Editorial: Special issue on electronic portfolios

Elizabeth J. Meyer, Ph. D.
Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance
Concordia University, Montreal, QC

December 12, 2008

Electronic portfolios (EPs) are emerging as important tools that can be used to support and document student learning as well as the development of educational, personal, and professional skills. Although paper portfolios have long been recognized by many educators, artists, and other professionals as valuable sources of evidence that document an individual’s growth and learning processes, the emergence of Web 2.0 tools and the increasing accessibility of digital technology has prompted many educators and professionals to shift from paper to electronic portfolios. EPs can be much more dynamic, interactive, and flexible tools than their physical counterparts. EPs support portfolio pedagogy by engaging individuals in deep reflection on their learning and acting as a central repository for a wide variety of multi-media artifacts that provide evidence of professional and intellectual growth as well as documenting the complex processes involved in learning.

The collection of articles presented in this special issue build and extend upon several key issues involved in electronic portfolios introduced in 2005. The first special issue of CJLT devoted to electronic portfolios was published in Fall 2005, vol. 31(3), and included a piece by Phil Abrami and Helen Barrett titled, “Directions for Research and Development on Electronic Portfolios.” Abrami and Barrett (2005) provided a brief overview of the current knowledge in the field and identified seven key areas of information regarding EPs:

  1. the types and characteristics of EPs
  2. the outcomes and processes that EPs support
  3. the contexts in which EPs are most effective and worthwhile
  4. EP users/viewers and how we provide appropriate professional development
  5. technical and administrative issues
  6. evidence of EP success
  7. funding and infrastructure possibilities

Abrami and Barrett (2005) also acknowledged the lack of evidence on the impacts of EPs on learning and other outcomes. The articles included in this special issue address issues relevant to all of these areas of EP research.

The present collection of work on EPs emerged, in part, from a conference held in May 2008 organized by the European Institute for E-Learning (EIfEL) that was co-hosted by the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. The theme of this conference was “ePortfolio and Digital Identity”, and the papers accepted for publication in this journal represent a diverse array of interpretations of this theme. The authors present research and perspectives that represent the international scope of this topic with submissions from France, the United States of America, Canada, the Netherlands and China. The articles also demonstrate the high degree of flexibility and multiplicity of options currently available to professionals, scholars and educators interested in creating, researching, or teaching with EPs.

Five of the six articles in this issue explore questions of working with EPs in a post-secondary environment. This demonstrates a trend of applying and researching this technologically-dependent approach to portfolio use in higher education where access to computers is more readily available and where students’ computer literacy skills are likely more developed than in many K-12 classroom settings. These articles address issues such as: using eJournals as an essential part of the ePortfolio process (Crichton & Kopp), the use of social networking sites in English language enhancement courses (Hiradhar & Gray), developing a professional portfolio to enhance professional competencies (Gauthier), comparing the use of paper and electronic portfolios in a medical school (Van Wesel & Prop) and a position paper that suggests shifting our existing understandings of the portfolio process to reflect the changing realities of working with digital portfolios (Ring & Foti). The one paper that is written about EPs in the K-12 classroom offers important insights into the challenges and successes in introducing such tools much earlier in students’ educational experiences, as well as providing key pedagogical insights on using an EP to support the development of self-regulated learning (SRL) skills (Abrami, Wade, Pillay, Aslan, Bures & Bentley).

The contributing authors each present complex discussions of the challenges and successes that they have encountered in working with EPs that can provide readers an overview of important issues to consider when introducing EPs into any classroom or ongoing professional development project. Some of the common themes addressed in these articles include: the challenges and creative possibilities of introducing an EP in an institutional setting; the academic and professional potential of existing Web 2.0 tools in EPs; the impacts on teaching practice when working with EPs; as well as the pedagogical and technical issues one must be prepared to address when working with EPs. These questions and many others are discussed in these articles and can provide the reader a glimpse into the classrooms of teachers and researchers who are at the crest of the EP wave that is slowly gathering momentum as EPs spread from the university classroom into professional organizations, personal networks, as well as K-12 classrooms.