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How to ensure e-portfolios are a valuable resource to students’ learning

E-portfolios are increasingly replacing paper versions to record learning. Some vital issues need to be considered when introducing them into nursing education


Tim Fawns, BMM, is elearning coordinator; Karen McKenzie, DPsychol, MPhil, MA, MSc, is senior lecturer; both at School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh.


Fawns T, McKenzie K (2010) How to ensure e-portfolios are a valuable resource to students’ learning. Nursing Times; 106: 30, early online publication.

Online technology has become an increasingly important part of all types of education, including the training of student nurses.

This article outlines some of the factors that need to be considered when introducing e-portfolios into nurse education programmes and looks at the importance of taking into account such issues as ease of use, ownership, privacy, supervision and assessment.

Keywords e-portfolio, nurse education, supervision, assessment

  • This article has been double-blind peer reviewed



Practice points

  • Establish clear boundaries between what is visible to the clinical supervisor and private to the student. This will encourage students to trust the e-portfolio process and to provide more honest and open contributions.
  • Give regular feedback about student nurses’ e-portfolios to help them feel less remote from the learning and development process during their placements.
  • Allow student nurses to customise the look and feel of their e-portfolios to encourage them to be creative and give them a sense of ownership of their learning.



Studying to be a nurse can be a juggling act, having to cope with the demands of both college work and life on the wards. By compiling and recording their experiences in a portfolio, student nurses can create a powerful tool that can help them enhance both their academic performance and their practical skills.

Murray et al (2006) asserted that paper based portfolios represent a dynamic record of learning, professional development and growth. However, they are not without their limitations. Joyce (2005) and Knowles (1975) both cautioned that portfolios often rely on the assumption that the learner is self directed, self motivated, curious, and has the ability to use past life experiences and challenges as learning resources.

With the growth of online learning, more students are using e-portfolios as part of their nursing education, which several authors view as offering a wide range of additional individual, organisational and educational benefits. Murray et al (2006) noted how e-portfolios give nurses the opportunity to provide evidence of competence and knowledge acquisition; Joyce (2005) commented on their ability to encourage reflective learning and Challis (1999) highlighted how they can promote personal development planning.

But the increased use of e-learning in nursing education – as noted by Docherty et al (2005) and Tait et al (2008) - has prompted educationalists to debate its value. While authors such as Batson (2002) argued that e-portfolios have more potential to shape higher education than any other form of technology to date, others such as Kimball (2005) suggested they have been introduced too quickly, without enough attention paid to underlying educational principles. We believe that to help student nurses get the most from their e-portfolios it is important to consider several principles of good practice.

Set clear guidelines from the start

Tosh et al (2005) suggested that from the outset, students and clinical supervisors should be clear about the learning objectives and benefits of using e-portfolios. According to Williams et al (2009), this helps to avoid inconsistencies in the way they are used. Learning objectives may include encouraging and documenting critical thinking and reflective practice and providing an organised document of supervisor, peer and student feedback. Students should be given a sense of their progress, both academically and in terms of their clinical competence. The supervisor should also identify any gaps in students’ knowledge to help support their personal development and to improve course planning.

To encourage the use of e-portfolios, Murray et al (2006) advised that students should be made aware of their benefits compared to paper formats. Greenberg (2004) said these advantages include increased flexibility in the ways they can be used and who they can be shared with, while Woodward and Nanlohy (2004) suggested e-portfolios can be structured to suit students’ different learning styles.

Student nurses should be clear about the level of commitment they are expected to give with regard to contributing to their e-portfolios, to keep any confusion and resistance to them to a minimum. Supervisors need to set clear timelines that inform students when they are expected to have contributed to their portfolios, and when their work will be reviewed.

Reliability and privacy

It is important for students to understand who has access to their e-portfolios and why. This helps them to feel they can trust the process, gives them an assurance of confidentiality and ensures everyone is clear about what is visible to the supervisor and what is private to the student. Gannon et al (2001) warned that failure to clarify these issues may result in students censoring their entries.

Beetham (2005) advised that students should feel their artefacts and related data are safe, that they have control over the privacy of their information (which may include person identifiable data), and that they can access it whenever they need to. Examples of artefacts include evidence of learning and development, such as evidence of courses and workshops attended, diplomas gained and so on.

