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The E-portfolio: a Tool for Authentic Assessment

Gearid Silleabhin MScEcon DEIS Department for Education Development Cork Institute of Technology September, 2004

Abstract
This report suggests that the methodology of portfolio assessment, as adapted for the welearning environment in the form of the e-portfolio, holds the promise of a new authentic approach of great benefit to all stakeholders in e-learning at higher education. Authentic assessment in general is defined as well as traditional portfolio assessment before going on to define the e-portfolio, its key features and advantages and the outstanding issues for this emerging technology.

Alternative Assessment and Authentic Assessment


After Herman, Aschbacher and Winters the terms alternative assessment and authentic assessment are used here synonymously to mean variants of performance assessments that require students to generate rather than choose a response (2). Such assessment is seen as alternative to traditional testing (Barrett 2001) and authentic in the sense of testing a learners ability to carry out activities that resemble authentic situations (Elton and Johnston 2002, 40). This focus on authenticity may be seen as a critical one for the range of stakeholders in the learning process today, due to the broader context of the explosion of knowledge itself in our society today as well as the concomitant and accelerating need for new professional skills/competencies. Thus: universities and colleges are facing an important increase in

demand from all those in the workplace who need to continue learning if they are to stay employed and if their employers are to remain economically competitive (Bates 12, 2000). In a related way the last half century of so has also seen the recognition of Higher Education as a resource to serve national economic needs and priorities being used, directly and indirectly, to stimulate economic growth, not least by being geared to policy-perceived labour marker needs.i Lifelong learning has also emerged, a little more recently, as part of the vocabulary of the industrialised world.

It describes the need for people to continue their education and training throughout life because they will face multiple careers in changing economies and enjoy longer lives in evolving societies. The word learner now designates a role, not a person (Daniel 7)

The Benefits of Authentic Assessment


McAlister categorises the claims made for authentic assessment techniques into two broad interrelated categories: improved assessment and improved learning. His points are summarised under these headings below: Improved Assessment It is argued that an over-emphasis on reliable standardised testing has resulted in a narrowing of the curricula, due to some teachers (understandable) resolve to teach the test It is also felt by many proponents of authentic assessment that traditional forms of assessment fail to provide a holistic picture of learning, as gained over time. The means by which students tend to prepare for conventional snapshot assessments also tend to militate against learning transfer, synthesis and retention. Authentic assessment in general can bring the assessment process and the instructional/learning process closer Improved Learning

One of the most common arguments made in favour of authentic assessment is that the authentic activities upon which it is based upon represent more meaningful and, hence better, educational experience for students.

Many claims for the positive effect of authentic assessment on learning are tied closely to the constructivist model of knowledge generation, having to do with the involvement of students in tasks that stimulate the constructing of meaning, the development of their critical thinking and greater engagement with their own learning

In a similar way arguments are also made that authentic assessment experiences encourage multiple modes of expression and support collaboration with others as well as being able to increase learning and improve attitudes

Portfolio Assessment Traditional Portfolio Assessment


Where does the portfolio belong in all the this? Lets begin by defining what we mean by the portfolio in an educational context before going on to answer this question. The term portfolio is of course, unlike certain other terms in the field, already part of common parlance. We are all aware of the notion of an artists portfolio, often using their collection for seeking further work, or for simply demonstrating their art (Barrett, 2001). Financial portfolios, not dissimilarly, contain a collection of fiscal transaction and investment holding that represent a persons monetary worth. Now these connotations sometimes mislead the uninitiated but if one was to think of an educational portfolio, by analogy, as being a collection of work for assessment then one wouldnt be too far off the mark. The critical thing is that the portfolio is a collection rather than a single piece of work. Beyond this an educational portfolio can take many forms, have various purposes and, for this last reason, contain many different types of material. Despite the title of this piece and much literature on the subject which focussed on the use of the educational portfolio for authentic assessment purposes not all educational portfolios, as McAlister points out, are designed to provide evidence of authentic learning activities. Certain portfolios, for instance, may contain little than could be classified as authentic and many will contain a mixture of authentic and relatively conventional assessment materials. In this regard one thinks of portfolio assessment as employed as part of an accreditation of a prior learning methodology (APL), i.e. portfolios for the acceptance or measuring of previously acquired learning typically for formal credit or entry to a formal course of study. 3

Such portfolios may typically, as McAlister maintains, contain evidence of both authentic and academic learning. Although portfolios have been unquestioningly used for formative and summative assessment purposes within certain courses of study such as writing, art, design and multimedia as well as being used for formative purposes in a range of subject areas from primary through to HE and FE it does seem that it is in this capacity as instruments for the accreditation of prior learning that portfolios are currently receiving the most attention in the context of European systems of Further and Higher Education. This is due in part, possibly, to a number of political initiative and policies which encourage the accreditation of informal and non-formal learning, the promotion of lifelong learning and the integration of European educational systems.

