Skip to main content

2012 Action research project - To compare ethical issues that exist in various disciplines, and associated procedures/guidelines, with documented perspectives from other contexts in order to better inform university practices around #eportfolio use. Unpublished paper.

The following is an Action Research Project conducted as part of a Master of Higher Education.

A national project emerged from these ideas through the Austalian ePortfolio Community of Practice, ePortfolios Australia:

Downer, Terri & Kirby, Misty & Slade, Christine & Fisher, Marie & Brown Wilson, Christine & Nuessler, Shane. (2018). Digital Ethics and the Use of ePortfolio: A Scoping Review of the Literature. 8. 115-125. 
Please contact the lead authors if you are interested in joining the project.

"To compare ethical issues that exist in various disciplines, and associated procedures/guidelines, with documented perspectives from other contexts in order to better inform university practices around eportfolio use" 
This report contains:

Acknowledgements 1
Abstract 1
Purpose and context of the project 1
Literature Review 2
Project methods and rationale 5
Presentation and evaluation of project outcomes 8
Implications of the outcomes for change in practice 10
Design of the inquiry for the next iteration 11

References 11


The author wishes to acknowledge the input, mentorship, support and expertise of Dr Coralie McCormack, Teaching and Learning Centre, University of Canberra.


This project attempts to understand the ethical issues involved in the teaching and learning process as they relate to the use of e-Portfolios in assessment. In this context students are asked to provide various kinds of evidence against numerous criteria given to them and are essentially being asked to provide artefacts by the university. We seek to understand the contexts in which this happens, and what issues if any the university should be aware of and/or be proactive in managing. Data were gathered from literature and focused interviews. The report concludes that although existing ethical frameworks and guidelines provide a solid foundation for the future they will need updating to cater for digital mediums and user generated content. 

Purpose and context of the project

This initial phase of the project is a discovery phase; it is designed to "To compare ethical issues that exist in various disciplines, and associated procedures/guidelines, with documented perspectives from other contexts in order to better inform university practices." 
The project could be considered a change management project if the university needs to change its approaches to e-Portfolio use in order to avoid and/or contend with ethical issues. 
The project purpose is to identify and understand the different perspectives of ethical issues in various disciplines to help determine the different issues and guidelines that need to be developed for pre-empting and dealing with ethical issues in e-Portfolio based assessment. For example the project will approach a small number of academic staff seeking volunteers who are known publicly to be using portfolios in order to identify and understand their context and what ethical issues are perceived to be relevant to them regarding the themes contained in this report.
Current guidelines and frameworks in use today may not account for the kinds of ethical issues that the use of e-Portfolios will raise now and in the future. Therefore another purpose of this project is to identify shortcomings, if they exist, in the guidelines presently being used by staff and students.
Relevance of this research to authentic context/current challenges
This research is opportune and pertinent because there are pockets of people adopting e-Portfolios for units and courses at the University of Canberra in various disciplines, particularly professional practice disciplines. Since 2011 adoption is showing strong growth, with 1500 new students planned to be using e-Portfolios as part of their coursework and placements in Health and Education in 2013.
University of Canberra presently has two major disciplines with large yearly intake, Teacher Education and Nursing and Midwifery that are currently adopting e-portfolios across entire courses. Adoption of e-Portfolio practice is also growing in arts and design. Each of these disciplines has there own form of traditional paper based portfolio approach, which is of course is well understood. e-Portfolios present new challenges due to their facilitation and promotion of participatory cultures and student created digital media of any kind. Due to the currency of this early e-Portfolio adoption at the University of Canberra this project will be able to provide detailed before and after experiences. 

Literature Review

In this discovery phase we will review existing and widely validated ethical guideline frameworks. The purpose of the review is to identify contexts and guidelines that might apply to the disciplinary contexts being explored by the research, and to identify deficiencies with current UC policy. Included are ethics policies from the University of Canberra, as well as ethical frameworks used in evaluation of teaching. Other relevant literature includes UC policies relating to the privacy act and copyright act. Other contexts will be explored in future iterations in order to identify if they cover issues not already identified in this study. 
  • the right and wrong in conduct (Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. 2006a). 
  • not enforceable as with law but giving guidance to staff and students regarding their professional responsibilities (University of Canberra, 2008). 
  • general guidelines, ideals or expectations (3M National Teaching Fellowships, 2009).
Ethical guidelines:
  • guidelines for right and wrong in a particular context helping to raise awareness, stimulate discussion, and help people recognise and resolve particular ethical issues (Australasian Evaluation Society Inc., 2006a).
  • to describe ways in which academic freedom can be exercised in a responsible manner. (3M National Teaching Fellowships, 2009).

