Developing further the concept of ePortfolio with the use of Semantic Web Technologies
ABSTRACT The paper deals with the issue of further developing the concept of ePortfolios in terms of semantic interoperability. Social Software and Semantic Web Technologies may enrich the traditional concepts of ePortfolios. The purpose of this contribution is to summarize current research issues and to describe basic steps needed for a knowledge based management of e-portfolios at a large scale. Specifically, it proposes the method of using an ontology driven ePortfolio-template that would allow machines to more flexibly read and re-use the ePortfolio contents. This may open up new application scenarios of ePortfolio-software for educational institutions (e.g. web-based processing of educational standards) and for enterprises (e.g. online-recruitment methods).
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Developing further the concept of ePortfolio with the use of
Semantic Web Technologies
Veronika Hornung-Prähauser, Wernher Behrendt, Motti Benari
Salzburg Research Forschungsgesellschaft
Jakob Haringerstrasse 5/3
This paper is in a series prepared for the Special Session
“ePortfolios: Technical challenges and new developments”
Paper I “ePortfolio for a Learning Society” - ePortfolio concept, trends and challenges
Paper II “ePortfolios at the heart of eLearning interoperability” – Issue(s) of organisational
and technical interoperability
Paper III: “Developing further the concept of ePortfolio with the use of Semantic Web
Technologies”: Ontology based ePortfolio templates for semantic interoperability
Key words: ePortfolio, Semantic Web Technologies,Ontologies, Knowledge
The paper deals with the issue of further developing the concept of ePortfolios in terms of
semantic interoperability. Social Software and Semantic Web Technologies may enrich the
traditional concepts of ePortfolios. The purpose of this contribution is to summarize current
research issues and to describe basic steps needed for a knowledge based management of e-
portfolios at a large scale. Specifically, it proposes the method of using an ontology driven
ePortfolio-template that would allow machines to more flexibly read and re-use the ePortfolio
contents. This may open up new application scenarios of ePortfolio-software for educational
institutions ( e.g. web-based processing of educational standards) and for enterprises (e.g.
online- recruitment methods).
ePortfolios already have a much longer tradition in the educational sector of anglo-american
countries than in mainland Europe, except UK  . However, lately both the paper based
portfolio concept and its digital version are seen as important tool supporting the learning,
assessment and presentation process of competences and skills. In technical terms, the digital
e-portfolio can be seen as an information object that uses electronic media (docs/pdf;
pictures/jpg, videos, audio-files, html) and services. ePortfolios need to be managed by either
a dedicated ePortfolio management system or by an extension to a content management
system (CMS). One can distinguish three different layers (Baker, 2005, p.4):
? The repository – all the artefacts (or links to) and reflections of the eP owner that will be
used to produce presentations
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? The presentations – all the views that are accessible, publicly or privately
? The services – all the features useful to provide support to learning, assessment etc.
(webblog, RSS Feeds)
The learner builds and maintains his/her digital repository of different files and uses it to
demonstrate competence and reflection on their learning in different domains. Having access
to their records, digital repository, feedback and reflection students can achieve a greater
understanding of their individual growth, learning and career planning. It is regarded as a
powerful tool for accreditation for prior and/or extra-curricular experiences and control over
access (see also Baker, 2005 ). The interesting issue at stake here is that while in former
years ePortfolio were produced only as simple websites, the fast changing technologies for
semantic web publishing will offer new methods and ways of creating, managing and
exploiting the collection of “Portfolio artefacts”.
In this paper the model of Knowledge Content Objects (KCO)  shall be introduced. We
will discuss whether the KCO could be a contribution to semantically enriched e-portfolio
collections. The model was developed in two recent EU projects by the research group of
Knowledge Information Systems at Salzburg Research, Austria , together with partners in
those projects (CULTOS - Cultural Units of Learning - Tools and Services and METOKIS
Methodology and Tools Infrastructure for the Creation of Knowledge Units). The KCO can
be regarded as a domain independent ordering mechanism to combine individual content
resources via meaningful relationships expressed in a knowledge model. The initial
applications were developed for educational settings and the KCO concept is at the moment
applied to different business domains. Based on our recent research we suggest that the model
may also be applicable in the world of digital portfolios and has the potential to enable more
"intelligent" use of e-portfolio software. As is the case with learning objects, the question of
re-use  needs to be asked also with respect to e-portfolios:
Can a query based on a pre-defined ePortfolio ontology (via a template)- help to
better search and re-use (public parts) of a huge number of ePortfolios? This may be
of use for example for the management of an educational institution (e.g. for
recommendation of an internship; for alumni networks)?