Key Benefits
Cambridge maintains that four features (adapted from Liz Hamp-Lyons and William Cordon) set the stage for features of electronic portfolios. These are: Portfolios can feature multiple examples of work. Be it a student, a faculty or a institutional portfolio, Cambridge maintains that portfolios authentically represent a range of work and allow in this way for a more accurate read as varied measures are used and is in keeping with the premises that through learning we change over time Portfolios can be context rich. Meaning, maintains Cambridge, that the portfolio can provide the kind of thick description that helps [any] user understand an outcome and the reasons for the outcome Portfolios can offer opportunities for selection and self-assessment. The process of completing a portfolio necessarily involves its creator in making self-reflective choices with reference to quality criteria Portfolios can offer a look at development over time. Because portfolios can be compiled over time they can reflect learning achieved over a period of time, rather than as a once-off product, as tends to be the case with high-stakes summative assessment Although the above points, it could well be maintained, apply equally to conventional paperbased portfolios it is the argument of many proponents of digitally/electronically-based portfolios, as we shall see, that technology can provide a more effective, economical, transparent, user-friendly and, quite simply, a more better" way of achieving these potential 4

benefits. As we will see, however, it is when e-portfolios are integrated with systems for managing authentic online learning that they really come into their own, offering more than just a better version of the above but an entirely new set of benefits.

Electronic, Digital and e-Portfolios


As Barnett points out the traditional storage format for portfolios in education is paperbased, usually in manila folders, three-ring notebooks or larger containers. An electronic portfolio, by contrast, uses electronic technologies. She also makes distinction between an electronic and a digital portfolio thus: An Electronic Portfolio contains artefacts that may be in analog form, such as a video tape, or may be in computer-readable form; in a Digital Portfolio, all artefacts have been transformed into computer-readable form Recent literature does not maintain the distinction, however and either uses digital portfolio and electronic portfolio interchangeably or/and speaks of the e-portfolio, a term which, as we will see, is beginning to be associated with a range of commercial products and tools designed to support the creation and management of web-based portfolios. Batson makes further distinction between e-portfolios and webfolios, the second of which he sees as primarily deriving from the field of composition studies, and referring, in essence, to static web pages where functionality derives from HTML links; e-portfolios, by contrast he tells us, are database-driven and dynamic. Whether we accept the webfolio as a useful term or not the distinction made is, nonetheless, a useful one and goes much of the way to defining what an e-portfolio is (and is not), thus: An e-portfolio is a web-based, dynamic, database driven collection of (digital) artefacts for assessment. The emergence of the e-portfolio in this sense are seen by Batson as the intersection of three important trends:

Student work in now mostly available in electronic form or, as Batson says, is based on a canonical electronic file. We can add that even where it is not the process of digitisation, and the technology for doing so, is become simpler and cheaper all the time

The web, according to Batson, is everywhere. Although not yet a ubiquitous technology the web is certainly becoming more and more so, and the tendency, particularly at Higher Education level, is for more and more students to have web access and a relatively high level of literacy.

Database can be accessed and administers via web interfaces, providing users with the capacity to manage large volumes of data and information quickly and easily from any internet-worked computer.

As can readily be seen such portfolios can free the portfolio creator from the limitations of the paper media and allow him or her to: Create and compile different kinds of evidence of learning, be this certificated learning or of the more authentic kind. Making use of a variety of media (text, audio, video, graphics etc.), a point of great importance for certain subject areas and, again, for the assessment of authentic tasks, which might not so easily be presented via the traditional paper-based format To present the same evidence in a number of ways, i.e. different portfolios could be created, for different audiences, from the same repository of artefacts. If the portfolio is to be part of a standards-based assessment process then the e-portfolio can present via its hypertextual structure the complex and multidimensional relationships between the evidence offered and the standards, objectives and outcomes of the course in question. It is moreover an approach which achieves the oft-quoted benefits of e-learning, i.e. being anytime, anywhere and at the learners own time, pace and place

Developing an ePortfolio
It is only fair to note that commercial Learning Management Software vendors have long been making tools available which could be used to support the kind of online portfolio implementation earlier referred to as webfolios. In the WebCT LMS, for example, this takes the form of the Student Homepages tool which allows each student space in which to post

web-based objects and links to pages or other digital resources. In addition there is a wide range of well-known multimedia-authoring software which could be adopted for the purposes of creating and compiling digital portfolios, including some of the industry standards such as the Adobe or Macromedia range of design and development applications (i.e. After Effects, Photoshop, Premiere, PageMaker, In design, GoLive or Authorware, Director, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash) along with the range of now widely known and used Microsoft office and design applications (eg. Word, PowerPoint, Publisher, FrontPage). The web itself is full of examples of this kind of implementation. Recently however a number of new commercial e-portfolio products, conforming to our earlier definition, have been launched. One sources reckons there to be a total of more than 30 separate e-Portfolio tools, now available or in production (Batson). Typical of such systems is Folio from the US-based company ePortaro but vendored on this side of the Atlantic by Sentient Learning in the UK. Folio is promoted as a cradle-to-grave portfolio tool which allows users to create a range of portfolios from a central repository or folio and thereafter create access privileges for particular individuals or groups of individuals. Cost is based on the application software licensing model, i.e. there is a one time licensing fee and annual maintenance fees based on volume. Of course it is well within the abilities of most mid- to large scale HE institutes to develop their own e-portfolio system as both the University of Washington and the National University of Singapore have recently reported.

