Portfolios aren't a new idea, for years people have gathered evidence and put it one place. Once upon a time this was all paper-based and you used a big folder (really big if you were an art student) and saved all the bits and pieces you collected and then, after the mandatory 'tarting up' process, you submitted it to be assessed upon. I remember my English assessment at (high) secondary school which was all based upon 'coursework' which was a portfolio by another name and that was, err... a while ago. Of course my coursework was really just a group of summative assessments strung together, all well and good but not really a full portfolio of work. We also now have the abilities to do this without cutting down the rain forest too, eportfolios (which are just porfolios of course) enable us to gather pieces of information and interaction as well as summative assessments (and formative!) to produce our portfolio. Seems like an awesome solution to most of our assessment needs and yet, amazingly, we still seem to make the vast majority of our assessments test or exam based - even more amazingly there's still a plethora of assessments that seem to be closed-book knowledge based regurgitation.
Closed-book for those not down with edu lingo simply means under exam conditions; no access to the internet, no other reading material or previous notes (usually) and no communicating with anyone or anything. Cool. Just like real life? No, anything but for the majority of us. When we take away the opportunity to look things up or research during a summative assessment what we're actually saying is you must remember things yourself and only yourself - how many 'doing' applications does that accurately represent? And if the purpose of testing isn't to show you can 'do' something then we probably need to question what it is... It's not that closed-book scenarios are totally useless, there are times when they're appropriate, but that's just not the norm so our assessments should be closer to reality.
The beauty of a portfolio is that it doesn't have to be one thing or another either. What I mean is that portfolios don't have to contain just summative type assessments, or just exams or trainer/teacher evaluated stuff, they can include self-assessed work peer-assessed and even non-assessed work. Add to that the ability for the portfolio itself to be part of the collaborative nature, they can (and the best ones usually do) include the ability to record social interactions that contribute towards the learning. You also have the opportunity to get away from purely written material too. Students should be able to include video (so easy these days to make video with mobile phones and webcams), audio, links to work, blogs, forums, websites etc etc - in fact it's not just the student, recently I saw a presentation from a Google rep which included how teachers can provide audio feedback on student's work. What about a student completing a task and taking a simple phone made video of it, with comments then added by some peers and a tutor - all done almost instantly and accessible anywhere, anytime on any device?
Portfolios are also built over time, it shouldn't be an onerous job at the end of a course to put one together, they should be built as they go with regular feedback and sharing. One of the big problems for students is that we ask them to store and study for exams that once they take they almost instantly forget. With an eportfolio not only do we build over time, but the portfolio itself becomes more than just a record of the learning, it's also a place to go back to for reference and, when done really well, something that builds beyond the time that it's assessed.
There's more great news too, you can put together an eportfolio without having to splash out on expensive systems. Lots of educational providers use Moodle and it's cousin Mahara as an open source eportfolio base. Mahara can work and doesn't cost anything for the code, but if you don't have the abilities or permissions to set up an instance it can still be costly to get implemented. One of the great free tools for achieving this is the Google suite of apps. Blogger (this tool!) provides a way of achieving this for some people, but actually the simple use of Google Drive provides an effective way to be able to build store and have collaborative interaction on your portfolio. Anyone can get a free Google drive with 15 GB of shareable space, that's a pretty good instant solution that you can link directly to an LMS or website or however you want. But actually the tool is really of far less importance than the content and the communication around the portfolio.
Hey maybe the answer for you isn't building a portfolio... maybe you need knowledge check alone and the way you've been doing it is the only way. But maybe not, and if you want to design better assessments, maybe looking at the world of portfolios is worth the investment in time?
Agree, disagree, or just want to help build my portfolio (and yours!) by commenting? Feel free....