Is it possible to automatically match different ePortfolio types with open job
advertisement of companies, public labour offices or educational institutions
according to a pre-defined ontology and learners`profile data? How can the aspect of
“living portfolios” be taken into account?
2 The value of semantic web technologies for enriching the
method and use of ePortfolios
2.1 Understanding the research challenges of ePortfolios and semantic web
Darren Cambridge, one of the most well-known visionaries on ePortfolio technologies
proposes that with the emergence of the semantic web, a better framework for sharing and
re-using data on the web is given and only then, can ePortfolios serve as a tool for connecting
people based on interests, skills, or other criteria if presented in the right way . He points
out five major technical challenges for electronic portfolio technologies: Design, Semantics,
Factoring, Community and Decentralization. Given the purpose of this paper we concentrate
only on the challenges related to “Semantic”.
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What is meant by the “Semantic Web”?
In general the Semantic Web is regarded as a project that intends to create a universal
medium for information exchange by giving meaning (semantics), in a manner
understandable by machines, to the content of documents on the Web. Currently under the
direction of the Web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee of the World Wide Web Consortium, the
Semantic Web extends the ability of the World Wide Web through the use of standards,
markup languages and related processing tools Currently, the World Wide Web is based
primarily on documents written in HTML, a language that is useful for describing, with an
emphasis on visual presentation, a body of structured text interspersed with multimedia
objects such as images and interactive forms. However HTML has limited ability to classify
the blocks of text on a page, apart from the roles they play in a typical document's
organization and in the desired visual layout. So with semantic web technology, it should
become possible to search for a specific type of e-portfolio, or for a specific set of
demonstrated skills. Such targeted search is at present only possible in specialised databases
or with bespoke systems specialised at e-portfolio management.
The Semantic Web addresses this shortcoming, using the descriptive technologies RDF and
OWL, and the data-centric, customizable markup language XML. These technologies are
combined in order to provide descriptions that supplement or replace the content of Web
documents. Thus, content may manifest as descriptive data stored in Web-accessible
databases, or as markup within documents (particularly, in XHTML interspersed with XML,
or, more often, purely in XML, with layout/rendering cues stored separately). The machine-
readable descriptions allow content managers to add meaning to the content, thereby
facilitating automated information gathering and research by computers.
Why is it necessary in the field of ePortfolio to aim for semantic interoperability?
One of Tim Berners-Lee’s initial visions for the Semantic Web (Tim Berners-Lee, James
Hendler, Ora Lassila, The Semantic Web, Scientific American, May 2001. ) is the desired
ability for a personal digital assistant to automatically query a general practitioner’s office and
create an appointment time that works for all parties. Mapped on to the domain of ePortfolios,
this could mean that for example a search in the alumni database will automatically match
with open job adds in online job databases.
In another scenario of formal education, a college system tells the student’s tool what needs
to be included in her application portfolio, and the student’s tool knows how to use this
information to facilitate the selection and organization of materials. The student’s tool adapts
its interface to scaffold the process of reflecting on learning based on guides it requests from
the college system. The student’s tool publishes a portfolio with artifacts and reflections
mapped to competencies in a format the college system can analyze, allowing it to compare
the student’s learning with that of hundreds or thousands of other students, providing
aggregate data for use in programmatic and institutional assessment. In addition, the college’s
portfolio community server knows how to search through alumni portfolios for evidence of
team-building ability useful to our student. Future e-Portfolio tools need to represent portfolio
knowledge that both people and computers can understand (Cambridge, 2003 pp.10-16).
