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E-portfolio systems supporting learning and Personal Development Planning

Simon Grant, Information Strategists
Janet Strivens, University of Liverpool
Adam Marshall, University of Oxford


1. Uses of e-portfolio systems

It is possible to classify the information held by e-portfolio systems; the range of functionality offered by those systems, and the uses to which such systems are put. Classification by use is one of the most common and helpful ways to classify such systems. The general use of e-portfolios as tools to assemble and present personal evidence of achievement, knowledge, skill or competence to multiple audiences is well known and documented, particularly in America. This covers both assessment, where the audience may be a particular group of examiners who require to see the e-portfolio, and more general presentation, where the intended audience is wider, and may include potential employers, colleagues, partners, or employees.

There is a related but distinct aspect of e-portfolio use, which is to support learning and personal development planning (PDP) itself. This is naturally based on the same e portfolio information, but used in a different way. A key process in PDP is reflection, and to support reflection effectively, the learner needs to be given opportunities both to reflect, and to record reflection in words. Other people, perhaps mentors or tutors, need to be able to give feedback on the learner's work and on the learner's reflections on that work.

While this process can proceed without particular structure or formality, it is generally recognised that there is value in making it a "structured and supported" process - supported by the institution, company or other body which is responsible for helping the learner with their learning.

With an e-portfolio designed primarily as a personal repository, it is not obvious how reflective learning and PDP are to be supported. The question is then, what facilities, functionality or services need to be included in an e-portfolio in order to support these kinds of structured learning.

2. Supporting reflective learning and PDP

Going beyond the services needed for e-portfolio assessment and presentation, other stakeholders who may have needs to take into account in learning and PDP include both groups of learners and tutors or mentors. In order to serve the needs of these stakeholders, there needs to be some explicitness in the structuring of the educational activity, in the same way that the structure of learning activities can be made explicit in order to be included in a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Indeed, PDP, which involves reflection on learning and achievement, is conceived of as a "structured and supported process", so structuring is clearly highly significant. In the now often-quoted definition held by the QAA in the UK, PDP is "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". (http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/progressFiles/guidelines/progfile2001.asp)

The (first generation) web-based PDP tool designed at the University of Liverpool, LUSID, (http://lusid.liv.ac.uk/ originally designed and developed by the authors beginning in 1997) does not offer much e-portfolio functionality, but is instead designed specifically to support PDP and to hold related records. The XML language used in LUSID can be written to allow designers of PDP programmes to generate practically any web page for the learner to use, involving the use of those same PDP records. The way that the records are linked up in the database means that there are many opportunities to present the learner with their own input, structured in a way that encourages reflection.

The value of LUSID is to help learners:

We recognised that we had not formally defined the processes which we intended LUSID to support, and to do this we would need to make the structure of those processes more explicit. In the WS4RL project (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=ws4rl and http://www.elframework.org/projects/ws4rl) we have explored this by creating an example of the structure of a typical episode of reflective learning that is recognisable as PDP, and we have represented this formally using UML. This potentially involves a mentor or tutor role as well as the learner role. Other roles are significant in the action, but do not necessarily play a part in the PDP process. Figure 1 shows a provisional UML diagram that we have worked with.

Figure 1: A UML Activity Diagram for Personal Theory Building

UML Activity Diagram for Personal Theory Building

A possible next step is to represent the process in terms of a specific formalism. In this case we have done this in terms of IMS Learning Design (LD, see http://www.imsglobal.org/learningdesign/), which is intended for representing the structuring and co-ordination of learning activities involving one or more people and systems. However, LD is not intended to give the finest details of the PDP content offered. We use LD only to refer to, not to detail fully, activities which up to now, in have been sent as HTML pages. A typical page in LUSID might present some information, which had been previously gathered and stored in LUSID's database; and structure this into a useful opportunity for the learner to reflect and add reflective comments, which are then added to LUSID's database.

The following step is much bolder and less immediately obvious. We wanted to broaden the reach of LUSID, from being a stand-alone PDP system to offering PDP services more widely. The projects in which we are doing this assume that PDP is to be offered as a web service returning not just HTML pages, which by their nature are rather constrained in their use, but some more generally usable XML structures. Our conception of delivering PDP as a web service involves the use of IMS LIP (see http://www.imsglobal.org/profiles/ similar to the draft UKLeaP, BS 8788) and LD specifications.

