What is the ‘powerful idea’ of the eportfolio?

Neil Postman wrote that every technology has a philosophy, a ‘powerful idea’ (Postman, 1997). This got me thinking about the eportfolio: what is its powerful idea? Defined instrumentally, the eportfolio is an online password-protected place to collect, organise and share a ‘portfolio’ of assets. It belongs to the account-holder, and travels with them over time and through their contexts. But this does not communicate the ‘powerful idea’ of the eportfolio, which arguably, can only be understood experientially. Because Flinders is now using Mahara eportfolio as part of its technology ‘ecology’, I thought it would be timely to share my own emerging, experiential understanding of the tool.

The eportfolio is a quiet technology. In the array of social media, the eportfolio is the introvert. Unlike other tools, private is the default setting, and this makes it hard to ‘see’ in the social array. The eportfolio has interiority, a ‘space’ to be in. Inside, it is like having the house to yourself, where you might wander through the rooms, at home with yourself and your story, simply enjoying the small piles of your projects-in-motion in each room. Each thing, each pile, and each room tells a story about you – what is meaningful to you, who you are. The eportfolio feels like this – a quiet space where you might be at home with what matters to you, in whatever jumbled-up or ordered way you choose; for being quietly yourself.

The eportfolio invites introspective work. Here, you can pull together the pieces and make small ‘wholes’ of thoughts, documents and media, taking care about the way things come together to make or show meaning. These small wholes are little stories about what you are thinking, learning, and doing; living stories about you created by you, which can grow and change and move with you.

Of course homes and stories, as well as being private, can also be co-created, and come to life when they are shared. Eportfolios do all this too. Like many other online tools, they ‘connect’, but I think it is perhaps the intra-connections rather than the inter-connections that make it what it is. There are a lot of tools that aggregate, store and share content. The eportfolio adds the ‘so what’ to the ‘what’, if you like. For the portfolio user, the shift is to move beyond the stuff and the ‘parts’ to the way the parts might be meaningfully brought together.

A technology that supports the private self, wholes, and continuity is powerful because it seems to move against the tides of fragmentation, ephemerality and homogeneity. But because it is a quiet technology it will not shout or insist, and can be easily overlooked, or forgotten. It is too easy to rush along doing what we must do unless we consciously set aside time to wander through our rooms introspectively and tinker with our stories over time. Stretching the home analogy a little further, attending to the eportfolio feels very much like the habit of housework, and like any useful habit, needs to be cultivated. There is a strategic role here for the organisation, for when institutional programs incorporate and value eportfolios for the powerful idea they contain, this helps to knit the eportfolio-tending habits into the daily life of the user. Staff and students can use eportfolios for professional activity, scholarly work, formal coursework, or career building. The more contexts the eportfolio in-habits, the more powerful it becomes, as it is then that the connections between these kinds of activities begin to appear, and, over time, tell bigger, richer stories about you.

If you would like to explore this technology for yourself, visit the Mahara eportfolio support page, or contact elearningdesign@flinders.edu.au.


Postman, N. (1997). The end of education: Redefining the value of school: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.


Contributed by Nicola Parkin

Senior Educational Designer – CILT

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