Protecting rights/dignity

This theme was identified across the guidelines developed by the Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a), University of Canberra. (2008). (A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra). According to AES Inc. guidelines (2006a) "Account should be taken of the potential effects of differences and inequalities in society related to race, age, gender, sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, religion, socio-economic or ethnic background". A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra (2008) asks staff to treat students, colleagues and members of the public with courtesy, and with respect for their rights, duties and aspirations. These codes and guidelines could transfer equally to students as they collect and disseminate evidence of their learning.


This theme was identified in the guidelines developed by the Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a), University of Canberra. (2008). (A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra). This theme is characterised by the necessity to seek permission when making statements purporting to represent the views or authority of someone else or an institution (e.g. University of Canberra) that may reasonably be expected to become public. (UC, 2008). When gathering evidence those doing so should advise subjects and relevant parties of the purpose of the evidence and who has asked them to collect it and seek permission where required (adapted from AES Inc. (2006a). Publication and release of information (AES Inc, 2006a).


This theme was identified across the guidelines developed by the Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a). This theme relates to obtaining consent from those who are subjects within the evidence being collected. They should be informed of what information is being recorded about them, how it will be used, and the likely risks and benefits arising from their participation in the evidence collection. In the case of involvement of minors informed consent should also be sought from parents and guardians. (AES Inc, 2006a)


This theme was identified across the University of Canberra Copyright Guide (2012), and University of Canberra (2008) A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra. Section 4 of the UC Copyright Guide is particularly relevant to e-Portfolios as it covers copyright as it relates to content created, such as photographic evidence, but the e-Portfolio creator. Students and staff need to be aware of copyright protection over their own work, especially when making their e-Portfolios open access. Ownership of materials (AES INC. 2006A).


This theme was identified across the guidelines developed by the Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a), 3M National Teaching Fellowships. (2009). The issues explored under this theme cover traditional issues such as leaving graded papers outside an office door, passing grades back to the student only (3M National Teaching Fellowships, 2009), or abiding by arrangements for storage and disposal of records (AES Inc, 2006a). University of Canberra - Personal Information and Privacy guidelines (2008) covers principles in relation to the collection, storage, use and dissemination of personal information. These characteristics are related to aspects of various themes identified above and are pertinent to the nature of digital portfolios. As students are gathering evidence of their learning the collection, storage and dissemination of evidence, are likely to include personal information either due to the nature of the task set by academic staff or due to students sharing recommendations from others as part of their CV, etc and are easily shared and replicated.

Reporting of problems/serious wrong doing

This theme was identified across the guidelines developed by the Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a), University of Canberra. (2008). (A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra).  Discovery of criminal activity or potential activity or other serious harm or wrong doing needs results in a legal and ethical responsibility to reduce or avoid further harm or wrong doing and could involve reporting the discovery to authorities (AES Inc., 2006a). This issue applies in many contexts, such as when students are placed in schools or hospitals as part of their professional practice development.

Future Security

Identified by (AES Inc, 2006a) this theme is characterised by subsequent use of information.  This may be for purposes and contexts different from those for which the information was originally collected.
In summary, many of the guidelines reviewed here identify themes that in principle would provide a basis for ethical guidelines around e-Portfolio practice. The issues identified by the existing guidelines mostly deal with traditional forms of communication and forms of interaction in teaching and learning. For the purposes of this report the term "traditional" is defined as predating the contemporary use of digital spaces and tools for communication and interaction such as email, SMS, Learning Management Systems for handling assessment items and grades, forums, blogs, wikis, e-Portfolios etc.). 

Project methods and rationale

Research Aim and alignment with appropriate methodology:

As stated in the research proposal a primary goal of the research project is to compare the university context with external contexts, in large part to identify potential ethical issues that our staff haven't yet identified. This would not be possible without understanding the contexts of the disciplines that are using e-Portfolios.

Participants will remain anonymous in the research report and any quotes used to evidence themes will be de-identified. The report produced as a result of this discovery phase will be provided only to the course convener of the Master of Higher Education for whom this project is being conducted, and the recommendations of the report will be provided to Director, Teaching and Learning Centre.

