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Clear e-portfolio definitions: a prerequisite for effective interoperability

Simon Grant
Information Strategists, UK

Abstract & Keywords

1. Introduction

From the original time when the concept of e-portfolio took root in Europe, around the first international e-portfolio conference in 2003, there have been differences of view about what an e-portfolio is supposed to be. The clearest contrast is between those who regard a portfolio as essentially a coherent presentation of evidential material to an audience, and those who see an e-portfolio as a kind of repository, or system, from which evidence and other material can be chosen. Beyond this difference of view, there are more differences about what other properties or characteristics should be fulfilled in order for something to count as an e-portfolio.

There are at least two plausible explanations for this lack of consensus. Firstly, the field is still relatively new, and there has not yet been enough time for definitions and standards to have reached the stage where they are naturally agreed. Secondly, the subject matter to which e-portfolios are applied is not technical, but human: it could be expected to be much more straightforward to agree definitions and set standards relating to, say, electrical fittings than to personal development, aspirations and achievements.

These differences are not just a phenomenon to investigate, but a practical problem, about which there are good reasons to be concerned. Disagreements about the meanings of basic terms hinder communication, and make mutual understanding difficult to achieve. If agreements could be reached, less time might be wasted in fruitless debate, and it would be very welcome to refocus this energy towards the great positive potential of e-portfolio developments, where the inspiring visions have yet to be made real for the majority.

2. Previous definitions and their problems

The diversity of definitions is well illustrated by three relatively high-profile examples of definitions of e-portfolio. Firstly, a well-quoted definition comes from EDUCAUSE NLII (e.g. quoted by IMS, 2005b).

"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."

This clearly preserves the link with traditional portfolios as specific collections for a specific purpose. Secondly, EIfEL (the European Institute for E-Learning, EIfEL, 2005) explains:

"An ePortfolio is a personal digital collection of information describing and illustrating a person's learning, career, experience and achievements. ePortfolios are privately owned and the owner has complete control over who has access to what and when."

This retains the idea of a collection, while appearing to move towards the NLII concept of an archive. Thirdly, EDUCAUSE (2005) depart from their older NLII definition by suggesting:

"E-portfolios have emerged as a valuable online tool that learners, faculty, and institutions can use to collect, store, update, and share information. E-portfolios allow students to reflect on their learning, communicate with instructors, document credentials, and provide potential employers with examples of their work."

This completes the contrast: is an e-portfolio a collection of evidence, or a tool that manages that evidence - perhaps a whole archive of potential evidence relating to a person's learning, career, experience and achievements?

Looking at the 2004 ePortfolio conference (EIfEL, 2004) there is plenty more evidence of similar distinctions, whether in definitions or less prescriptive conceptual views. On the side of viewing an e-portfolio as a collection, Wade & Abrami (2004) venture that "A portfolio can be defined as a purposeful collection of student work that tells the story of a student's effort, progress and/or achievement in a given or several areas." Ahonen & Murto (2004) state "A digital portfolio or ePortfolio is a collection of learner's work that can include text, pictures, hyperlinks and different multimedia elements." Hédia (2004) represents other websites as giving the definitions "Collection d'œuvres propres à refléter le talent de son auteur."[1] and "Collection des travaux d'un élève qui fait foi de sa compétence montrant des traces pertinentes de ses réalisations."[2] All these give emphasis to the particular, purposeful collection.

On the other hand, there are many examples of viewing the e-portfolio as an archive or tool. For example, Hartnell-Young (2004) states "Portfolios, as the name suggests are mobile containers for artefacts in a range of media". In the view of Home & Charlesworth (2004) "... the term ePortfolio ... tends to be seen as a toolbox for the student and the knowledge worker." Haywood & Tosh (2004) go all the way to stating "The e-portfolio is an information management system that uses electronic media and services" and then explaining how such a system is typically used. The distinction seems to exist equally in French. Barreau et al. (2004) have "Le portfolio a été pensé comme un outils générique afin de pouvoir créer des instances de portfolio personnalisées en fonction des formations concernées."[3]