The Importance of the e-Portfolio as an Authentic Assessment Tool.


The importance of the e-portfolio as an authentic assessment tool can only be fully realised within the nexus of two different contexts, that of: The dominant assessment models in use in the e-learning environment The primacy of the assessment process

The two dominant assessment models in use in the e-learning environment are those of: Autocorrected MCQs, which are essentially, we may saw, the very same as associated with early forms of pre-internet Computer-aided learning

Assignments, essentially the same methodology associated with traditional, precomputer correspondence courses, e.g. involving the submission/uploading of essays or reports for marking by a human expert

This is of significance because many studies have shown that the assessment methodology used in a course profoundly affects the kind of learning that takes place assessment is really at the heart of the student experience of a course, its defines what the learners regard as important, how they learn, how they understand their role as learners and how they define their learning. Put rather starkly: If you want to change student learning then change the methods of assessment (Brown et al 7). Equally then if we wish to make learning authentic we have to develop and make use of authentic assessment tools. Of course the e-portfolio is not the only show in town with regard to authentic online assessment techniques. One could, for example, also mention the methodologies of online case conferencing, of collaborative or individual project work, of peer assessment, of selfassessment, perhaps - however what makes the e-portfolio an assessment methodology par excellence is that it subsumes other assessment approaches, it is what we might call a metaevaluation technique that can include evidence from all kinds of other assessment tasks. Moreover it can include, as we have indicated, all kinds of evidence, a critical point when speaking of the web-based environment, as everything one does online is archived and may be used as evidence of learning. Activities carried out in the e-learning environment can all be archived and processed, down to the very key strokes the student uses, if such data is required. Now to date we have really been speaking of the e-portfolio as a stand-alone tool, a place a student can to drop self-created digital artefact, as they see fit. It is in its integration with other online learning technologies that the e-portfolio truly comes into its own. An eportfolio integrated with a learning management system used to facilitate its e-learners as they make their way through a series, perhaps of increasingly authentic tasks provides the basis for an authentic assessment tool of enormous benefit to all stakeholders in the learning process. Moreover it provides perhaps the means by which one of the traditional aspersions cast on portfolio, i.e. its supposed lack of reliability and repeatability, can be finally put to rest. Traditional means by which to ensure reliability include the creation of a clear scoring rubric/descriptive statement and/or exemplars of expected outcomes as well as the disaggregation of the contents of portfolios so that tasks may be scored independently of other tasks (Johnston 58). The e-portfolio can, of course, potentially support the use of rubrics and scoring guidelines, making them an integral part for example of the assessors interface, and insuring that they are followed, as well as allowing for a clean and easy disaggregation of 8

tasks; it can also however provide the means by which evidence can be cross-referenced with various server-side metrics, for example, proffered contribution to a group project against online project work participation rate. It may also simplify the validation, or authentification of evidence; many of the e-portfolio tools on the market provide a means by which certain individuals can authenticate evidence, digitally sign it and lock it down for the future.

Outstanding Issues.
A number of issues are yet outstanding before this brave new world can come to pass. In order for e-portfolios to integrate with LMSs and other enterprise solutions, in order for students to be able to take their work with them when they move from one e-portfolio system to another inter-operability standards have to be created, work currently being pursued by the ePortConsortium, a collaboration of higher educatin and IT instiututions. A number of other issues also loom large1: Storage: As indicated some vendors see the e-portfolio as a cradle to the grave technology. But who is responsible? Can institutes of learners be responsible for storing all student portfolios for all perpetuity? How can vendors/institutes guarantee accessibility as technologies and media types change over the years? Security: How can the critical, high-risk, personal data held in and transferred to e-Portfolios be secured against the range of current and future internet security risks? The pedagogic principles are equally if not of greater important of course. From these principles must derive the guidelines and supports for the facilitation, gathering, submission and structuring, measurement and accrediting of authentic online learning experiences. The role of the tutor or mentor must be seen as central to facilitation of the process here, in terms, in this case, of mediating and managing the process of creating the e-portfolio. Further research into this role and the responsibilities and skill sets which constitute it, is very much required, along with longitudinal studies of the range of e-portfolio practices now in evidence in and beyond the Higher Education world in order to sustain and substantiate the concept.

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