Ease of use

Roberts et al (2007) found that the most important software issue relating to the use of e-portfolios was the interface with the student. This can be a concern for those who may need to access their e-portfolio in both an academic and healthcare setting. Students may find it difficult to access some e-portfolios, which are hosted on platforms that are not recognised by NHS firewall systems.

Students may not have sufficient time during their training to learn or update their information technology skills. Jafari (2004) said it is important to ensure the e-portfolio features a simple interface that can easily incorporate content from other applications, has flexible navigation, is accessible to all students (including those with disabilities), is printer friendly and can be used with minimal assistance. Such support might include how to use a reflective log, how to upload and comment on documents and how to import content from other systems.

Students should be given troubleshooting information, technical support and online contextual help. Ideally, they should also be allowed to experiment without the risk of negatively impacting on the contents of their main e-portfolio. Both supervisors and course planners should receive training and guidance to give them a conceptual and technical understanding of the e-portfolio.

Assessment and supervision

Researchers have questioned the value of using the e-portfolio as a tool to assess nursing students. Barrett (2005) argued that the pressure to use them as assessment tools for reviewing clinical competencies is unlikely to be compatible with their role as reflective tools that support deep learning. Joyce (2005) suggested students may be reluctant to engage in honest, reflective learning if they know their expressed limitations will form part of assessment criteria.

However, more recent research by Strivens et al (2009), which reviewed the role of the e-portfolio as an assessment tool, found that respondents - a number of whom had carried out formal evaluations – gave a range of benefits relating both to student education and improved efficiency. The evaluations from students were equally positive. This work suggests that e-portfolios can be used successfully for both formative (self-reflective) and summative (formal) assessment. Batson (2002) also noted the advantages of e-portfolios in monitoring students’ learning. He suggested these portfolios allow supervisors to have a more comprehensive, dynamic and regularly updated view of how well students are progressing, which can help formative assessment.

Issenberg and McGaghie (2002) stressed the importance of ensuring that e-portfolios encourage growth, not just report or support it. They advised that the e-portfolio assessment should be constructive to promote students’ development and avoid them feeling pressured to skew artefacts, or limit reflection to those experiences that present them in a positive light.

While on placement, student nurses are based at a variety of NHS sites, which can limit their access to academic staff and leave them feeling remote from their learning and development. Garrett and Jackson (2006) suggested academic supervisors use e-portfolios to address this problem by providing students with regular feedback, letting them know they are “present” for them (even if remotely) and that their contributions are appropriate and timely. This approach may also encourage students to use their e-portfolio regularly – which Barrett (2004) pointed out is one of the main challenges to their being used effectively. To encourage regular participation supervisors should also introduce short term goals and defined review times, which will help enhance students’ sense of ownership of their learning and development.

As students become adjusted to using e-portfolios, they will begin to exert greater control over them. Barrett and Wilkerson (2004) advised that encouraging a sense of learner ownership over the e-portfolio motivates them to take part in the process and allows them to create a representation of themselves and of their journey of learning.

Beetham (2005) said that to give students a sense of ownership of their portfolios, they should be allowed to customise their look and feel. McAlpine (2005) also stressed the importance of allowing students to have control over the structure, content and privacy of the elements of their portfolio, suggesting that it allowed them to create a “narrative identity”. But both Barrett (2004) and Williams et al (2009) warned that if this control is reduced by summative assessment, students may view the e-portfolio as something being “done to them” rather than as their personally narrated story of deep learning.

Students learn by example, so it is important that they can model their own good practice on their supervisors’ own continuing development. However, in 2006, the Northern Ireland Practice and Education Council for Nursing and Midwifery found that many nurses fail to keep a personal portfolio after qualification. Williams et al (2009) argued that if students feel registered nurses view portfolios as an afterthought or a waste of time rather than as an integral part of professional practice, they may see completing them as a burden rather than a helpful part of the learning and reflective process.

Reflection, connections and collaboration

A crucial aspect of an educational portfolio is how much it can encourage students to reflect on their individual pieces of work, as well as the overall learning process. Kimball (2005) argued that e-portfolios do not enable students to incorporate their reflections about learning and development. Sutherland (2007) suggested educators overcome this difficulty by ensuring that the objectives for creating e-portfolios should be driven by theories of teaching and learning, and that the tools and methods used to create them are driven by these same objectives.