We need a methodology that can elicit the context of the academic and their use of e-portfolios, and within these contexts for ethical issues to bubble to the surface. We will need to be able to augment the broad open-ended questions with specific questions, about ethics for example, just in case the participant doesn't provide this information in their response to the contextual questions.

We have some understanding of the individual elements of assessment, e-Portfolios and ethics but need to further our understanding of these things in disciplinary specific contexts, such as what the implementation of assessment, e-Portfolios and ethics looks like in these disciplines.
In terms of finding out more about context in relation to ethical issues and assessment in particular, we will need an opportunity to find out more about:
  • Participants use of portfolio practices in general, past present and future.
  • The reasons why ethical issues are perceived as issues.
  • What participants mean by "portfolio".
  • What participants mean by "e-portfolio".
  • What participants mean by "learning and teaching".
  • What participants mean by "assessment".
  • What "ethical considerations in a digital context" means for each participant.
In making a decision on methodology we first evaluated the purposes of questionnaires and interviews.

Questionnaires: Questionnaires often result in predictable responses. They can be useful for reporting purposes when a quantitative picture is required. We seek to go beyond reporting perceptions of ethical issues to understand the issues and the contexts in which they exist. A questionnaire would not provide this depth of understanding about peoples’ experiences.
Interviews: Interviews provide us with the same things as questionnaires but also deliver the surprising and unknown (depending on interview design). According to Judith Bell, in her book "Doing Your Research Project", this approach provides a loose structure to ensure all topics are covered. It allows the respondents to talk about what is of central significance to them, but having some loose structure ensures all topics crucial to the study are covered. This approach eliminates some of the issues associated with unstructured interviews. Further, establishing an interview framework in advance greatly simplifies recording and analysis, which is particularly important time limited studies such as this one.

Interview Method Design

From the various types of interview methods available this project will be using the guided interview method. This method will provide for shorter analysis times that suit the tight 6 month constraint for this project. This method is also appropriate for an early career researcher in that it provides barriers and guides during the interview to help keep it relevant. At the same time this method provides in depth discussion and therefore will further our understanding of the topics.
For the guided interview we have chosen to ask about four main topics about the educational contexts in which e-portfolios are used, advantages, issues and limitations, challenges of the digital space/digital media. Follow up questions and probes will be used when necessary.
One of the aims of this design is to provide context and so help interpret the ethical issues suggested by staff. To do this we will ask participants to:
  1. Tell us about your context for use of e-Portfolios. (past and current context)
  2. What you think the advantages are of using e-Portfolios for assessment? (ask to give some specific examples of these advantages in action in their context)
  3. Tell us about any limitations or problems you had to solve when using e-Portfolios for assessment. (Start to identify ethical issues, ask for examples of problem and solution).
  4. In the digital space what new challenges do you perceive might arise in the future in relation to e-Portfolios. (Ask for a practical example of the challenges and resolutions.)
Issues covered in the preliminary conversation before interview:
  • Purpose of the research project - to fulfil assessment requirement for my Master of Higher Education course.
  • That is phase of the project is a discovery phase, seeking to identify if there is opportunity for further research.
  • That the results will for part of a report.
  • That we have permission to record participants.
  • That we will not be transcribing the conversation but listening for and documenting key themes and phrases, and subsequently extracting de-identified quotes.
  • Responses will be anonymous 
  • Participants will receive a copy of the report before submission for assessment to make sure quotes are accurate and have been used correctly while remaining anonymous.
  • Has the participant any questions prior to beginning the interview.
  • Participants were notified when I was commencing the recording.

From the two interviews conducted in early November the following themes around ethical issues have been identified (each is accompanied by one or more quotes supporting the theme);

  • Students use of their own university ID's or real names in public online spaces.
  • Students use of supervisor names, school names, etc. in documents, case studies, and other media but then re-using these artefacts for other purposes in the future or making previously privately held content public.
  • Documents or reports that contain names of others being made public without their knowledge
  • Staff being able to identify them selves in only posts and forums.
  • Staff naming them selves when responding to public blogs, appearing to represent the university.
  • Reports written for students by others such as mentors or placement officers may be used as evidence in other contexts in the future. These reports may include confidential or personal information.
  • Students reflections can be personal and open and include many identifiers relating to people or places, raising ethical issues if these reflections were to become public.
  • Communications used as evidence, such as for connections with community, may in the future make their way to wider and unintended audiences for even more purposes.
  • Content is infinitely reproducible.

