Friday, May 09, 2008

Characteristics of an ePortfolio exhibited by Flickr

[Warning: long post, lots of links, your mileage may vary...]

As with many posts I scribble on here, this is by no means a complete piece, but more of a starting point or junction for my musings on the subject at hand. So please be patient...

One of the biggest beefs I have with the imposition idea of ePortfolios is that, in the main, the education community is being instructed what to do in this area with precious few examples - perhaps correctly there's no definition of what an ePortfolio is but I've never seen anyone setting policy in this area get up and speak from personal experience. I haven't yet seen someone from Becta's ePortfolio in terms of their photos on flickr, their collection of links on, videos on YouTube, or similar. Normally when a target or initiative is introduced in education there's at least some background to it - either from existing practice in schools, decent academic research and there's a vague consensus about what it means. With ePortfolios, there's no such consensus and multiple definitions of what an ePortfolio might actually mean.
Now, for me, the whole issue of personal use & experience is important in what is quite a new area of work - you might like to ask yourself if those telling us what to do with an ePortfolio are well-versed in the creation, maintenance and effective use of their own portfolios? I'm not suggesting that the Stephens Lucey & Crowne should show everyone in education their holiday photos, but I'd have more confidence that an organisation like Becta understood the realities if things were more, er, real... so, if you're in a local authority or RBC and someone's pushing an ePortfolio at you, why not ask them what their personal experience of using an ePortfolio is before they start telling you what to do? With any luck they'll be able to describe how it's useful to them, if not, then you could reasonably assume they might be reading from a script...

A personal angle

I've been using Flickr for about three and a half years now, which isn't a long time, but in that time I've started to rely on it for all sorts of things - as a backup for my most cherished / best / weirdest photographs, as an image repository for events / blog posts / other significant or otherwise things to do with work, or simply just as a tool to share and modify information in a creative way. It's apparent that Flickr has a number of features which would be desirable in almost any ePortfolio system and an openness which means that functions which aren't readily available within the system can be provided, often for free, by external tools.

Flickr's ePortfolio characteristics

In summary, there are a number of features which flickr exhibits which have to be essential for any ePortfolio system:

  • tagging;
  • many ways of adding content;
  • organisation;
  • socialisation around content, including commenting and relationships between users;
  • access control for differing audiences;
  • an API which allows other tools to interact with the system and its contents;
  • some personalisation and customisation;
  • republishing and repurposing of content


So, here are some features of flickr which might resemble what an ePortfolio could and maybe should aspire to:

  • Customisation - flickr is customisable in some ways, maybe not enough in the minds of those who want a "virtual desktop", but displays basic information about the owner of the portfolio. The front page layout of an individual's portfolio of images is changeable but that's about it. Something like MySpace or Bebo allows an individual far more customisation.
  • Categorisation - images (and, recently, videos) can be organised into sets and (in the paid-for version) these sets can be further organised into collections.
  • Tagging - items (though not sets or collections) can be tagged to enable similar items from my own photostream to be easily discovered - this allows me to easily find all of my images tagged with "naace" or everyone's images tagged with "naace". I can have up to 75 tags associated with each item.
  • Comments & favo(u)rites - as a registered flickr user I can comment on any other image on the site, including some HTML tags. I can see other people's comments on any images, including my own. I can mark images I like as my favourites, which are then visible to others. I am notified when others comment on my items or mark them as a favourite. Comments can also be made on sets or collections.
  • Annotation - I can add notes on top of my items to highlight important or interesting areas and can add notes to other users' items where I have permission to do so.
  • Other Information - information about each item (when it was created, when it was uploaded (with Calendar views for each), what device or tool was used to create it, how many times it has been seen, how many times others have marked it as a favourite) is available. Where it was taken or created can also be shown via geo-tagging or on a map.
  • Contacts & relationships - I can find other people on the system and add them to my contacts. I can select some to be friends and some to be family. If I want I can allow my contacts to add tags to my items.
  • Groups - I (or anyone) can set up groups on particular themes or topics. I can invite individuals to either join a group or submit some of their items to a group. These groups can either be private or public, moderated or not. My items can belong in more than one group, up to a maximum of 60 groups (10 for a free account).
  • Access control - I can control who can see each item - it can be public (open to anyone, even those who don't have an account on flickr), visible to my flickr friends and/or flickr family, or private (viewable only by me). I can also create a number of Guest Passes to allow users who don't have accounts on flickr to see images which I have tagged to only be accessible to my friends and/or family, or even private images. If a private image of mine is is added to a group other members of that group can see and comment on it. I can also control if others can add notes and tags to my items or see the originals of any images I have uploaded.
  • Granularity - these controls can be applied to individual items, or whatever collection(s) of items I choose to create - including different audiences for different sets or collections.
  • Adding content - I can add content via browser-based upload, an installable piece of software which uploads and organises my content, via email, directly from my phone, and via a number of third party tools. I can also add content to flickr and have it automatically posted to my blog.
  • Presentation - I can create slide shows of my images - either a set, a particular tag, or simply every image I've uploaded. Flickr also offers me the HTML code to embed an individual image on another web page somewhere.

Other functions

Aside from functions within flickr which I can control, I can also authorise other web sites and online services and access other, more general, tools which use the information stored within flickr. These tools are able to do many things, so that I can:

  • Edit my images through web-based applications such as Splashup, Picnik and others. My images in flickr can be directly opened from within the application and any changes can be saved back to flickr without (necessarily) downloading a file;
  • Use my images in other services such as the collection of Flickr tools. These tools can take my original image on flickr and convert it into many things - a magazine cover, a motivational poster, a Rubik's Cube, an image in the style of David Hockney, etc. - see more in the corresponding Flickr set which accompanies this post;
  • Access the flickr tagging structure and image repository to provide the ability to browse the content within flickr without (initially) accessing its main web site, such as the Flickr Related Tag Browser or Tilt Viewer;
  • Access the meta-information associated with the items in other tools such as Spell with Flickr or the Colr Pickr;
  • Offer RSS Feeds of my photostream, a particular tag (just my images tagged with a tag or everyone's) so that the information can automatically be referenced in another site which can incorporate feeds (though this isn't possible from a set or collection);
  • Create a 'badge' highlighting my photos or particular tags which can be incorporated into any site as a HTML or Flash item enclosure.

What it can't do

Things flickr can't do or doesn't offer - among others - deliberately or otherwise:

  • Allow me to download my entire collection of images - however a third party tool such as FlickrDown or FlickrExplorer can access the Flickr API and download everything to my computer;
  • Keep detailed information about who visits my items - unless they interact with the items (by marking them as favourites, make comments, or add tags and notes);
  • integrate with other services (other than the fact that a Yahoo username is required in order to log in. However, Yahoo's recent commitment to the OpenID framework (along with Google and others) means this may become more open and allow more interoperability.

Other tools

The open nature of the information stored in my flickr account means that I can start to make things with it - using all sorts of tools to do weird, wonderful and interesting things...

But what about us?

Fortunately we've just started testing what for a long while has been my preferred option for an ePortfolio - for secondary anyway. It exhibits many of the characteristics outlined above and, while few educational tools will ever have the breadth and diversity of tools which flickr has inspired, it looks like a good start. More to follow soon... I hope.

1 comment:

  1. Only just come across this now, Ian, but thanks very much for this very thoughtful post. Not only does it help with my thinking for VLE implementation in my new school, but serves as a robust defence of why Flickr should be unblocked too!

    Now if I could only get unblocked at my current place so I can read your blog at work...