About this post
Over the years I have met hundreds of people who are researching eportfolio requirements for their organisation. There are a number of differing drivers for requirements, ranging from needing to solve a particular problem through to offering a broad range of capabilities which can be rolled out across the organisation. Focusing on solving a particular problem can mean that you get a good fit for current needs, but you don’t necessarily get a system flexible enough to be used for other things that surface later. In this post, I’ve compiled 10 things you should consider if you are thinking about portfolios or personal learning more generally. I've also included a portfolio comparison checklist, available as a free download, which you can use to compare and contrast portfolio capability across different platforms.
Requirement 1: Supports life-long and life-wide use
Let's start with life-wide. A portfolio system should not just be for a collection of defined learning outcomes created for a course, that’s just the minimum. At a simplistic level everyone who passes a course should be able to demonstrate the learning outcomes and so a portfolio system needs to offer much, much more. It’s widely espoused that we learn all the time in lots of different contexts. However, we do not always record or celebrate these diverse learning experiences. To my mind the informal learning activities we engage in are the things that make us unique. Having the opportunity to record, reflect upon and showcase anything we do is a vital part of personal growth. That’s what life-wide is all about, being able to record and present any learning activity wherever and whenever it occurs.
All this is fine when you are a student and have access to all the resources your institution makes available to you. However, you need to know that you can get your work out of the system or continue to access it in the system, ideally without having to pay a fee.
Not all things are equal and continued access may mean different things in different systems. Options range from read only access, export only access through to full account access which allows continued use of the system to create new records and portfolio presentations.
Requirement 2: Promotes reflective learning
OK, so all portfolio systems support and encourage reflection, right? Well, no that’s not really the case. Some just provide options to upload evidence of capabilities and others offer a nice portfolio page builder for users to record their reflections. The problem is that these don’t really promote reflection they just offer a space to write something. For people to write a reflective account of their activities they probably need a bit of coaching, particularly if they are new to reflection. A system that truly promotes reflection needs to scaffold the recording process and act as a virtual coach by providing prompts.
Typically prompts will be based on well-known experiential learning theory, but users need not worry about that. The important thing is that the prompts are helping them capture what happened, what they think about it and what they’d do when presented with a similar situation.
Requirement 3: Helps to structure any learning activity
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with people interested in portfolios and how they be used to support different needs across an organisation. The subject areas may vary but the core requirement is very similar - recording activity to demonstrate ability or capability.
Recording the right information in a structured way is an important part of an evidenced based portfolio. Assessors need to be able to easily see the detail of the required capabilities and learners need to have a structure to ensure they are recording the correct information. Templates or workbooks are the most effective way to provide the structure and ensure all the right elements are in place. There are four common approaches to template creation:
1. Enlist the services of a technical expert who can build online forms
2. Use a familiar tool like Microsoft Word and make the docs available
3. Create a template website with instructions in a system like WordPress or Google sites
4. Use a system that allows you to create them without the need for specific technical capability
Option 1 is good for getting exactly what you want for a specific purpose but may be expensive initially and suffers from being inflexible. Every time you want a new template or you want to make changes additional time and money is required. Microsoft Word templates are popular with learners as they are offering a familiar technology but they can become cumbersome to work with, particularly with larger groups. It is also often difficult to do analysis on results without a significant amount of additional effort. Using existing website tools again may be easy to initially set up but management can be difficult, particularly for evaluation processes and collecting meaningful data. A system that allows individuals to create templates and workbooks without specialist skills should give maximum flexibility. If the templates can be managed and reported upon to support assessment processes then we are getting somewhere near being able to support the full assessment process. It all boils down to using a system designed to support the types of activities you are working with.
At PebblePad, we like Option 4 best. Our Template and Workbook Builders (Template Builder above) allow any user to easily build fit for purpose frameworks and update them as and when required, without the need for any technical know-how.
Requirement 4: Supports diverse use – assessment and personal portfolios
Whilst structured processes are often the initial driver for portfolio use, there is much more potential for the medium in providing options for people to be creative. Ideally, the system should support users in creating highly visual portfolios, with the ability to include video, images and text. There needs to be enough flexibility to allow individuals to put their own stamp on the page layout and importantly there must be capabilities for the user to link to items they have previously created in the system as well as linking to files they have uploaded. Importantly, there should be no limit to the number of portfolios an individual can create.
Requirement 5: Offers a mobile app to support recording on the go
Next time you are sat on a train, bus or public area have a quick look around you and count how many people are engrossed in doing something on their phone. With some estimates suggesting over 44 million smart phones in the UK alone in 2017, chances are that the people around you have some serious technology at their disposal. If you are thinking about an eportfolio system you should also be thinking mobile. Any system worth considering must have a mobile app to support the collection of evidence and the recording of reflection on activity. Rather than filling time with Candy Crush or Facebook people can be reflecting on their personal achievements.
