On this site there is also a more recent approach to definitions in the e-portfolio domain.

E-portfolio and its relationship to personal development planning: A view from the UK for Europe and beyond

Simon Grant, Peter Rees Jones, Rob Ward (CRA and CETIS LIPSIG): 2004-06-10

Summary and rationale

(Links here are to sections below.)

The definitions of e-portfolio emerging from North America encompass the kinds of Progress File in common use across the UK but do not provide a clear definition of the processes by which e-portfolios are used equivalent to the concept of Personal Development Planning (PDP). This paper explores the relationship between PDP and e-portfolio in order to provide a basis to inform the debate about how e-portfolio may support the development of practice within the UK to support key government agendas such as social inclusion and the widening of participation in Higher Education.

To do this, the paper starts by examining the origins of the term, then discussing its past and present use in North America and related terms in the UK. UK use includes assessment as well as PDP. There are similarities between issues in the UK and North America. A consideration of the types of e-portfolio leads on to an extended definition, concluding with a list of what kinds of information can be covered. One conclusion is that the e-portfolio archive can include all the records currently used in the context of PDP. Also discussed are current plans for taking the agenda forward.

Background to the term "e-portfolio"

Origins of the term

Though she did not originate it, the term "electronic portfolio" was in use, and being researched, early in the 1990s by Dr Helen Barrett of the University of Alaska. Her site remains a comprehensive and useful web resource on the subject, and greatly reduces the need to cite any other general background reading for orientation. Terms in use today include "e-portfolio", "ePortfolio", "e-Portfolio" and "eportfolio". In this paper we will follow the common example of terms like "e-commerce", "e-business", "e-mail" and others, and use "e-portfolio".

Use of the term in North America

The American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) has done much work in the area, including collecting information about 51 portfolio programs, most but not all of which are web-based. They have also published a book on the topic, discussing and giving examples of student, faculty and institutional portfolios. In their book, the electronic aspect primarily is in the use of ICT either in their construction, or more notably for their presentation. In the educational context, portfolios started out as collections of work intended for assessment. Increasingly, assessment has developed from being based solely on the works themselves, to including reflection which surrounds the works, which may add context to their presentation. Among the programs listed in their web site, "reflection" features as the most common of all "primary purposes", suggesting that whatever contributes to the assessment, one outcome of creating portfolios is an increased level of reflection among students about their work.

This broadening out from a simple collection of works is also reflected in the commercial community. One vendor, ePortaro, defines their e-portfolio-related product, "Folio", as: "an owner-centric online repository supporting reflection, growth, accomplishment and collaboration over time and the demonstration and projection of self (skills, competences, personality and mastery) to others for multiple, unpredictable, purposes." As well as showing the broad scope of the system, the definition recognises the significance of an underlying data store, which can serve many purposes, one of which is to constitute the collection from which portfolios for presentation or assessment are drawn.

The Urban Universities Portfolio Project in the USA elaborated the idea of electronic institutional portfolios: for example, IUPUI's portfolio "shows what we are doing well, where we need to improve, and how we can respond ..." to anyone browsing the Web. This is very much in keeping with the concept of a selection of work presented to others for formal, or in this case, informal assessment. In the educational context, the portfolio of a faculty can include examples of students' work, and that of an institution can include a selection of the work of its faculties.

An e-portfolio is not just a kind of academic transcript. A transcript is more of a summary than a selection, summarising the records of the institution's dealings with a learner, and transcripts are naturally owned by the institution that issues them. E-portfolios are generally seen as containing more information than transcripts, some of which is naturally owned and controlled by the learner, who is the subject of the e-portfolio. This can be seen in such recent developments as the Open Source Portfolio Initiative, which could be used more as a general purpose repository of information relating to the learner, than a specific portfolio selection for presentation and assessment. Such a repository, or collection, or archive can constitute the database from which specific portfolios can be drawn, for specific purposes.

The EDUCAUSE NLII defined an e-portfolio as

"a collection of authentic and diverse evidence, drawn from a larger archive, that represents what a person or organization has learned over time, on which the person or organization has reflected, designed for presentation to one or more audiences for a particular rhetorical purpose."

A commentary on this continues:

The "larger archive" may be considered itself an e-portfolio that contains multiple views of its contents directed towards multiple audiences. This collection usually takes the form of a set of pieces of evidence of learning and performance, reflections or interpretations on that evidence, and representations of relationships between and among the evidence, interpretations, and evaluation criteria.

