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ePortfolios, Prior Learning and Emergent Learning

ePortfolios, Prior Learning and Emergent Learning
ePortfolios can provide learners with an opportunity to unite all of their learning into a single package that could create a pathway toward a credential.

What’s the point of an ePortfolio? If it’s about Prior Learning Assessment (PLA), many learners feel it’s easier to just take the course, even if their institution supports PLA.

If it’s about “high impact” lifelong learning, why do so many of the educators who tell you to use an ePortfolio not possess one of their own?

What about employers? They either don’t know what you’re talking about or they’re dreading the digital equivalent of a three-inch binder landing with a dull thud on their desk.

So why do 52 percent of undergraduates in the United States have an ePortfolio? Why are post-secondary institutions moving to learning based on outcomes rather than seat time? Why does LinkedIn get the majority of its revenue from recruiting services?

“The future is already here; it’s just not very evenly distributed” (William Gibson)

The roots of the as-yet unevenly distributed ePortfolio future lie in the not-so-distant past: ePortfolios and PLA have their origins with the Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) in the 1970s. CAEL developed robust quality assurance standards for evaluating learning outside of the classroom in response to demand from a large number of adult learners entering postsecondary education at that time.

Evaluating experiential learning was never about awarding credit based on years of experience; 10 years of management does not equal a BComm. It’s typically about using a portfolio to document, reflect on and integrate the learning you have gained from across your life experience, whether in the workplace, the home or the community. You then align the relevant parts of your learning, backed by appropriate evidence, against the learning requirements of a particular course or program. By doing this, you can gain advanced standing, which can lead to significant savings in time and money and greatly increase your chances of finishing the program. It’s hard work, but the actual process of building a portfolio has transformative learning value with lasting effects on student success and attitudes to lifelong learning. And once you have it, it’s easy to update or repurpose.

CAEL continues to inspire and push the boundaries today. is an online PLA service developed by CAEL for institutions that lack a PLA infrastructure. In a recent submission to the House of Representatives, CAEL advocated for a nationwide PLA infrastructure coupled with educational policy changes to make PLA more accessible.

CAEL’s model has inspired others around the world. The ePortfolio and Identity Conference (ePIC) is an annual gathering of thought leaders who have influenced the direction of ePortfolios since 2003.

In Canada, the Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA) has been leading the charge since the mid-1990s, both as an organization and through the efforts of its innovative members, such as:

  • Thompson Rivers University, whose Credit Bank awards credit based on pre-assessed training from employers, private trainers and continuing studies programs;
  • Red River College of Applied Arts, Science and Technology and the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, whose PLAR Practitioner programs have helped spread the message and professionalize the practice across Canada and internationally; and
  • Douglas College, where a Flexible Options Pathway in the Disability and Community Studies Program offers up to 75 percent PLA credit, including credits for the PLA course itself (why not?), driving the cost of a credential down by as much as 60 percent.

In the United States, the State University of New York’s Empire State College is leading the Global Learning Qualifications Framework (GLQF) project, maturing in September 2014. It seeks to enable the assessment of university-level learning for self‐authored and “untethered” learning paths, such as those using Open Education Resources and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The GLQF will leverage research on more than 90 frameworks from around the world.

Based in the United States, but international in scope, the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL) has brought together more than 120 educational institutions and ePortfolio providers to advance the theory and practice of deep learning with ePortfolios. I’m helping them build a Canadian chapter for this essential non-profit organization.

We’re not there yet. It’s a slog to build a meaningful ePortfolio and it may not be worthwhile if you’re just doing it for a single purpose. There is still widespread ignorance about the relevance and authenticity of ePortfolios. Gaps remain in efforts to make ePortfolios into effective lifelong personal learning environments for education and employment. Many ePortfolios are inflexible and monolithic; free tools are often fragmented or compromised by their business models.

But examples, however incomplete and fragmented, are starting to show the way. The infrastructure is slowly being built and the fragments are coming together. The lifelong ePortfolio is starting to show its potential to become your private learning companion, articulate advocate and public podium in our emerging read-write digital world.

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