Just returned from the Learning Forum London – e-Portfolio 2010 & Key Competencies 2010 conference in London. Great job again as usual by the European Institute for e-Learning (EIfEL). One common challenge I saw in many of the presentations was how to motivate students to create high quality and lasting e-portfolios.
In the past this was usual quite simple… you forced students to develop an e-portfolio and assigned significant grades to it (i.e. bribes to actually do it).
The huge problem though, in addition to the e-portfolios often being contrived and non-exciting, was that there would be almost a zero per cent retention rate once the students graduated — virtually no one continued with their e-portfolio once they no longer “had to”.
The other problem was that the e-portfolio programs focused on the benefits to the schools (e.g. helping with the institution’s accreditation efforts, ensuring learning objectives were being covered, integrating curriculum, etc.) and didn’t offer a lot of clear benefits to the students themselves.
After a five year journey at ZEN Portfolios, we have concluded there are three essential ingredients to a successful e-portfolio program: fun, clear benefits to students, and authentic student ownership of their e-portfolio.
First and foremost, creating and maintaining an e-portfolio has to be fun! This means top-notch user interface, and functionality that is simple, and easy to use but also very powerful that inspires users to say “wow, I didn’t know I could create something that looks so good!” It is what will keep e-portfolio users returning to make fresh updates. Fun is the most overlooked e-portfolio tool design criteria, a real shame since it’s by far the most important factor in your students authentically using their e-portfolio. It’s not just a “nice to have”, it’s a “must have” and the success of your e-portfolio program will depend on the “fun factor”!
Second, the e-portfolio has to be truly beneficial to the user and these benefits have to be really clear. At ZEN Portfolios, these are some of the benefits that have led to industry-high retention and usage rates.
- Big help in finding a good job
- Arguably the best e-portfolio for search engine optimization making it easier for prospective employers to find you
- Ability to develop your e-portfolio into a powerful, personal learning network — a centralized place to reflect, store your learning for later recall, and place to network with others
- Ability to continue the e-portfolio after graduation
- Ability to promote your e-portfolio and career interests in the ZEN Portfolios directory
- Ability to learn valuable, and transferable technology skills — specifically to learn WordPress, one of the Web’s most popular and fastest growing content management and website building technologies (great to add to your resume since many companies are seeking out people with WordPress skills)
- Help with organizing an individual’s personal information and ability to store files at one single service rather than at countless services across the Web
- Advanced privacy features that make your e-portfolio a versatile tool, good for showcasing work to the public but also including items that can be targeted to a smaller, invitation-only, audience.
- Arguably the best system for integrating with other social media tools (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.) so your e-portfolio can become an anchor for your online digital identity and use of other social media tools
- Direct integration with other useful ZEN Portfolio tools like ZEN Project Sites, ZEN Start Ups, Fit Folios and more… single-login and since they all use WordPress in the back-end, a similar interface which means a super fast learning curve.
- …and did we mention there is a free option for those on tight budget!
Finally, the e-portfolio must be truly owned by the individual. This means that the individual should always get to choose which e-portfolio tool and approach they use. It’s fair for the school to give broad goals and requirements while the student is studying at their institution and it’s only fair to at least offer one tool that is supported by the institution but there should be plenty of flexibility still for the students.
The e-portfolio should be free, if not “free as in beer” then at least “free as in freedom”. In the case of ZEN Portfolios, by using our free version, you can get the benefits of “free as in beer” and “free as in freedom”!
If a student wants to build his or her e-portfolio from scratch using HTML or an HTML editor program like Dreamweaver, more power to them! If a student has found a different approach to building their e-portfolio, and doesn’t require institutional IT support for it, good for them! They should be commended for thinking and going outside of the box, not scolded for being non-conforming!
This is one of the ways we have made ZEN Portfolios into what we think is the best tool available for most e-portfolio programs. Whenever a student finds something that works better, we either adopt the new platform they have found or add in the superior functionality into ZEN Portfolios.
For example, we started about five years ago with a customized Drupal installation that worked okay but wasn’t amazing (main problem was limited availability of design templates that students found constricting and expensive to support and maintain).
Based on student feedback, we moved to Google’s Blogger service. This was a pretty good approach and some of our students still use it but it was limiting for many users, especially the more advanced users that want to ultimately host their e-portfolio on their own server and that wanted more sophisticated themes and plug-ins. We found e-portfolios developed with Blogger still looked too much like a generic blog and didn’t inspire students.
We then experimented with using Mahara, integrated with a school’s Moodle installation but found the majority of students liked that considerably less than even Google Blogger and virtually no students would continue using their e-portfolio once their program requirements were over.
We liked the ability for Mahara to publish multiple views for different audiences but found the emphasis of integrating with Moodle actually tied the Mahara e-portfolio tool and approach on a dieing paradigm that in our opinion is in it’s last days, i.e. the the course focused Learning Management System (LMS) approach that electronically mimicks the silo barrier and walled approach of the traditional school paradigm instead of leveraging existing social media tools for a more open approach.
We also found that unlike using a broader, social media-based platform approach, students couldn’t take what they learned technically with Mahara and move that learning investment into other areas of their life (i.e. making websites for their businesses, using as a project management tool, etc.). With so many tools out there, we wanted the e-portfolio tool to be as versatile as possible so students could benefit in other areas of their life, not just the e-portfolio part.
We then moved to an entirely custom build solution that worked well… we were able to build in the exact e-portfolio requirements we saw the market needed — but it was prohibitively expensive and could never keep pace with the leading open source platforms supported by literally millions of people. The only way we could sustain this was for it to require a large institution or user fee, something we didn’t want to do. We wanted our e-portfolio tool to further open up education and access for students, not add an extra fee burden that directly or indirectly be felt by students.
So after about five years of this journey, and more than 10,000 “experimental” e-portfolios later, we finally settled on moving to using a WordPress-based platform with an added custom built e-portfolio components, the best of both worlds where we matched up interoperability and social media integration, large user base with its tens of thousands of plugins and themes on the one hand with the customization of e-portfolio components that we built and configured specifically for e-portfolio users on the other hand so they could go beyond a generic WordPress experience and only need to deal with functionality that was relevant to the task at hand.
This journey was all because students were never forced to use our system and were free to find something better. While we think we have finally arrived at an unbeatable platform approach (at least for the next few years until the “next WordPress” comes along), we will always move ahead with a continuous improvement philosophy and add in features that students find are superior with other tools.
At ZEN Portfolios, one of the ways it’s clear to the individual that they truly own their own portfolio is that it’s hosted externally from the student’s institution. Their school normally pays for the student to use the service while they are a student and this is primarily because there are numerous benefits to the school to have a campus-wide e-portfolio program and because they often make an e-portfolio a requirement.
But once the student has graduated, it is up to him or her whether they want to continue the ZEN Portfolios service. If they prefer to quit doing an e-portfolio and delete their info, they can. If they prefer to migrate their content to another e-portfolio service, they can. If they wish to continue with ZEN Portfolios, they can become a premium subscriber and continue for as long as they like. The choice is their’s.
So if you are finding that getting your students to use a e-portfolio is like pulling teeth, you should consider ZEN Portfolios and the three things we have found that lead to e-portfolios succeeding and taking on a whole, organic life of their own.
Make it fun, make it clearly beneficial to the students, and make sure it’s truly student-owned, not institution owned. Both your students and your school will be much better off for it.