Duncan-Pitt and Sutherland (2006) asserted that reflective practice in nursing is an important part of continuing professional development and is likely to be a key factor in the decision to introduce e-portfolios. Reflections on clinical experiences could sit alongside reflections on academic learning to help identify areas students are particularly interested in or where they need further learning. These reflections could be valuable in helping educators develop new teaching materials.

For Salmon (2002), the value of the e-portfolio must be considered within the context of professional practice and should be presented as part of a range of activities that connect students to each other, allowing them to exchange ideas, construct knowledge as a group and critically appraise and generalise their learning experience.

Price (2003) said students need to be honest in how they select artefacts and in their reflections so they can clearly see their growth over time and develop a sense of progress. Kimball (2005) advised that they should select those elements from which they have learnt the most, rather than those which show them at their best. To encourage students to make the material they put in to these portfolios as honest as possible, Carney (2002) argued students should be made aware of the benefits of open reflection and they should be clear that assessment is formative. To build trust with students, supervisors should define their respective roles and that of the e-portfolio.

The reflective process should encourage students to make connections between the different elements of their learning, and Tosh et al (2005) said they should also understand the links between the learning that has occurred in the academic and clinical setting. According to Barrett (2005), if e-portfolios are to truly represent students’ journey of learning they should also contain collaborative works. Students could display excerpts of their particular contributions and attach some of the process and discussions involved in their creation. For ongoing projects, Sutherland (2007) advised artefacts may need to include “frozen” versions of students’ work at strategic points to create a timeline of growth.

Lifelong e-portfolios

As with all health professions, nurses are expected to undertake continuing professional development once they have qualified and should ideally have access to an e-portfolio throughout their professional career. Jafari (2004) argued that if students know they are able to use e-portfolios after they have qualified this gives them an additional incentive to build and maintain them.

However, if the tools to allow nurses to contribute to their e-portfolios in the long term require expensive licenses, it is likely that the only way they will be able to use them is if the academic institution continues to provide the access and storage space. This would place a financial burden on the institution, as well as requiring it to store potentially sensitive data for people who are no longer under its care. Using inexpensive or free tools may address part of this problem, but these may become obsolete or superseded by new technology.

Such restrictions may mean lifelong access will be confined to the artefacts and meta-data within the e-portfolio, rather than the e-portfolio itself. Ideally, the entire contents, structure, navigation and appearance of an e-portfolio should be easily transferrable to a different system. As this is complicated by the tendency of different e-portfolios to use different and incompatible formats and structures, students will probably need help on how to gather that information and put it into a new system. Kimball (2005) noted that this can be a difficult process, as much of the value of an e-portfolio lies not just in its artefacts, but in the links created between them and students’ learning process. So to help nurses benefit from them it is vital that any links, comments and reflections they make remain connected to their artefacts.


E-portfolios can be a valuable resource to help student nurses during their training. However, if the priority is to use them to support reflection and encourage deep learning, they should not also be used for summative assessment or accreditation. Student nurses must feel comfortable displaying honest reflections and imperfect work if they are to have a true sense of their progress.

The e-portfolio should not, therefore, be a mandatory requirement. To encourage students to use them they need to be given a sense of ownership of their learning and development. They also need regular feedback, to be made aware of what is expected from them in terms of contributing to these portfolios, and how their performance will be reviewed.

While professionally desirable, the lifelong use of e-portfolio tools is unlikely to be viable. Instead, the capacity to export information in a standard format and the provision of guidance should be used to help students transfer their accumulated artefacts and metadata to other systems.

In doing so, connections that the student has made between artefacts and reflections must be preserved as they comprise the primary value of the e-portfolio. Technology must be simple for students and supervisors to use while allowing some customisation of structure, navigation and appearance to give students a sense of ownership of their portfolio.

Training and support are essential to overcoming technical difficulties and explicit guidelines and benefits will help to give e-portfolios a sense of context and relevance within the programme of study.

If these challenges are addressed and the objectives of introducing the e-portfolios are remembered and used to drive key decisions, the resulting portfolios should help students to create a useful picture of their learning journey.


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