These differences of view are understandable in that it appears natural for people to relate a new term to something that is already tangible for them. Many developers and researchers in the e-portfolio field have experience of a particular system that has been in use in their institution, perhaps for assessment, perhaps for personal development or careers. Others from fine arts, creative writing and the like can visualise the kind of portfolios that are familiar to them. However, having people use the same term with different meanings is not good for any kind of important discussion. It is a widely shared experience for the continuation of the discussion around definitions to cause exasperation. Many researchers, developers and practitioners in the e-portfolio community would like the debate to move on to the more challenging and practical matters of how to implement and develop e-portfolio systems and services, without being bogged down in dispute over definitions.

3. Objectives for consensus definitions

Further and more detailed analysis of previous usage is left to others. The emphasis in this paper will be on making plausible, positive proposals for definitions that are as likely as possible to be the focus of consensus in effectively resolving differences such as those outlined above. Merely avoiding disagreements by agreeing to differ would not help. It would risk the waste of time talking at cross purposes, and misunderstanding each other.

To address the central question implied by the title of this paper: why is this held to be a prerequisite for effective interoperability? Interoperability standards are meant to be consensus positions which are largely to the benefit of all concerned. If terms are not agreed, it will mean that the language of any standard or specification is more attuned to some views than others, and it runs the risk of being seen as unclear or unfair. Specifications such as IMS LIP (IMS 2001) or IMS ePortfolio (IMS, 2005a), and related standards such as BS 8788 (British Standards Institution, 2005) known as "UKLeaP", are complex, with a large scope, and it takes very substantial time, effort and knowledge to comprehend them. Given the added obstacle of a set of terms used in ways that are not familiar, and less determined potential users of the standards are likely not to engage with them, risking leaving the issue of implementing interoperability to non-practitioner technical colleagues.

The most important point of all is that effective interoperability in these areas is crucially dependent not only on syntactic, but semantic agreement: about what the different categories of information mean, and how they are used in practice. This is necessary in the attempt to ensure that practically compatible units of information have representations that are as similar as possible. Given the complexity of the domain, the only plausible route to effective interoperability is through pragmatic agreement where the consensus includes both practitioners and technical developers. This makes it even more of a vital challenge to find common agreed terminology.

What should be the nature and characteristics of such consensus definitions in the e-portfolio domain? In providing an unambiguous set of terms properly covering essential concepts in this domain, it is suggested here that they should:

The first two points are simply criteria for helping to avoid needless conflict with other established positions. The third is an ideal, and the fourth point summarises the argument above. Relating to both latter points, if we are to have effective lifelong e-portfolio systems, it would be a great advantage for the information to be as portable as possible between the systems, so that individuals do not needlessly lose the fruit of their documenting and reflective efforts.

4. Proposed portfolio and e-portfolio definitions

Here, then, are the set of proposed definitions for what has been called here the "e-portfolio domain". Throughout these definitions, "e-" stands exactly for "electronic", which parallels the established usage in "e-mail", "e-commerce" etc.

Current usage suggests that a very loose and general definition of a "portfolio" may be a collection of things related to an individual, or, by extension, to a group of people or corporate entity. Beyond this general concept, as discussed above, there is disagreement about how the terms "portfolio" and in particular "e-portfolio" should be used. In order to avoid confusion and ambiguity, it is therefore suggested here that the terms "portfolio" and "e-portfolio" are not used by themselves, unqualified.

In essence, what is done in this paper is to introduce what seems to have been a missing term, the portfolio item. This becomes the central definition, in terms of which all the other definitions fall into place without having to use the term "portfolio" by itself. Focusing on portfolio items makes a great deal of sense in the context of electronic tools. One of the advantages of an electronic system managing portfolio items is that each item can be reused in different contexts without having to be entirely rewritten or re-entered. Thus it is really the items that are the basis of such systems, while portfolio presentations can be considered as purposeful collections of those items.

4.1 Portfolio item

A portfolio item, in the field of education, personal and professional development, may be defined as any of:

  1. a unit of information structured so that it can be integrated with other portfolio items;
  2. a unit of information that enables a related object to be integrated with other portfolio items;
  3. an object relating to the focal person;

that satisfies all these conditions:

  1. it must be related to a particular person;
  2. it must be valued by the person it relates to;
  3. that person must have relevant rights over it.

An e-portfolio item may be defined as a portfolio item that is held electronically.

For clarity, the definition of portfolio item uses a singular person, as that is the most commonly understood example. For completeness, the singular should be read as also covering the plural, as well as corporate entities such as businesses and institutions, which can also have their own e-portfolio information.

The concept of portfolio item can be related to the IMS ePortfolio specification's "portfolioPart" element. The reason for choosing a different term in this context is that there is no intention to align, or not to align, with the IMS specification, and a different term maintains neutrality.

Portfolio items by themselves do not have to be actually integrated into portfolio presentations in order to be counted as portfolio items. However, items such as a word-processed document by themselves are not designed to be integrated into any kind of portfolio involving several items. Where such objects are desired to be held as e-portfolio items, they should be closely associated with information (as indicated in option (b) that enables it to be integrated with other relevant e-portfolio items.

The intended boundaries of the term portfolio item may be illustrated by examples of what is proposed to count, and not to count, as included in the definition.

To begin with, consider the question of the information structure. Plain text, whether written in a book, or kept on a file on a private computer, is not much use to an e-portfolio system. Information starts to be structured when, for example, it is connected together as a set of web pages with links explaining the relationship, as advocated for example by Barrett (2005). Going beyond that, for an ICT system effectively to manage a set of e-portfolio items, the items should be stored in some kind of database, where each different information component has its proper, recognised, place.

Related is the question of storing objects. Obviously, only electronic objects or electronic representations of objects can be stored as e-portfolio items. But an object by itself, even when electronic, may well not be self-explanatory: it needs to be set in context and related to other information. What is it to be taken as evidence of, for example? Hence comes the part (b) of the definition. What is implied is that every object should be associated with the information necessary to integrate it with other e-portfolio items, though the object itself, and separately the information, can both be regarded as e-portfolio items. However this relationship of object and related information (sometimes called "metadata") is not always necessary. For example, when assessing a particular competence, a simple collection of items could be used, where the fact that the item is collected for the assessment implicitly acts as a claim that it is evidence of the competence.

What things, or information, can be related to the central person? Almost anything could be the object of interest for someone, but in many cases it is not the thing itself that should be the e-portfolio item, but the record of the interest in that thing. Usually much more significant are the relationships of being the author or creator of something. What is clear is that things, or information, not related to me in any way (that I care about) should not be held as my portfolio items, and that if they are related, the nature of that relationship needs to be made explicit.

Secondly, it must be valued by the individual. If I feel that the article I wrote three years ago is rubbish, it is no business of anyone else to make me include it in my portfolio. I could, however, value it as part of the evidence which would show my improvement over those years. The decision to include must be up to the individual, to the extent to which the individual is able to take responsibility for the decision. A collection of evidence that might count against someone would (and should) more likely be called a file or dossier.

If we are to extend portfolio concepts truly across lifelong learning, we need to bear in mind the case of people who are not, or not yet, responsible, such as young children. For them, another significant person such as a parent, teacher or carer could judge on behalf of the person what is likely to be valued by that person.

Thirdly, "relevant rights" over a portfolio item must at least include the right to view the item. No matter how good that confidential reference was, I can't include it as a portfolio item. If I have the right to view something, at least I can reflect on it - perhaps a mentor has written some advice not for circulation to anyone else. To be more useful as an e-portfolio item, I will need the right to show whatever it is to other people, so that it can be used by me as evidence of something. For self-presentation, I also need the right to edit the item. Thus, the rights needed depend on the purpose the item is going to be used for.

As with the case above, here too, another person might have to act on behalf of someone who was not able to exercise his or her rights.

