premium choice for e-portfolio development and promotion, whether it’s just for an individual or a campus-wide e-portfolio program.
- Solid platform – ZEN Portfolios is built on top of the powerful and rapidly growing WordPress blogging and content management platform. As a result, you can rest assured that your e-portfolio has a well-supported foundation on an amazing open source tool known for its user-friendly interface, security, performance and reliability. WordPress is also constantly being improved and is the top tool available today to use as an anchor for both your e-portfolio and your social media tools (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, social bookmarking, etc.). Since we build on top of WordPress instead of having to develop “from scratch” our development costs are lower than most traditional e-portfolio software and we can pass these savings on to you. The development cycles are also shorter so you will be getting new and improved features more frequently and with WordPress being open source, there are hundreds of thousands of contributors to its improvement, not just a small team that most proprietary e-portfolio providers are dependent on.
- Mobility & Freedom – We believe you will want to stick with ZEN Portfolios once you have created your e-portfolio, but unlike many social network platforms, we don’t make it difficult for you to later move your e-portfolio elsewhere if you do want to migrate your site. You can use the easy export tool to migrate your ZEN Portfolio to third party WordPress providers or you can set it up on your own host if you want complete control.
- Strong integration with social media – For many legacy e-portfolio software providers, social media functionality has been “bolted on” to their existing offerings. The problem is that this “after the fact” type integrations are usually less than ideal and limit your ability to leverage the work you have done and content in other services like Linked In, Slide Share, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Since the underlying platform, WordPress, was designed right from the start to be open, you will be able to integrate with social media very easily, in most cases with a simple copy and paste”. ZEN Portfolios also leverages the large plug-in community that makes these integrations with other Web 2.0 applications possible.
- Multi-modality – In addition to being easy to integrate with social media, ZEN Portfolios also enables you to easily ensure your e-portfolio not only looks good on the Web, but also looks good on the iPhone, Blackberry, Android phones and other mobile devices. So whatever your device of choice, you can interact conveniently with your e-portfolio and also make it easy for prospective employees to find you on their preferred devices.
- No software to install – ZEN Portfolios is set up as an application service provider so you can be up and running in just a few minutes. Entire schools or programs can be set up in a day.
- Excellent user interface – It’s easy to learn how to use ZEN Portfolios and its WordPress-based interface is known for its sleek design and usability. With just basic instructions, students are able to create high quality, professional e-portfolios.
- Search engine optimization – There are lots of different purposes for having an e-portfolio but from a student’s perspective, helping them secure a job is front and centre. ZEN Portfolios leverages the inherent search engine optimization strengths of WordPress making most users e-portfolios show up at the very top of Google search results when someone searches on your name.
- Privacy protection – Tired of many of the social network players taking liberties with your privacy or making it difficult to modify your privacy settings? ZEN Portfolios gives you complete control over your privacy and all from a convenient privacy settings tab. You can password protect your entire e-portfolio, allow only invited, registered users, or protect individual postings or pages but keep the rest of your site public. You can include your e-portfolio in the ZEN Portfolios and encourage search engines to index your e-portfolio or you can keep your e-portfolio completely private. ZEN Portfolios is hosted in Canada, a jurisdictions with one of the strongest privacy protections.
- e-Portfolio directory – ZEN Portfolios offers the first global directory for e-portfolios! You have gone to a lot of work creating your e-portfolio, you may as well promote it! If you already have an e-portfolio built with a different software tool, you can still list it in the ZEN Portfolios directory.
- Affordability – ZEN Portfolios was the first to offer a completely free e-portfolio service, back in 2008. This free service was also “ad free” so users were not forced to include third party advertisements within their e-portfolio. We continue to be leaders and champions of e-portfolios that are not only highly effective but that are also very affordable to both individuals and schools. Our vision is “free learning for free people” and “e-portfolios for all”. Especially in an environment where schools are facing tremendous funding and budget pressures, we don’t want e-portfolios to be yet another cost burden.
- Return on Investment – We believe a ZEN Portfolios implementation can be an initiative with an unprecedented return on time and resources invested and in many cases there are creative ways to reduce to the cost to almost zero. Many schools are finding that e-portfolios are the number one student recruitment tool, having hundreds or thousands of sites from their students and grads showcasing the work they did in their school programs and all linking back to the main school website programs is the best word-of-mouth advertising you can get! They also help students, especially those the most marginalized, become more engaged, helping retains existing students and overcome the very real problem of increasing student drop-out rates. Research has shown that e-portfolio are also really effective in helping international students bridge the gap of where they came from and the skills and experiences they had there with their current life in their new country.
Many schools are also finding that the e-portfolio is the number one tool used by students to secure employment after graduation. Once students figure this out… and they do very quickly… you will never have to “force” students again to create and develop their e-portfolio.
The experiences so far show you don’t necessarily even need to make the e-portfolio a significant graded item, in most cases a small, token grade allocation (if any) can be helpful to “kick start” the process. The message from the beginning should be a strong “this isn’t about grade, this is about you and your future”.
We hope you will join us on this exciting e-portfolio pathway! We’re convinced ZEN Portfolios is the best e-portfolio tool available today, and one of the only ones truly designed for the social learning and networked world we are now living in, not designed for an outdated school paradigm. If you are using a system you think works even better or if you have found WordPress plug-ins or other applications that work well with your students, or if you just want to learn more about ZEN Portfolios, we would love to hear from you! We are obsessed with continuous improvement and want our students to have the best possible e-portfolio tools available to them.
To learn more about ZEN Portfolios or to request a no-commitment, free sign up code to try ZEN Portfolios out, please see: