This is my first opportunity to attend a conference specifically devoted to e-portfolios. E0-Portfolio 2007  is the 5th in a series sponsored by EiFel. The audience and speakers are some of the most diverse I have experienced at a medium/small (250 person) conference. At one end are technical experts from both Universities and private companies developing and implementing standards that formalize the technical infrastructure underpinning e-portfolios. These are most influenced by ontology developments and the different standards proposed to allow for intelligent search, aggregation and transfer of e-portfolios across different applications. At the other end are school teachers, trainers and university types struggling to implement an e-portfolio system at a variety of levels – from course, to program to institutional wide installations. Finally, unlike in North America, there are a number of private companies -mostly working in the Human Resources area, who are offering e-portfolio systems as a way for a company or government organization to manage the support and professional development of their staff. Notable within this latter group is support for the development of Human Resource Markup Language (HRML).

The talk of formal ontologies takes me back a few years to the buzz around ontologies and structures used to describe learning objects. Of course IMS is often referenced, but as noted in one of the sessions, the IMS e-portfolio specification has not been updated for years, making me wonder how ‘alive and well’ IMS is these days. It is interesting to see the continuing (though slower than expected) development of formal descriptions of data structures leading to semantic web applications. At the same time informal tagging and systematic aggregation of ‘folksonomy’ generated data from user tags also expands. The future will likely consist of applications that allow and encourage formal expression and transformation, but also allow user generated tags and vocabularies. Only by co-existing will systems be able to retain flexibility that encourages use and formal description that allows re-use. I attended one long session billed as a ‘plug fest’. The task presented to systems developers in the room was for a sample e-portfolio to be edited and then passed on a memory stick to the e-portfolio system of a competitor and see if the full portfolio including any attachments (such as word files or presentations) could be imported, further data added and then passed on to the next system developer. As expected (and the object of the activity) some of the e-portfolios generated fatal error, others could not import files or photos that were not appropriately attached to specific portfolio fields and others both imported and exported quite well. The exercise demonstrated the need for tight bindings of the data to some sort of recognized standard. Yet, at the same time one can see how the e-portfolio needs to be adapted to the context for which they are designed and in which they must function effectively – if not they will not be adopted by potential users. I left seeing that the standards are yet to be completely integrated into various tools, but that they are close and that the goal of interoperability does not seem unachievable, in this rather structured domain.

The e-portfolio project also was designed to coincide with an annual planning meeting of the 4 year, 14 million Euro TenCompetence project (now in year 2). This project (led by the Open University of the Netherlands) is designed to create an infrastructure for lifelong learning and competence that can be used by anyone, any institution, any company – for a variety of learning tasks and supports. Rob Koper and Chris Kew demonstrated the first beta of their Personal Competence Manager (PCM) – due for public release in Dec. 2007, but early beta available now on SourceForge.

The PCM tool combines three major functions. The first is structuring, mapping and creation of competency profiles (defined by professional organizations, industry, communities, clubs and individuals) and most are stored and retrieved from the Competency Observatory in (of course) structured XML formats. The second is the e-learning subsystem, that uses IMS Learning Design based tools (with much improved graphical interfaces) to create and manage Units of Learning that are used for competence development. Input to the e-learning subsystems is also open for the learner to define their own activities in addition to or instead of those developed by education, employer or training organizations. The system also supports units of assessment that are formal ways to create and present tests in a large variety of designs (portfolio assessment, case study, 360 degree assessment etc) and formats. These tests go far beyond the multiple choice type assessment common in the IMS QTI. The third component of the system is the personal component where the general competencies, goals and learning resources are connected to individual learners and the social communities that they utilize to support their learning. This subsystem creates a dynamic e-portfolio for each participant and allows one to connect to other learners working on or those having succeeded in attaining particular competencies. The vision of the TenCompetence system is to create a host of services, that support a large set of customizable clients, that select, re-brand and display in custom format various sub sets from the suite of services provided in the ‘lifelong learning’ infrastructure. I like the development of the IMS LD standard and the other tools in the e-learning subset that try to combine and make accessible parts of learning that should be under the control of learners, that that should be controlled by educators, by external competency assessors and those that require negotiation by all involved players. The PCM instantiates the increasingly obvious understanding that the gap between formal and informal learning is rapidly diminishing and that sharply differentiating the two, systematically impedes development of lifelong learning. The system currently requires a dedicate client, but web clients are due out in June 2008.

I also attended a “master class” presented via Skype by Evangeline Stefanakis from Boston University. The session provided a case study of a single student with excerpts from his e-portfolio demonstrating his “multiple intelligences” and the use of the portfolio to compensate for a significant stuttering handicap. This session, though delivered from afar and not without 5-6 drops via Skype, very clearly demonstrated the soft side of portfolio development, with not a word of ontologies or standards during the entire session. The logic behind providing tools for learners to document and organize the artifacts of their formal study and to create opportunity for reflection by the student and comment by others on this work, remains very compelling. Even if these portfolios do not export into commercial systems, I believe that the educational added value justifies the expense of student time to create and instructor time to comment and assess.

I close with a reflection on the large difference in corporate and institutional interest in e-portfolios between Europe and North America. The interest is partially attributed to a much better sense of understanding and appreciating the needs of employers and employees in Europe. They seem to be more concerned with making effective use of the often limited numbers of skilled workers. In Canada, we tend to rely on imports of skilled workers from other countries, rather than very seriously develop system to support and encourage development of current employees and potential Canadian workers to meet demand in a variety of commercial and government organizations. In Europe the different languages, education systems and cultures, plus a desire for tighter integration via the EU create interest in interoperability and documentation of personal skills. I think this interest is likely to pay a large dividend for European countries. We all exist in a global, multi-lingual and multi-cultural context- it is just that some of us are allowed to ignore this reality more than others.

E-portfolios, with their common underpinnings of XML expression, formalized schema, possibility of export and retention by an individual s throughout their lifelong learning, and the increasing easy to use and attractive interfaces, will become a very useful tool in each of our personal learning environments.