The next question to be addressed is, what is the nature of things that could be expected typically to count as portfolio items? The next section addresses this question, referring to the history of relevant specifications. Before that, to make an initial general point about granularity, it makes sense that a portfolio item should be a self-contained unit of information that could be reused for different purposes or on different occasions. This kind of reuse is familiar to most people through the practice of applying for jobs, posts, contracts or courses. If you prepare a paper or a presentation for a conference, for example, you may want, or not want, to refer to that, depending on how relevant it is to the application to hand. Papers and presentations are naturally associated with related information, such as author, revision date, date of presentation or publication, etc. The dates and other things have meaning only in their relationship to the item as a whole. An isolated date cannot count as a portfolio item.

4.2 Types of portfolio item

The first IMS specification for "learner information", known as IMS LIP 1.0 (IMS, 2001), explicitly relates to the term "portfolio" while not using the term "e-portfolio". Its core data structures are given in the IMS LIP 1.0 Information Model. The bulleted points that follow immediately here are directly quoted from the IMS specification.

At least, these elements appear to be the right size, when taken individually, for re-use in several contexts. In applying for jobs or higher courses of education, different particular qualifications, activities, goals, interests, competencies, etc. may be appropriately represented to different authorities. Taken individually, each comprises a self-contained unit of information, and the constituent parts of that information would make little sense separated from the unit.

During 2004, two separate but parallel development processes identified a missing kind of element: a free-standing statement that may enlarge, or reflect, on other of the elements, or on the learner as a whole person. This kind of element has since been given twin names: "reflexion" and "assertion", intended to be used dependent on the context.

The list of IMS LIP elements has been reflected on at length in the light of the currently proposed definitions. One apparent issue is that the IMS LIP elements are of greatly varying complexity, whereas technical systems development would be better served by a more uniform size and scope of item types. The following modifications are at present only suggestions, which are in the process of being discussed by interested parties.

The elements "securitykey" and "transcript" seemed less reusable than other e-portfolio items, and could be left out. Security, authentication and authorisation are more likely to have their own mechanisms, and there is no obvious reason to store related information directly with transferable e-portfolio information. A transcript is naturally the property of the body which awards it, and ideally this should not be kept with a learner-editable portfolio, and could be available on appropriate request from the issuing institution. IMS LIP activities include their own official definitions, and their evaluations, and these could be usefully separated out, to form their own items. The "products" of activities could also be separated out, for clarity. The Qualifications, Certificates and Licences element could usefully be subsumed into a more encompassing class of "achievements", which would include those achievements that are not certified.

These modifications would result in a list of portfolio item types, along with suggested definitions, as follows - in alphabetical order, with no implication of precedence.


Information about the person's requirements or preferences for facilitating or enabling interaction with e-portfolio or other systems or environments, whether human or technical.


States that were desired and have been brought about by or with the involvement of the person, including qualifications, certificates, licences, awards, prizes, and other achievements which may have no certification. These need to be carefully distinguished from activities, since activities have duration, while achievements have only a time of fulfilment. To have completed an activity could count as an achievement, but it is not the same thing as the activity itself. To have created something may be counted as an achievement, but the thing itself is counted as a product, not an achievement.

Activities done, planned or in progress

Any kind of activity in which the person has participated, is participating, plans to participate, or is considering participation. Activities have duration. Jobs, courses, adventures, voluntary activities, can all be included as activities done or planned. Future activities can be those offered by a body which may involve the person.


Information about the relationship of the person with any organisations including educational institutions, employers, professional bodies, agencies. Affiliation is rather too restrictive a word to capture the full sense here. The person's identifier with that organisation can be recorded here.


Statements, claims, explanations, etc. about the person or things in the related portfolio items, which might be by the person him or herself, or by another person or body. These are structured like reflections.


Competences, whole or part, knowledge, skills or attitudes, that either are or were claimed by the person, or are aimed for. These could be described in their own terms by the person, or for wider use and interoperability, referred to a published competency definition.