They are given a lesson on Internet fraud and identity theft. I ask them to use an avatar name...and don't use a student ID, don't use your actual name. (Interview, 07 November 2012, Participant 1)
Students sometime use as evidence their prac report, which involves the name of the school but also the name of the person who wrote the prac report...was it given to them on the understanding that it might appear publicly somewhere? (Interview, 08 November 2012, Participant 2)
  • Student generated content needs appropriate licensing at time of upload
  • Students need to be aware of rights over their own content
  • Using other peoples works requires us to attribute the work of others appropriately
Everything we do is properly licensed, that’s part of the process is actually making sure that everything that goes on that server, who ever puts it up has to be aware that they could be sued. (Interview, 07 November 2012, Participant 1)
Protecting rights/dignity/digital citizenship
  • Following netiquette guidelines
  • Treating others with respect
  • Using appropriate language 
  • Content needs to be flagged with age appropriateness
  • Evidence may include information that needs to be de-identified
    • Pieces of work on the wall
    • Pixelate faces
    • Pixelate school branding on shirts
    • Verbal identification of names or people, organizations etc.
They are getting exposed to a digital community of practice...and digital citizenry, how to behave online in a respectful manner. (Interview, 07 November 2012, Participant 1)
How do you pixelate kids faces, or how to you blank them out or how do you make sure the schools name is not showing on their school shirts, how do you blank out names that are on pieces of work up on the wall. (Interview, 08 November 2012, Participant 2)

  • Students are required to obtain signed consent for from parents to capture video/images of minors.

They [students] need to show evidence of working with small diverse groups...some of them did get specific and signed permission from the parents. (Interview, 08 November 2012, Participant 2)

  • Evidence that is ok in one context may not ethically or legally be re-usable in another context.
Something you can do in one context that's acceptable [e.g. a situational analysis for a unit] you can no longer use in a new context because it's going to be much more public. (Interview, 08 November 2012, Participant 2)
Future Security
  • Managing risk to students.
  • Risk arising from students re-using evidence for multiple contexts and purposes over time.

In the public domain they [students] became liable for their own plagiarism...Every time they uploaded a piece of work they had to choose a license...The real paradigm in media is to use other peoples work but with proper attribution and licensing. (Interview, 07 November 2012, Participant 1)

Presentation and evaluation of project outcomes

Project Outcomes
At this stage we bring the faculty contexts and external contexts together. This stage will help determine if the participants of the interviews have identified all the issue and solutions that may be relevant to their use of e-Portfolios. In the case that they have one of the primary outcomes of this project will be set of guidelines that augments the issues they have identified with issues and procedures they have not yet identified.

Comparison of themes identified in literature and interviews.
Storage, dissemination and disposal of records. Private information being given public exposure. Subsequent use of information.
Existing guidelines focus on paper-based records, whereas the interviewee’s focus was on digital mediums and spaces in which content is easily and infinitely reproducible and can be instantaneously circulated to a worldwide audience.
Intellectual Property/Copyright
Students and staff need to be aware of copyright protection over their own work.
Students and staff need to apply appropriate licensing when uploading content they create.  
Protecting rights/dignity/digital citizenship
Taking into account of potential effects and inequalities in society related to race, gender, sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, religion, socio-economic or ethnic background. To be courteous and respect each other’s rights, duties and aspirations.
Students use of netiquette, flagging user generated content with age appropriateness labels, de-identifying multimedia, and seeking permission to record video/audio.
Staff seeking permission from subjects and relevant parties when gathering evidence.
Students seeking permission/consent.

Existing guidelines identify that subjects should be informed of what information is being recorded about them, how it will be used, and the likely risks and benefits arising from their participation in the evidence collection.
Reporting of problems/serious wrong doing

Existing guidelines cover ethical and legal obligations students have in reporting issues that exist in the contexts they are placed in, e.g. relating to minors etc.
Evidence that is ethically sound for one purpose and context may not be ethically used for a different purpose/context.

