Eportfolios – a wrong turn?

We’re getting asked for eportfolios by early DiDA adopters. For those unfamiliar with the term, an eportfolio is an online repository of a student’s work. Eportfolios are the new new thing in elearning.

There’s an eportfolio conference right here in Cambridge at the end of this month and I suppose I really ought to go, but the truth is that eportfolios in their conventional configuration leave me cold.

Take a look at OSP (Open Source Portfolio) for example. Being open source it is free, well-supported, has the standard feature set and is pretty right-on. It would be an obvious candidate for anybody’s shortlist. Of the genre, it’s clearly one of the better ones.

But what does it actually do? The bottom line is, it stores files for individuals and groups. It takes the good old exercise book or ring binder, and puts it online. This is the flip side of putting a textbook online, and we all know what happens there. The first thing anyone does with an online textbook is print it out. All that technology has done no more than create a glorified shelf-cum-post-office.

Five years ago, Chalkface set out to answer the question “if schoolkids’ work was online, what could we do with it that is really useful?” The answer, we quickly found, depended on how much we knew about it in advance. Let’s take some examples of typical schoolwork:

  • The student has filled out a questionnaire. We want to collate the results. To do this we need to correlate the answers to the questions.
  • The student has written some short-text answers. They can be machine marked if the computer knows enough about exactly what to expect where.
  • The student has assembled a larger report under standard headings. By keeping the data in discrete chunks representing each heading, we can quickly see where the student needs support. What’s more, those answers can be correlated across a whole class; invaluable for lesson planning.

So, to make student inputs really useful, we needed to store them in clearly categorised chunks. And to achieve that categorisation, we found, we needed to integrate the storage system very tightly with the course content. This was the guiding principle that led to the design of Paperless School.

So how come Paperless School didn’t conquer Secondary Education? What has happened in practice, is that schools are having imposed upon them hand-me-down systems from Higher Education. They were designed for typical HE coursework; small numbers of lengthy assignments with very few common elements – the exact opposite to the requirements of secondary schools. They are held in place by an orthodoxy about adherence to standards. Which might be a good thing, if they were the right standards in the first place..

We have found a niche for Paperless School in the Applied GCSEs (Business, ICT), so the work we put in is far from wasted. And I continue to believe that as schools discover the problems of the current generation of eportfolios, they will turn in time to Paperless School, or something very like it.

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