Records of how one or more activities or products have been formally or summatively assessed or evaluated by others. This should link in with assessment practice and outcomes, and could link to competencies.


Future desired states of the world in relation to the person. Typically, a goal could be to acquire a competency by a certain date, or at a certain level, or by a particular means, or to achieve something else. The structure is similar to that of achievements.


Names, postal and e-mail addresses, phones, photos, etc. etc.


Anything that personally motivates: sports, hobbies, pastimes, personally-held values, etc.


Placeholders for reference to any corporate bodies such as educational institutions, employers, government departments, regulatory bodies, examining or assessing authorities, associations, nations, etc. The relationship between the person and these organisations is represented by affiliations.

Other Persons

Placeholders for reference to other people who are of significance in a portfolio. It would be reasonable to include, in portfolio records: the other person's role vis-à-vis the focal person, or their relationship to that person; their relevance; and their contact details; but little if anything else.


Artefacts, assets, objects, things, that have been created or put together by the person, or with the person's participation. These include the works of art in a traditional artist's portfolio, digital artefacts, objects made like chairs, things put in order like gardens, also social, economic and political actualities such as projects, companies or other organisations viewed as things that have been brought into being or helped along their way. Though social or physical things themselves cannot be e-portfolio items, information about them and representations of them can. Digital artefacts can be packaged along with the associated product information in an e-portfolio presentation.


Things authored, normally by the person, which express thoughts, attitudes, feelings, understandings, about self or any of a wide range of other e-portfolio items. The structure is like assertions. May include HTML or similar links to other items.


Relationships between portfolio items, which can be vital to their meaning. Relationships can be between items of the same kind, such as when an activity is part of another activity, or between different kinds, such as when a course activity leads to the achievement of a qualification. Many other relationships can be usefully defined.

and metadata

Metadata about the portfolio information describes who has what rights over that information - viewing, editing, intellectual property, "stewardship" etc. - as well as when records were created and edited. There may also be other categories of metadata that are relevant to all, or most, portfolio items.

These distinctions are not by themselves sufficient. In many applications, it may be significant to distinguish, for example, work activities from leisure activities. In all contexts is will be important to distinguish different kinds of relationship. With competencies, as a third example, it is vital to be able to tell apart ones that are claimed by the person, ones which are being sought, and ones about which the person may be reporting a lack of competence. IMS LIP introduced the concept of different types of the same kind of element. For example, IMS LIP suggested that activities could be classified as one of "Work, Service, Education, Training, Military": this is the "type vocabulary" for the activity element. This gives a mechanism to make semantic distinctions while keeping the syntactic structure the same. UKLeaP has kept the same mechanism. Both initiatives recognise that it would be wise to keep the type vocabularies relatively open and changeable, but clearly for effective interoperability they need to be agreed. At the time of writing, the process of agreeing such vocabularies is still in progress.

4.3 (E-)portfolio information

(E-)portfolio information may be defined as any set of (e-)portfolio items, whether or not related.

This definition would be useful when discussing the kind of information in general that may be the subject of discussion. It is used in following definitions. The intention here is to be completely open in the definition. The items making up a particular e-portfolio information set may or may not be related in any way.

4.4 E-portfolio view

An e-portfolio view may be defined as e-portfolio information relevant to a particular purpose, or intended to be accessible by a particular other person or body.

An e-portfolio view correlates with the same term in the IMS ePortfolio specification (IMS 2005a). It does not necessarily have the same coherence of purpose as an e-portfolio presentation, and may also lack detailed instructions for viewing. It can be defined by relevance to a particular purpose: this may form the basis of defining the information required by or returned by a particular e-portfolio related web service. Alternatively, a view can be defined as what a specified person or body is allowed to view. This would be set by those who control access to the portfolio information.

For a purpose-oriented view other than assessment, consider the example of using e-portfolio information in conjunction with conference attendance. The conference organisers' view could perhaps include primary affiliation and contact details, and allowing access to these could be a condition of booking and conference registration. In addition, perhaps interests and publications could be shown to other delegates in a "delegate view", which each individual would have discretion over: some people might want to restrict some contact details from more public view.

