When I was working for my (now outdated) Certificate IV Trainer and Assessor (TAA) qualification, I went through the exercise of assessing a portfolio of evidence against a national qualification. Strangely enough, I have never assessed any student’s portfolio of evidence for the same purpose. But I wondered what creating and submitting a portfolio of evidence was like from the student’s point of view. Added to that, I wanted to see if it was possible to submit such a portfolio entirely by electronic means, rather than (as I have seen others doing) submitting three large lever-arch files crammed full of paper.
The short answer is “Yes, e-portfolios can work”. The rest of this post describes a history of my efforts.
A Piece of Educator’s Jargon
There is a process in Australian education known as “Recognition of Prior Learning” (RPL). If somebody submits a portfolio of evidence, often based on their experience in the work place, to a Registered Training Organisation (RTO), and the RTO assesses that the portfolio demonstrates competence for the award claimed, then the RTO must award the submitter an appropriate certificate.
My subject area was information technology. More specifically, it was Certificate IV in Programming.
The Production Process
Following guidance others who work a lot with the RPL process, I wrote a number of web pages describing my work experiences, and set about matching those experiences against the specific “Performance Criteria” contained in the Units of Competency that constitute the award. Just as I was about to find an RTO that would accept my portfolio, the Certificate was changed, which meant a major overhaul of my portfolio. It will come as no surprise that I found doing the overhaul rather irksome, but at least it meant that the qualification would be valid for rather longer than otherwise.
Structure of the Portfolio
The portfolio was designed with the following objectives:
- Navigability: it had to be easy for assessors to move their way around the portfolio
- Adequacy of evidence: the evidence presented needed to be absolutely convincing
- Entirely electronic
The result was a web site stored on a CD. It contained the following items:
- A front page, containing links to the rest of the portfolio
- A guide to the portfolio: how it was organised, with suggestions to assessors as to how they might like to use it
- An “evidence matrix”, containing exactly one link for each Unit of Competency
- For each Unit of Competency, a listing of all the Performance Criteria, along with links into the rest of the portfolio showing how each Performance Criterion was met
- A listing of each of the work place experiences
The portfolio contained a mixture of text, pictures, screen shots, movies and links to external web sites.
I regarded both the evidence matrix and listings of the Performance Criteria for each Unit of Competency as being crucial to the organisation of the portfolio. It allowed me to check for completeness of evidence prior to submission, and it also afforded assessors a means to do their work easily and efficiently.
A Side Issue
As an educator, I assess student work against Units of Competency, and I do so quite ruthlessly. If there is a requirement for something to be demonstrated, but it is not demonstrated by the student, then I am required to not sign off on the award. As I was digging through one of the Units of Competency (ICAA5154B), I came across two things that I did not immediately recognise (Oikos, SOCCA). After doing some research on the Internet, I discovered that they were both projects that had ceased by 1997, and so could no longer be considered relevant. I approached Innovation and Business Skills Australia about this, and was told, in effect, that they can be ignored for the purposes of assessment. This was in stark contrast to what I was taught when I undertook my TAA training. This, and other issues with other Units of Competency, has left me wondering about how well Units of Competency relate to the needs of such a rapidly evolving industry.
Finding an RTO
There are a number of RTOs near where I live, any one of which could have assessed my portfolio. The first one that I approached kept on passing me from person to person, and never returned my telephone messages. This carried on for weeks. The second responded on the same day that I approached them, and I was enrolled on an information session for RPL candidates two days later.
Feedback from the Assessors
When I attended the information session, I handed in a CD with a copy of my portfolio as it then was, this with the purposes of establishing whether or not the assessors might be happy with it as a means of proceeding. In my view, the contents of that CD could not in any way be considered as being fit for assessment: almost half the evidence matrix was missing, and there was a major error in one the work place experience files. Nevertheless, the assessors concluded that I “was operating at a level far higher than [the] Certificate IV level” (their words), though they did not tell me this until much later. Being educators, and hence rushed off their feet, it can be argued that going through that version of the portfolio thoroughly would not have been a legitimate use of their time.
The assessors needed to check that the portfolio was indeed my own work. They checked with one of my clients that I performed the work claimed in the portfolio. They had also encountered another RPL candidate whose portfolio was not his own work (in other words, a fraudulent candidate), and they needed to check that I was indeed the author of the portfolio. We arranged to meet. It was at this meeting that I handed over a CD containing a complete and correct portfolio of evidence. They also revealed that the fraudulent candidate did not even understand the questions that he was being asked at the equivalent meeting.
The assessors deliver learning in a Microsoft context. I work an an open source context. This might have presented something of an issue when it came to a practical demonstration of my own competence. I required of my assessors that I perform my demonstration in my own context, to which they were unhesitatingly agreeable. As a result, I needed to use a student computer in a sandpit setting so that I could load on to it everything that I required. Fortunately, such computers were available. (For the uninformed, most student computers are locked down so hard this sort of thing is quite impossible on them.) The practical demonstration went flawlessly.
The meeting continued after the practical where we chatted about both education and information technology. I was asked for my motive in going through this RPL process, and I duly explained. They also invited me to go for a Diploma based on the evidence that they had seen on the initial CD.
And returning to the theme of having an entirely electronic portfolio, the assessors said that it was by far the best that they had seen, and that it was very easy to navigate. I had achieved my objective.
In a similar fashion, I submitted a CD for the Diploma of Software Development a few weeks later. This was assessed as demonstrating competence without any further work needed on my part. This was followed almost immediately afterwards by a further CD for the Certificate IV in Information Technology Networking. The initial response from the primary assessor is that he will accept it as is.
To the Future
There is a Teachers Guide on the Use of ePortfolios in Education by Med Kharbach (twitter: @medkh9). My own portfolios sit at the “Portfolio as Showcase (Product)” end of the spectrum. They were created using a simple text editor and basic image editing software, this coupled with a good grasp of HTML and CSS. For classroom usage, I would suggest the tools pointed at by Med’s post.