Requirement 6: Includes hosting, maintenance and support
The flexible nature of working and recording activity means that a portfolio system needs to be available whenever users want to access it. High-quality reliable hosting needs to be in place to support the service. As both personal and high stakes assessment data may be stored in the system you need to be confident that data is stored securely and backed up, ideally as frequently as possible. It goes without saying that the learning technology world is changing rapidly, and so it's important to know your portfolio system will be updated as the field evolves. Updates should be included in the price you pay. You don’t want to face unexpected charges every time a new version is released. Having a dedicated support team to turn to for questions and issue resolution is also vital to the success of any technology implementation.
Requirement 7: A platform that is private, secure, open and flexible
People often think of two types of portfolio presentation – a structured assessment portfolio and a personal presentational portfolio. The assessment portfolio is often made up of something like a structured capability framework, for example, a set of professional standards that must be demonstrated. The personal portfolio is much more likely to be a narrative account of the individual telling their story. There is a popular misconception that you need multiple systems to support these different output types, particularly if you are trying to support a diverse population of users. However, I’d suggest that for a portfolio tool to be successful users have to be able to use the system for multiple purposes, getting the best value out of the time and effort they spend creating items in the first place. The evidence required in a formal assessment portfolio is likely to be really useful in demonstrating capability in a portfolio created to support job application or a promotion. All these items may also be helpful if a portfolio is used to support awards, appraisal or other processes.
So assuming the system allows the creation of multiple portfolios what about keeping some things private, while other things are available for people to view?
My account on a portfolio system should be like my account on my laptop. It’s a private area to store experiences, photos, documents and a whole host of important things. It is password protected, so no one but me can get in and have a look around. However, I can choose to select items for other to see. I do this via an email from my laptop or via sharing in the portfolio system. Where the portfolio has the advantage over email is in maintaining control over the share. As a user, I can time limit the share or withdraw it at any time. Once an email is sent it has a life of its own with no control by the originator, as many have found to their cost!
What about managing assessment? Ideally, some kind of portal needs to be in place to enable users to submit their work. This area can be administered by an assessor so they decide who has access to review work, what deadlines are in place, and how feedback and grades (if appropriate) are released.
Requirement 8: Integrates with other systems
As part of a learning infrastructure, systems need to work together to deliver the best results. Integration is likely to be different at every organisation, however, some of the common requirements include drawing data from a management information system, authenticating via the organisational preferred method or working with other online learning systems. The international LTI standard (Learning Tools Interoperability) is a good starting point. If systems support the standard then single sign on and potentially sharing appropriate data should be possible. Support for Shibboleth authentication will help to ensure secure methods for providing access to the portfolio system without having to manage additional passwords. Where possible, API’s should be available to support the transfer of data to and from management systems or other reliable data sources. If you can get systems working harmoniously there is less risk of people getting bogged down with manual processes.
Requirement 9: Easy to use but still meeting organisational needs
It goes without saying that a portfolio system should be straightforward to use. However, ease of use needs to be considered alongside the sophistication of the functionality required to achieve the activities you are delivering. In keeping things simple for users, system designers may have to limit the options available. This may be fine if it is aligned to the requirements of the portfolio project but problems may surface if needs change or more demanding processes are required. I have had numerous conversations with people who have used systems with simple but limited functionality. The conversation almost always highlights that the system is great at creating simple portfolios but once you start to want to do more sophisticated tasks it becomes almost impossible. The organisation then avoids using portfolios in the area in question, which is far from ideal. This type of problem could be avoided by undertaking a broader scoping exercise at the start to identify the full range of requirements, even those slightly outside the initial scope.
Requirement 10: Offers a full suite of tools to support the evaluation of work submitted by users.
As portfolios have a wide range of uses, including personal and private information, the evaluation processes need to be robust and secure. Important things to consider include:
- How do you manage access to submitted work?
- How can feedback and comments be provided?
- Can items be stored long term for archive?
- How does work remain private?
- How can large groups be supported?
- Can reports be generated from submissions?
- Can you track progress of individuals?
- Can external mentors access work?
The list could easily stretch on and on, but the important consideration is that you need to think about the workflows that are likely to emerge as you use portfolios and what specific requirements you have for evaluating them.
These are just some of the things that have surfaced in my thinking as I was trying to come up with a list. It’s an obvious thing to say but bringing things into your own context is probably the most important thing to do.
I like to work with “user stories” to surface the detail of what is needed from the system and how users will interact with the various elements of the process. It’s well worth considering this approach if you are talking to suppliers. Provide them with a scenario and get them to demonstrate how it would play out in their system.
In the meantime, why not download our free comparison checklist to help you compare and contrast portfolio capability across the different platforms you come across? It provides more than 150 areas for consideration and covers portfolio features, tools for designing frameworks for learning, and functionality to support assessment, integration, and mobile learning.