Putting many threads of thinking together, we came to the recognition that a PDP web service was best thought of in the context of related services, as illustrated in Figure 2.

This arrangement is based on the insight which comes from e-portfolio thinking, that the same information which is used to support PDP also can support other activities and services. Furthermore, we have learned from experience that this information may not be held in one place, but instead be distributed around various physical stores. For example, many UK educational institutions have basic information about students held in a student record system, which is administered officially by the institution, while at the same time other PDP-related information is held by a separate PDP system controlled by the student. We envisage this kind of arrangement being more widespread in the future, where for example some information relevant both to e-portfolio and to PDP may be held on a system provided by an employer.

Figure 2: Components and information flows in the envisaged architecture

Components and information flows in the envisaged architecture

In this arrangement of distributed storage, it is still vital to give the individual control over how their information is managed, and we conceive this role of a central place to manage the distributed information being filled by a "personal information aggregation and distribution service", or PIADS.

The PIADS concept is positioned to perform a central role for e-portfolio functionality. It allows individuals to access their information, wherever stored, and control access by other people. The PDP service does not have to act as a personal database, because that function is taken over by the PIADS, and can focus on providing structure and content for PDP activities.

We also envisage the provision of a web service to designers of PDP activities (or, in due course, other e-learning designers), for them to search around the Web for whatever kind of learning or PDP suits their programme. In principle, this means that in the future, educational content builders and designers will be able to share their designs, not only for straightforward e-learning activities, but also for the reflective extensions to learning that we know under the heading of PDP. This makes more feasible the idea of support for truly personal learning, in an environment that is suited to the learner, and is not necessarily classroom-based.

When a learner has undertaken these activities, he or she may well want to store the outputs, be they personal or group assignments completed, or reflections and commentary on that work: their own, or from peers, mentors or tutors. The e-portfolio approach is well-suited for storing these kinds of artefacts. One aspect which is seen as increasingly important to show in an e-portfolio is the way in which particular skills and competencies can be evidenced, not only by qualifications, but by other achievements and experiences or activities. And from a PDP point of view, the records can be presented to the learner in combinations designed to stimulate further reflection.

If the e-portfolio effectively covers evidence for skills, then it becomes possible that employers, for instance, could draw up a skills requirement list, and send that to a web service to find what evidence is in the e-portfolio of particular individuals, given of course that the individuals had given permission for this.

3. Skills and the SPWS project

However, there is currently a problem with displaying evidence for skills. That is, that there are many different ways of categorising skills and competence, and evidence for one set of skills does not automatically transfer to evidence for a different set, conceived differently. Thus a vital further piece of work needs to be done, to explore the nature of frameworks of skill and competence, so that eventually we can all work towards not some uniform description of skills, which is rather implausible, but a method of relating skills together, based on the lower-level components into which most skills can be decomposed. This relates to other work in the area of learning outcomes (e.g. see http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/l&tbulletin/issue4/Robleyandmurdocheaton.htm).

This area of skills definitions, in turn, potentially has Web Services associated with it. In the SPWS project (Skills Profiling Web Service - see web sites http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=deletspws and http://www.elframework.org/projects/spws) we are proposing to represent skills and skill frameworks starting with the IMS RDCEO specification (http://www.imsglobal.org/competencies/ ), while distinguishing the separate roles played on the one hand by skills or competencies as concepts, and on the other hand by skills or competencies as defined for teaching, learning and assessment.

The overall vision we are seeking to advance would see the possibility of e-learning and reflective PDP integrated and shared, so that the best designs can be widely distributed and used, by individuals pursuing their own development as well as by institutions, companies or other bodies helping learners with their development. The skills and competencies that are selected as relevant by educational institutions, by individuals or by employers will be widely and freely shared, so that the e-portfolio information which is gradually assembled by lifelong learners actually answers the need of the eventual readers to provide cogent evidence of the qualities, competences, skills, of the individuals who are hoping to be their employees, students, partners, or even citizens.

Vital to this vision is the interoperability both of the learning designs, and of the skill frameworks. This will be underpinned by interoperability specifications and standards, but these will only be able to be agreed in a workable form as we discover more about the real scenarios of use, which will in turn only come about by extending the kind of exploratory work we are undertaking.

© 2004 10 Home page Publications Paper frame
Bibliographics authorship abstract contents