The people specified for the latter kind of view could be, for example: a particular tutor or mentor; institutional staff in general; a line manager; a work group of colleagues; a group of friends; a particular family member.

4.5 Portfolio presentation

A portfolio presentation may be defined as a particular composition of coherent portfolio items, with a deliberately defined audience and rhetorical purpose.

An e-portfolio presentation is one that is managed and presented electronically, composed of e-portfolio items.

This is the first term to be defined here which is intended to replace one of the previous uses of the term "portfolio" by itself, when used to mean a particular collection.

The meaning of a portfolio presentation relates to and goes beyond that of the same concept in the IMS ePortfolio specification (IMS 2005a). A portfolio presentation is sometimes referred to simply as a "portfolio" or "e-portfolio". The usage is understandable in terms of previous use of the term "portfolio". Even when qualified, as for example "assessment portfolio", there is still the unfortunate risk of ambiguity between on the one hand the presentation, and on the other hand the system which manages that presentation. There is scope here for many other different terms to be given more specific meanings to help resolve ambiguity.

Examples would be the obvious ones that have been identified in other e-portfolio work. A portfolio presentation for assessment would be different for each different assessment. A presentation as part of a job or course application could be expected to be at least as specific as CVs and résumés are currently.

4.6 E-portfolio repository

An e-portfolio repository may be defined as a system that stores e-portfolio information.

This can be either localised, or distributed as what could be termed a virtual repository. An e-portfolio repository as defined here may be what some people mean when using the term "e-portfolio".

The vagueness of this definition indicates the relative weakness of the concept of a repository as applied to the e-portfolio domain. It would be futile to try to lay down exactly which information needed to be stored before a repository qualified for being an e-portfolio repository. Different purposes, and different applications, need different e-portfolio information. There is no clearly identifiable base set of items that apply to every one.

One can imagine an e-portfolio repository associated with any personal development planning (PDP) or e-portfolio management system. It could, for instance, be seen as the file store for the digital objects e-portfolio items. But there is no clear dividing line preventing any other system or database also being called an e-portfolio repository.

The term is probably most useful in the context of discussion of the technical storage facilities which may provide part of an e-portfolio-related service. The definition is presented here mainly to suggest that it should not have any more specific meaning.

4.7 E-portfolio management system / service

An e-portfolio management system or service may be defined as one which uses information and communication technologies to give people the ability to use and manage their e-portfolio items. This may include the ability to record, construct, compose, store, retrieve, view, edit or arrange e-portfolio items, and to present them to or to share them with others, whether as e-portfolio presentations or otherwise. An e-portfolio management system may cover the management of items that are not portfolio items; may use one or more e-portfolio repositories; and may be used for any number of e-portfolio views and presentations.

All of a person's e-portfolio information within an e-portfolio management system has sometimes been referred to as their "e-portfolio", even where the system is designed to support more than one e-portfolio presentation. This may have led to ambiguity and thus should be discouraged in the interests of clarity.

A particular e-portfolio management system may be designed to manage just one e-portfolio view (such as for assessment). The management system together with the view may then sometimes then referred to, together, simply as an "e-portfolio". This usage may make sense within the limited scope of that system, but it does not help to resolve the ambiguity which has built up surrounding the term.

The intention of this definition is to include all the current systems which are regarded as e-portfolio systems, and thus those can serve as examples. The vital feature is that these systems or services give people the ability to manage their own items. In this way, the definition goes beyond the definition of an e-portfolio repository, where there is no necessary implication of allowing people to manage their items.

The definition leaves open the question of what makes an e-portfolio management system or service actually useful. What range of items should be kept? What features or functionality should be offered to users? These questions are not solved, but enabled, by the definition.

4.8 E-portfolio related service

An e-portfolio related service may be defined as one which generates, uses or modifies e-portfolio items but does not provide an e-portfolio management service.

