ePortfolios: A contradiction

We currently make use of an ePortfolio system at Harper Adams and have just completed our third student survey on their use. The results continue to suggest a contradiction that exists in students’ views of this sort of system, a situation that has persisted despite switching from one type of software to another.

The results show that students generally find ePortfolios easy to use in terms of content creation and assignment submission. From this we may conclude it is not too technically onerous to switch from a simple word processed document to an ePortfolio once the initial shock of a new system has been overcome. Therefore it may not be unreasonable to ask this of students. So far every user has agreed that the technical training and support provided has been of use and it should be possible to use these sessions to cushion the blow. However this is where contradictions begin to emerge. Some students report that they have not experienced problems logging in and that feedback has been easy to access during Likert scale questions but in a free text box given negative responses to the ePortfolio’s ease of use. It appears to be the same student can have conflicted views.

Lecturers have used the ePortfolios to provide ongoing formative feedback and this has been very well received. Hardly surprising considering one of students’ main areas of concern, nationally, is the feedback provided both before and after assignments have been submitted. Yet here too there is evidence of a contradiction as a majority of students’ state they would not like to receive their feedback using an ePortfolio in the future. Unexpectedly they are also ambivalent about typed feedback as opposed to written with “Neither agree or disagree” being a frequent response to Likert questions; perhaps reinforcing the point that feedback through technology can still be positive or negative. Despite a broad acknowledgement that ePortfolios have a number of benefits, when finally asked if students would like to use ePortfolios in the future the response is usually no.

ePorfolio components

ePorfolio components

One area where there is universal agreement is the peer-learning and individual reflection possibilities provided by ePortfolio’s social media-style functionality. Here there is no contradiction. These feature have without exception been disregarded and students show no sign of changing despite social media’s current prevalence outside the sphere of higher education. This could be due to students’ ability to compartmentalise their personal and educational lives. Social media is a tool they use in their personal lives not something they want to share in an environment which includes a lecturer presence. Alternatively it could just be due to the social media functionality in ePortfolios generally being inferior to that provided by services such as Facebook resulting in a negative perception of the available functionality.

All of this leaves us with a conundrum. Our experience shows that on one hand ePortfolios are positively received on both a technical and educational level and are deserving of our attempts to incorporate them in teaching practices. Students are able to use the software’s functionality and see the benefits of formative feedback via ePortfolio. The educational foundations are solid. However on the other we often do not manage to exploit the full learning potential of ePortfolios in general. There appears to be too great a desire to continue with comfortable, familiar educational approaches. This is the challenge for Learning Technologists and we must find a way of breaking the cycle and convert the positive responses to individual features into a desire to use ePortfolios in the future overall.

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