This is largely oriented towards learning. Other perspectives are possible, perhaps including evidence about personal qualities or attributes that are not considered to be learned. But we do see here a clear understanding of the duality of a growing archive of material on the one hand, and a set of selections from that material on the other.

The situation in the UK

There is little history of the use of the term in the UK, but very recently the UK Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has used the terms "electronic portfolio" and "e-portfolio" in their consultation document, "Towards a Unified e-learning Strategy" which emphasizes an approach to learning (self-paced, individualised, supported, joined up across environments) which includes reviewing and recording. They intend this to "allow both summative assessment and information about personal aspirations and interests to be owned by the learner".

An important part of the background to the UK situation is the Dearing Report (available at http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/), which developed the concept of "progress files" to include explicitly the two components of

This has given rise to the term "personal development planning" (PDP), and subsequently to the term "personal development records" (PDR), which are the outputs and records associated with PDP. PDP is now defined as "a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development". (QAA: Progress Files for Higher Education, Guidelines for HE Progress Files, 2001.) The term "personal development portfolio" is also in widespread use, similarly meaning information under the control of the learner relevant to similar ends.

Several UK HEIs and FEIs have developed ICT tools and systems to support their practice of PDP. Many of these are documented at http://www.cetis.ac.uk/members/PDPcontent.

The UK government 2003 White Paper "The future of higher education" expresses the view that e-portfolios may be electronic records that "would offer university admissions offices a comprehensive picture of the abilities and experience of school leavers." They want personal development portfolios more generally "to be used to enable learners to understand and reflect on their achievements and to present those achievements to employers, institutions and other stakeholders." (para 4.8)

The UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education links to the Guidelines for HE Progress Files (pdf) which sets out the expectation that by 2005/6 all students in UK higher education will have access to the Personal Development Planning aspect of the Progress File. The Centre for Recording Achievement website provides unifying support for such developments.

Recent work in the UK under the title "MLEs for Lifelong Learning", funded by the JISC and supported by CETIS has started from the work of the IMS Global Learning Consortium, and in particular its Learner Information Package specification and is developing an application profile for UK use for interoperability of systems dealing both with UK Transcript and the current work on mapping the personal development record domain. The BSI Group has also established a Learner Profile group as part of their committee IST/43 which includes representatives from the Office of the e-Envoy, DfES and the JISC. This committee has agreed that a modified UK version of IMS LIP should be established as the normative basis for e-learning standards in the this area. A draft for public comment of BS 8788 is being produced at the time of writing, and is due to be published later in 2004.

Portfolios for assessment

The original term "portfolio" is still used in the context of assessment of skills, for example by the DfES when discussing key skills and in the context of NVQs. There have also been some uses of the term e-portfolio in this context. NVQs are of interest because they have built up their model of assessment around the idea of collecting evidence in a file or portfolio. Examples of portfolios are given on the QCA site. This use of portfolios is clearly amenable to the help of electronic tools.

To take three examples of such tools, a UK business called The Virtual College has an e-portfolio product, PaperFree Systems Ltd. is based around another such product, and eNVQ Ltd. also appears to have done a lot of work in the area.

These are fundamentally administrative systems which document and facilitate the relationship between NVQ providers, assessors and candidates. It may be worth noting that the overall approach is to "tick boxes", and the scope for reflexive input by the candidate is limited.

Similarities in experience

The state of development of e-portfolios in North America in many ways mirrors the UK experience, both in terms of focus and in the expression of diversity. Thus:

  1. A range of rationales for the development of e-portfolios may be identified (see e.g. 'why start a Portfolio?' at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~csrc/portfolio/index.html for an example given to students)
  2. Many of the issues identified in the UK find echoes in North America (e.g. assessment, role in learning and teaching, involvement of staff and students in development work).
  3. The stated emphasis on the perceived learning benefits of Portfolios within a pedagogical framework, with which many PDP practitioners in the UK would be familiar, is also found in North America (see also http://webcenter1.aahe.org/electronicportfolios/).
  4. There is an emphasis in both upon the development of work in certain areas, notably teacher education and in the use of electronic portfolios to support off-campus learners.

Uses of e-portfolios

From the above background, a number of different categories of use for e-portfolios can be identified.

