Interactive records help students and universities to keep tabs on study progress and potential employers to see who has the skills for the job.
Alison Utley investigates
With some 17 per cent of students failing to complete their studies, the dropout rate out is one of the most urgent problems facing higher education. Yet, despite considerable effort and much soul-searching across the sector, a solution has yet to emerge that has had any serious impact on the disappointing figures.
A promising new approach is being investigated by the Joint Information Systems Committee, which is looking into the possibility of using "e-portfolios" - electronic records of achievement - to encourage students to stay the course.
E-portfolios allow students to take records of achievement with them from school to college and university, and then on to work. The idea is that they provide a way for students to show what they have learnt, both formally and informally, in a tailored way that can suit different needs.
Sarah Davies, an e-learning programme manager at Jisc, says that students'
reflections on what they had done were crucial to the idea of lifelong learning. She said that students needed to get into a habit of demonstrating the skills, knowledge and achievement that they had built up during their unique learning journeys, and one of the functions of e-portfolios was to support this kind of activity.
"Successful lifelong and personalised learning policy requires learners to be able to (electronically) develop, record, repurpose and transfer a wide range of information about themselves as they progress through different levels and episodes of learning, training and employment," she says.
E-portfolios could be read by higher education admissions tutors before they made their selections. Tutors would know much more about candidates and be less likely to accept them on to unsuitable courses.
"There are a number of ways we believe e-portfolios will help retain students, but they could be particularly useful at the start of their higher education," Davies says. "If we can be more sure that students are applying for an appropriate course, then that alone can make a big difference to how they get on," she says.
E-portfolios could also flag up an individual's needs before problems become insurmountable. "We hope to improve student retention by using e-portfolios to alert tutors to an individual student's particular learning needs, so that tutors are not starting from scratch with every new student," Ms Davies says. "Anecdotally, this can make a big difference to how they settle in during the early weeks of a course."
The e-portfolio can become a kind of CV with links, so that a student can highlight achievements that are relevant to an application, whether to higher education or the job market.
Evidence is already showing that e-portfolios can support student progression and retention. A Jisc project in Bradford has reported how building up an e-portfolio allowed one student to get into medical school from a school that had never before sent a student there.
At the University of Central Lancashire, the "File-pass" project has been examining the use of e-portfolios with groups of learners who are isolated in various ways. The project team wanted to discover whether an e-portfolio could be used independently by learners who were finding it difficult to engage with the idea of lifelong learning. Now, almost three years down the line, it is clear that with close tutor support, the promised benefits of helping to engage learners with the concept of reflection are real.
"These benefits are not confined to groups we might traditionally associate with the ability to reflect and plan their development," says project leader Paul Mahoney of Uclan. "For a worthwhile proportion of learners, an e-portfolio helps them to recognise, record and plan their own achievements."
He adds that users are approaching their e-portfolios in ever more sophisticated ways. "It has become clear that there is a range of academic activities for which e-portfolios can act as a supporting technology when introduced in a holistic manner."
Other e-portfolio projects are continuing in higher and further education at clusters of institutions centring on Nottingham and Paisley universities to try to understand the range of needs associated with different study patterns and recruitment regimes.
The technical teams within the project have concentrated on the difficulties of passing segments of learner data between institutions.
After considering a number of approaches, they have generated a system called UKleap (UK lifelong learner information profile) for exporting data.
If the teams are successful and their model becomes accepted, e-portfolios will ultimately inform students' study and career choices while offering universities, colleges and employers a means of assessing their achievements both during and between courses.