Imagine a student graduating at the age of 25 from university. She has registered her
portfolio at the server of the university and then moves on to her first job. Then she would
like to add the learning experience of her intern-ship at a company and her profile of the
alumni association. In the course of a professional learning career one will want to have more
than one “view” on one's profile: this means using the portfolio data for different purposes
and fill in different portfolio types with the same content. One would like to flexibly combine
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parts of one personal portfolio-view with an institutional one (e.g. education authority) and
moreover one would like to have a guarantee that updates/versions are recognised
At present, the general purpose Web design tools most commonly used to construct Portfolios
(for a list of tools see http://www.eife-l.org/portfolio/inventory/English 10092005), afford
authors a great deal of control over what a human experiences when reading their portfolio
(Barrett 2003). While it requires a significant investment of time and a relatively high level of
technical and visual skill, using tools like Photoshop, Premiere, Acrobat, Dreamweaver, and
Flash, learners can create visually and textually sophisticated representations of their learning.
However, to our knowledge none of these tools provides a mechanism for “knowledge
representation”, i.e. for expressing meaning through structures that computers can parse and
produce through reasoning over eportfolios.
Figure 1: Role of ePortfolio in a Learning Management System; Graphics adapted from Dessi N., 2004.
teacher student dialogue
SRS / MIS
record / manage
HTML, XHTML, XML
SVG, SMIL, JPEG,MPEG
2.2 Using ontologies for structuring ePortfolio collections and -processes
Tom Gruber of Stanford University has the shortest and often-cited definition: "An ontology
is a specification of a conceptualization.". Gruber then elaborates the definition as follows:
"The term is borrowed from philosophy, where an Ontology is a systematic account of Existence. For AI
systems, what "exists" is that which can be represented. When the knowledge of a domain is represented in a
declarative formalism, the set of objects that can be represented is called the universe of discourse. This set of
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objects, and the describable relationships among them, are reflected in the representational vocabulary with
which a knowledge-based program represents knowledge"1
In other words, these formal ontologies, defined as data structures of a specific knowledge
community/domain2, can serve as “guidance” for machines through the rich world of personal
competences, skills and accrediations.
The true value of ontologies when used for ePortfolios may lie in binding together relevant
parts between content and an ePortfolio ontology so that raw content is enriched with more
formal “meanings” pre-defined in a shared ontology. Enriching content is also termed as
knowledge binding which depends upon human effort to tag the content, thus making the
knowledge accessible. Key mark-up languages, such as XML, RDF and OWL are often
chosen to represent the semantics via ontologies and make them machine accessible and
How to create an ontology - what are the inputs for an ontology based ePortfolio template?
Given our definition from above for a formal ontology, we need to relate the concepts which
are commonly known and used by humans when talking about e-portfolios, to a formal
representation of these terms. Such a representation is given to us by a so-called upper
ontology (some prefer the expression of "foundational" ontology which indicates the need for
basic representational primitives such as time, space, events, actors and roles). This process is
called ontology alignment: our private ontology is made compatible with a more
comprehensive or more basic ontology. Once this is done we can in principle, start adding
content to our database and we can semantically annotate that content by using the ontology
terms defined. However, this would have a price: we now have to build an application
"around" our specific ontology, so that information items can be retrieved much in the same
way as one queries a relational database. With the KCO we have provided a generic content
and knowledge item, for which many basic mechanisms are already pre-defined and therefore,
we suggest that taking the extra modelling effort is probably worth doing.
2.2.1 A taxonomy of e-portfolios
The EPPIC research group on ePortfolios categorize the different types of eportfolios
according to its didactical purposes6. Four common ones are distinguished below.
• Assessment portfolios: Portfolios used for assessment purposes only are usually
organized around items such as the candidates’ products, evaluations, photographs
• Showcase portfolios: When persons compiling a portfolio are free to determine the
content of their portfolios, they most often tend to display examples of their best
work or evaluations of that work. Such portfolios are usually referred to as
showcase portfolios and resemble those compiled by artists and architects (e.g.
1 Tom Gruber, http://www-ksl.stanford.edu/kst/what-is-an-ontology.html (last visited, September 2005)
2 In information science, an ontology is the product of an attempt to formulate an exhaustive and rigorous
conceptual schema about a domain. An ontology is typically a hierarchical data structure containing all the
relevant entities and their relationships and rules within that domain (e.g., a domain ontology). The computer
science usage of the term ontology is derived from the much older usage of the term ontology in philosophy.