Summative assessment
E-portfolios may be used in demonstrating achievement to some authority by relating evidence within the e-portfolio to formal criteria defined by that authority. Relevant information within the e-portfolio may be organized around items such as the candidates' products, evaluations, photographs and video-recordings, for example in Performing Arts. They may represent a log of activities undertaken to meet minimum professional requirements together with reflection on practice, for example for nurses and midwives in the UK. Assessments in which e-portfolios are used differ from other assessments because candidates are not tested but are asked to prove their competence. They may include information such as employers' or supervisors' evaluations, feedback from fellow students or work colleagues and certain key products. Criteria - often referred to in North America as "rubrics" - can be used to assess e-portfolios. To assist candidates to provide assessors with all the necessary information, a list may be supplied containing items required for inclusion in the e-portfolio. Students may receive directions about how to present these items.
E-portfolios can be used to present a summative statement and evidence about learning, skills or competences to particular audiences, for example in applying for a job or place at University. When persons compiling an e-portfolio are free to determine the content of their e-portfolios, they most often tend to display examples of their best work or evaluations of that work. Such e-portfolios may be referred to as showcase e-portfolios and resemble those compiled by artists and architects. The owner of the e-portfolio sometimes uses captions to indicate the provenance of items and the reasons for their inclusion. Showcase e-portfolios may be used for a number of purposes, such as for introducing aspects of oneself to potential employers, presenting to a review committee or sponsor, as part of demonstrating competence for professional qualifications.
Learning, reflection and self-assessment
An individual and those supporting the formation of the individual can use e-portfolios to document, guide, and develop learning over time. Such e-portfolios often have a prominent reflective component and may be used to promote metacognition, to plan learning, or for the integration of diverse learning experiences. They are most often developed in formal curricular contexts, and the reflections are usually organized around the competences the owner should master in that context. As an example, a secondary school student might be asked to develop an e-portfolio that tracks and allows them to reflect upon how their technology skills improve over the course of a year. When e-portfolios are used in this way, it is important to know how learners evaluate and analyse themselves. Therefore it is crucial that e-portfolios used in this way contain written reflections by the subject. Learners using the e-portfolio may be asked to reflect in their portfolio on how their accomplishments relate to their goals.
Personal Development Planning
Following on the UK definition of PDP, an e-portfolio used for personal development may store records of learning, performance and achievement (for reflection), and outcomes of reflection on those records, including plans for future development. This could include products of the summative and formative uses of the e-portfolio outlined above. This extends beyond the educational context, in that the scope includes professional development and employment, and the process is normally controlled by the learner, rather than by an education institution, or any other agent of the learner.

E-portfolio systems for general use could combine elements of any of the proceeding types. They would need to include multiple views, each appropriate to the particular purpose. whether assessment, presentation, learning, or development.

Towards a definition of the term "e-portfolio"

The complementary roles of information and service

It is clearly important to separate the complementary concepts, on the one hand, of the set of information which serves and supports presentation portfolio and PDP functions, and on the other hand, the tools and services which use that information. Every particular tool, whether a PDP tool, or a tool for the construction and presentation of portfolios, can draw on the same information without limiting or constraining other tools in any way. If all these services use the same store of relevant information, then some important principles of information systems design are respected, that any particular information should have one main place for its storage, and that the information should be logically separated from the services that use it.

Current UK thinking

It seems that much thinking in the UK has been along the lines of archives, more than presentation, and perhaps this is due to the focus on PDP as a major application of e-portfolio information. This has also led on to an early appreciation of some related dangers. When the idea of a repository of e-portfolios is brought up, there are many people who are now quick to point out the potential dangers of too large or centralised a repository. With a large concentration of personal data in one place, a central repository would inevitably be a target for abuse, and if any abuse occurred (or was even believed to have occured) the public trust necessary to allow usefully honest reflective PDP would most likely vanish.

With the current focus on web services, it is also being recognised more widely that there is neither a need for the information to be centralised, nor a need for the services or the information to be provided by the same organisations. Indeed, both services and information storage may be distributed. Distributed information may be brought together for display, with revisions being re-distributed to the appropriate store.

However the information stored, it can be used for many and varied services, including:

When listing these, it is important to recognise that part of the purpose of storing the information is to enable services that have not yet been designed or implemented.

Some of these services may be relevant to application for educational courses or employment; some to PDP; some to both; some to other purposes. Particular uses of e-portfolio information and services can no longer be distinguished in terms of the information or services they use, but must be recognised on their own terms and in their own context.

What may not be e-portfolio-related information?