The rationale behind this is that it is the portfolio items that are the focus of these definitions. Any other service is related to the portfolio domain inasmuch as it is related to portfolio items. The exclusion is simply to aid clarity of use: if a service gives sufficient functionality for it to be termed an e-portfolio management service, then it should be termed as such, leaving the term e-portfolio related to be used more generally and more broadly.

As with an e-portfolio management system, some e-portfolio related services could relate to just one e-portfolio view, and be referred to simply as an "e-portfolio", even though the service might lack some of the functionality commonly associated with an e-portfolio management system.

Most e-learning systems can be viewed as e-portfolio related, in that they generate or store information which could be regarded as e-portfolio items. Even the simple course definition may be useful as an e-portfolio item, perhaps to be shown to other people interested in a person's educational experiences. And with an increasing use of e-learning systems to capture, record, or mediate students' work, the range of associated e-portfolio items increases.

Similarly, systems and services aimed at personal or professional development are all likely to be, by their nature, included in this definition. Very many other systems and services count as e-portfolio related, in view of the fact that they touch on information which may be useful for e-portfolio views or presentations.

It may be helpful to clarify the proposed distinction between an e-portfolio related service and an e-portfolio management service. If a system or service gives the individual concerned control over less information than would naturally count as a whole portfolio presentation or multi-purpose view, then it makes little sense to regard it as an e-portfolio management system. In particular, assessment management systems are certainly e-portfolio related, but tend to give strictly limited control to the person being assessed. They would not be regarded as e-portfolio management systems. Equally, if an e-learning system is not set up to handle general e-portfolio information, it would not constitute an e-portfolio management system. Many e-learning systems are of course e-portfolio related.

Systems covering personal or professional development may be seen as either side of the borderline. The UK definition of PDP was originally contained in guidance on "Progress Files" from the UK's Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), and is currently kept on one of their more recent web pages http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/progressFiles/archive/policystatement/default.asp under the somewhat confusing heading of "Policy on Personal Development Plans". 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". In order to reflect on their learning, performance and achievement, an individual needs to have the information present on which to reflect. Detailed, thorough and accurate reflection may not be easy from memory alone. Hence comes one vital contribution of e-portfolio management systems to the PDP process. An electronic PDP system by itself may not be deemed to be a complete e-portfolio management system, if it leaves out important categories of e-portfolio items. The University of Liverpool's electronic PDP system, LUSID, for example (Strivens & Grant 2000) did not offer a service to store student's work or general files. Thus there was a reluctance to claim that it offers a full e-portfolio management service.

4.9 E-portfolio enabled service

An e-portfolio enabled service may be defined as an e-portfolio related service that interacts with an e-portfolio management system or service, or e-portfolio repository, as part of its primary operation.

This definition revolves around the meaning of the word "enabled". If a service is enabled by an e-portfolio management service, it must mean that in the absence of that service, it would be disabled.

This can be seen as an area of great future development. Several examples can be imagined of services that would be enabled by e-portfolio management services.

Firstly, one could imagine a system to keep one's contact details updated in many different places. One of the most important features of such a system would be that the individual could manage which bodies were allowed to see which changes of contact details. Certainly, such a service can be provided without an e-portfolio management service; but if it were available through one, it would save participants much extra effort. Thus it would be more likely to be used.

A second example picks up an idea already mentioned above. Instead of filling in new forms to give useful information to the organisers of conferences, individuals could give permission for the relevant information to be retrieved through their e-portfolio management system. Depending on what information they allowed, it would enable conference organising systems to offer a much richer service.

Perhaps the most obvious of all examples would be an e-portfolio enabled employment service. Those who maintain their own up-to-date and relevant e-portfolio information could be offered many greatly time-saving short cuts in the process of finding and applying for jobs. Such may be the gains in efficiency, that new kinds of service may spring up in the area, such as employment services that take proper account of corporate and personally-held values and ethics.

4.10 E-portfolio system, service, tool

For these three possible terms no definition is offered here because they seem to have a rather wider and less exact meaning. Any of these terms might be useful if a general term is wanted which does not commit the user of the term to a particular definite interpretation.

