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Monday, 8 December 2008

eFolio - a universal solution?

The Present Background to VLEs and e-Portfolios in education:
There are presently at least 35 different VLEs available to schools and LAs, many of which have some form of e-Portfolio embedded within them. It is recognised that these e-Portfolio systems do make a valuable contribution to a child’s planning, collaboration and reflection. However, all of these educational benefits can usually be attained through the school’s Learning Platform.

The fundamental purpose of an e-Portfolio, that of ‘transition’ or ‘portability’ between institutions is not attainable between any of these VLEs at this present time and, in the writer’s view, will probably not be capable of delivering a quality non-degradable solution in the foreseeable future.

It is recognised that in some LAs, where a strong mandate of only one VLE for the whole Authority has been established, there is the likelihood that the Primary school e-Portfolio can be accessed from within the Secondary school. However, the results so far, of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ configuration, do not promise a ‘lifelong solution’, ie portable throughout school life, on to FE/HE and through to employment(s) and beyond.

Current e-Portfolio solutions:
Apart from the commercial applications as alluded to above, some schools are producing their own very limited solutions including wordprocessed files with hyperlinks or even PowerPoint presentations. Unfortunately neither of these two approaches has any real academic credibility or functionality. Alternatively, some schools do provide a limited pseudo-e-Portfolio solution but only for their ‘high-flying’ GCSE ICT classes who are taught how to write open access html-based websites. These sites generally do not provide consistent organisation nor the security of personal data nor the control of audience that a true e-Portfolio can provide. Such solutions, poor as they may be, are only created by a distinct minority of students who have a good level of programming capability. As such, none of the above are solutions which the vast majority of learners, can ‘carry with them’, aged 5-95, for Lifelong, Lifewide Learning and Leisure.

The work of the ‘Interoperability Gurus’:
All the recognised players in the field of interoperability (eg SIF, SCORM, IMS e-Portfolio, Common Cartridge Alliance, LEAP2A) all admit that their products are only capable of exporting and importing basic data and even then with limited control over formatting at this present time. Apart from SIF, this appears to be a concern primarily of Higher Education and does not relate to the vast majority of schools who have had well-established MIS capabilities for many years.

It seems that the above groups show little concern for the maintenance of the graphical image of the e-Portfolio. In their hunt for the perfect data-handling solution, the issue of ‘degradation’ of format tends to be ignored. The whole concept of personal ownership, of an ability for the learner to represent themselves, to say, ‘This is ME!’ by selecting templates, fonts, images, by the way they choose to organise their e-Portfolio and embedding a whole variety of rich media is lost if degradation cannot be completely avoided. The concept of ownership, which should start in our Primary schools, is also a strong generator of motivation to learning and is significantly enhanced by the robustness of quality graphics.

Home Access:
The provision of a good VLE, the setting up of parental accounts and the provision of low-cost hardware enabling realistic home access has the potential of becoming an excellent scheme, as far as it goes. However, the VLE is primarily the deliverer of formal teaching and learning – and is ‘owned’ by the school. The e-Portfolio, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for the less-formal aspects of learning to be enabled in an e-safe environment, the content of each e-Portfolio being owned by the learner. This allows for the more informal and formative contributions of teachers, mentors and peers. There are a score of functions outside of formal learning, all of which enhance formal learning. Perhaps one of the least recognised benefits of an e-Portfolio is the ability of staff to better understand a young person and their home environment through their personal diaries or blogs etc, all of which would not be seen within a conventional education setting.

The solution:
‘No man is an island’ and no school or even a Local Authority can provide the ultimate interoperability that an e-Portfolio truly depends upon. I was once working in a school bounded for four different Local Authorities. Later, I worked in a Secondary school which had 85 feeder Primary schools. If all the problems of interoperability are to be transcended as illustrated in these two examples, the only logical solution is to have a state-wide system of repositories, external to any single institution, possibly based upon the Regional Broadband Consortia or, in the case of Northern Ireland or Scotland, on a national basis.

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