As there are many possible ways of using e-portfolio-related information, one might be tempted to conclude that all and any information related to an individual may be potentially included in that set. However, there are several kinds of records that are already recognised, and which are probably better excluded from e-portfolio records. Things suggested for exclusion are:

As well as these specific records, it is essential common practice for every business and institution to keep records of its dealings with the individuals who are its clients, as well as with other businesses and institutions. This includes educational institutions. While individuals may have rights to see this information and correct it (as under the UK Data Protection Act 1998) one cannot assume that this information is able to be controlled by the individual, nor that the individual has the (copy)right to control the publication of that information.

Information about other living individuals is also subject to data protection acts, and thus should not normally be stored with an e-portfolio except with the express consent of that individual, or where information about that other individual is limited to that which is already available in the public domain. Clearly, also, copyright needs to be carefully observed.

The integration of learner-owned and other information in a learner-controlled framework

It is clear that the "extended CV" model of an e-portfolio has its limits. Assessment by other people is a vital part of evidencing one's competences, and the technology now exists by which results and assessments of many kinds can be shown within e-portfolios presented to other people with good restrictions and checks on abuse and misrepresentation. Since it is valuable to include material owned or authored by other people, it is also useful to represent that ownership and authorship within the records kept. The exact mechanisms by which this is to be done are not critical, but the need is already clear.

Owners of the information, who are not the e-portfolio subject, may want to retain some control over their information. For example, the educational institutions that award degrees will want to retain their transcripts, and issue them under their own terms. But for e-portfolio purposes, the subject of the e-portfolio should have the facility to select and configure information whether it is self-asserted or owned or authored by others.

What information might be relevant to e-portfolio services?

Within the current practice referred to above, particular e-portfolio systems will be designed with different aims in mind, and may use and update different selections of information. Taking an inclusive view, it seems to us that the following information (including information belonging to others, alongside purely learner-owned information) is of the kind which might be relevant to an e-portfolio system. Of course this definition of the underlying information scope does not in any way constrain the e-portfolio services that are built to use some or all of that information.

This appears to cover well the information storage requirements related to PDP. It includes details of learning, performance and achievement, together with reflection those matters, and also explicitly covers plans of any kind, including for personal, educational and career development.

This information may be stored in one or more places, following the preference of the owners of the information, which will depend on trust. At the very least it seems necessary to have several different bodies offering e-portfolio storage services.

Taking the agenda forward

Work in the UK being undertaken by the JISC through the MLEs for Lifelong Learning Programme is connecting the needs of practitioners with the kinds of innovation ICT makes possible, for example by joining up separate learner records into a Lifelong e-portfolio. PDP is an explicit theme of this work.

A series of scenarios will be drawn from these pilots to express the process by which ICT enables support for learners' personal, educational and career development as they move from one episode of learning to another and into employment. Further scenarios will be developed in partnership with colleagues elsewhere in Europe covering issues such as the Accreditation of Prior Learning and Experience and Continuing Professional Development. An explicit intention of this work is to go beyond the portfolio as an object to explore the process by which the e-portfolio is used and created. A briefing about this work will go to European Ministries of Education in May 2004.

There appear to be close similarities between emerging e-portfolio practice in the UK and elsewhere in Europe - in schools, colleges, universities, professional bodies and employers - and the development of the scenarios is a means of researching this more thoroughly and of publishing an e-portfolio White Paper by the European Portfolio Initiatives Coordinating Committee (EPICC - pdf from EIfEL) (EPICC - pdf from europa.eu.int) in 2005.

This will provide a context for the parallel technical work, being undertaken by the BSI Group which will provide a British Standard to support technical interoperability for Learner Information, and CEN, the European Standards body, which has agreed the outline of a European Standard for development into a full standard. Where one European project (TELCERT) will provide a basis for conformance testing of the information required by Lifelong e-portfolios, another (UNFOLD) will provide a means of formally expressing the learner processes using and creating e-portfolios following the IMS Learning Design specification.

At this stage colleagues in the UK are looking to make close connections with co-workers elsewhere in Europe, through the EPICC work and hope to present their work in America during 2004 both at EDUCAUSE 2004 and in a formal publication.

Interoperability of the frameworks of skills and competencies is a particularly challenging issue, which is being taken forward separately.


We have borrowed ideas, and some words, from Darren Cambridge, Jan van Tartwijk and Erik Driessen.


We welcome feedback on the position we have described here, which we will take into account in future revisions. Please write to Simon Grant at asimong@gmail.com