The term "e-portfolio system" might possibly be used as a shorter variant of e-portfolio management system, but is more liable to ambiguity. In particular, it might be taken to include any reasonably extensive e-portfolio related system, including an assessment management system, even if it did not give the individual a fully appropriate degree of control over the portfolio items. Including the word "management" emphasises that one of the key functions of an e-portfolio management system is to allow individuals to manage their e-portfolio items.

An "e-portfolio service" might be understood as covering e-portfolio management services, e-portfolio related services and possibly some e-portfolio enabled services. The key difference between systems and services is the point of view. Whereas a system tends to be seen as including the ICTs as well as the software, or even ideally including the human processes and arrangements, a service is more of a defined relationship which is offered by a system to other systems, or to other people. Thus, if something is termed an "e-portfolio system" the image is of people interacting with that system, as they do with current e-portfolio management systems and electronic PDP systems. If something is termed an "e-portfolio service", the image is more likely to be of a system, rather than a person, using that service. The human could be using a system, such as an e-learning system, and the e-learning system could be using an e-portfolio service in accordance with a defined Web Services interface. A definition of Web Services can be seen on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_service, but no more will be said here as the discussion is highly technical.

The concept of an "e-portfolio tool" would certainly include e-portfolio management systems, and quite possibly other e-portfolio related systems. A definition is not offered here, as there does not appear any obvious principled reason for deciding which systems would be included in or excluded from such a definition.

4.11 Resolving disagreement and ambiguity through changing usage

In the light of these definitions, many existing misunderstandings and disagreements could be resolved by replacing the term "e-portfolio", where used unqualified, with e-portfolio management system, e-portfolio presentation, or (less likely) e-portfolio repository or e-portfolio related service as appropriate, which together seem likely to cover the possible intended meanings.

5. Purposes and uses of portfolio information

So far, little has been made of the different purposes, contexts and scenarios of use of e-portfolio related services and e-portfolio information. The point of this paper has been to prepare solid ground for these discussions, rather than to cover them. E-portfolio literature and discussion together suggest several e-portfolio related services and areas of application which may use e-portfolio information. Among them are these.

These areas of application are clearly related. The systems and services that are needed or proposed for them may cover more than one of them. To avoid confusion and duplication of effort, these common services need to be factored out. This effort would play a part in the kind of "reference model" set out by Olivier et al. (2005) as part of the "e-Framework for Education and Research" jointly proposed by UK's Joint Information Systems Committee and Australia's Department of Education, Science and Training (see http://www.e-framework.org/)

It is hoped that practitioners, researchers and policymakers in each of these areas will be able to use the terminology proposed above to help clarify their discussions. In particular, they may find it relevant to consider:

6. Orthography

Definitions are typically written down, so a final note is on orthography. Fortunately, there is no pressing need to agree on orthography, as there is little chance of misunderstanding, and there are no clear differences in meaning between the different written forms which have been used. Nevertheless, it may be worth noting the difficulty for the form "ePortfolio" when it comes to capitalisation. In particular, there are clear problems with clarity and readability at the beginning of sentences, and when using all capital titles. The other widely-used form, the hyphenated "e-portfolio", has no such difficulties, allowing appropriate capitalisation in all contexts. An added advantage is that the very clear convention becomes possible, where "e-" stands just for "electronic". It is for these reasons that the hyphenated form has been used in this paper.

A possible drawback may be seen in line breaking. Much word-processing software will break a word at a hyphen if that is convenient for the end of a line. This leads to the unattractive appearance of "e-" at the end of a line and "portfolio" at the beginning of the next line, which may be more difficult to read. However, this problem can be completely solved if a non-breaking hyphen can be used.


[1] Approx: "Collection of works suitably reflecting the abilities of their author"

[2] Approx: "Collection of a pupil's pieces of work testifying to their competence, and showing appropriate records of their achievements"

[3] Approx: "The portfolio has been thought of as a generic tool for the creation of personalised portfolio instances for relevant training courses."

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