Future Security
Information being collected for one purpose/context and being used for other purposes/contexts in the future.
Managing risk to students.
Evaluation of project Outcomes
Regarding the existing guidelines, the outcomes show that existing guidelines a) do not cover variations of existing ethical issues emerging as a result of the use of digital media and spaces, b) existing ethical guidelines, apart from copyright guidelines, are mostly written for staff as the audience whereas student guidelines are needed and c) copyright guidelines primarily cover use of third party materials, whereas evidenced based content used in e-Portfolios will largely be captured/created by the students using accessible technology such as camera and microphone equipped mobile devices.
Either new ethical guidelines for staff and student use of e-Portfolios need writing, or existing guidelines that cover the identified themes need to be amended to include ethical issues relating to participatory cultures (Jenkins, 2009), digital media, and user-created content (OECD, 2007). The guidelines need to be designed for both staff and student audiences.
An unexpected outcome is that, while the project sought only to explore ethical issues, legal issues were also identified. For some issues the boundary between being ethical or legal can be quite blurry, while other issues are obviously addressed by law and others not. The definition of "ethical" presented in this report the right and wrong in conduct not enforceable as with law. The author recommends that guidelines developed for students and staff need to include both ethical and legal issues, and distinguish between or identify which issues are ethical and which have legal implications so that students can be appropriately prepared and informed. In addition the findings show uncertainty as to who is legally liable for breaches in ethics or law when it is the university that has requested that students collect the evidence.
An analysis of the above comparison reveals that the differences essentially relate to:
  • Increased risk associated with online environments due to their potentially massive audience, infinite reproducibility, and instantaneous access.
  • Evidence is being gathered as a unit/course requirement.
  • Students are creating their own content.
  • Digital media are readily shared and replicated on a massive scale.
  • Existing guidelines are primarily written for staff, guidelines for students are needed.

Implications of the outcomes for change in practice

Outcomes of this project present an opportunity to develop staff in this critical area of ethics at is relates to assessment and digital portfolios. The small sample of staff represented by this pilot project has shown that people who have been using portfolios for 1 to 3 years are likely to have encountered and thought about various ethical issues, and yet they continue to encounter issues they had not anticipated. It could be assumed that staff who have not used digital portfolios before are not likely to have anticipated all of the ethical issues. If this assumption proves correct the approach to training needs to incorporate a detailed ethics component because results would indicate that even people using digital portfolios are not aware of all the issues. 
In the short term the results of this project will be used when having conversations with faculty about their plans to use e-Portfolios. Whereas before, ethical issues were seen as an add-on to the pedagogical and technical discussion, ethics will now be considered as a natural consideration in discussions around using e-Portfolios in curriculum. 
The project outcomes may also prove to be part of a risk mitigation strategy for the University of Canberra. This report shows that existing guidelines identified in this report have gaps when it comes to the ethical issues e-Portfolios raise, due primarily but not limited to their digital nature. Though this project has not developed guidelines as an outcome, it does provide a solid foundation for developing guidelines for ethical considerations the use of e-Portfolios in assessment in future iterations. It also shows that the university should investigate it's own responsibilities and legal implications that may arise from asking students to gather evidence from professional and personal contexts.

Design of the inquiry for the next iteration

Faculty based teams will be asked to volunteer to develop guidelines from the issues identified from phase 1. These guidelines will be augmented by any generic guidelines that can be taken from a review of participatory and digital media literature. 

The literature review in the next phase will be designed to investigate a wider diversity of ethical guidelines and frameworks. Literature and frameworks that explore participatory cultures and digital media will be examined in order to identify and understand general frameworks and guidelines that can be applied across all disciplines for example the work by Henry Jenkins (2009) on confronting the challenges of participatory culture.
The research aspect of the next phase will undertake the implementation and evaluation of these guidelines in a unit, or course, depending on resources and time constraints. Each discipline can focus their perspectives on the issues and possible solutions that are specific to their context. A comparison will then be made against the experiences across all faculties/disciplines to draw out commonalities and differences, the results of which may further inform the individual disciplinary guidelines.
In addition, in order to report on the full range of ethical perspectives around digital portfolios and assessment the project needs to incorporate university level enquiry because people at different levels are likely to have different perspectives.


3M National Teaching Fellowships. (2009). Ethical Principles in University Teaching. Available at:

Australasian Evaluation Society Inc. (2006a). Guidelines for the ethical conduct of evaluations. Available at:
Bell, J. (2010). Doing Your Research Project (5th Edition). Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT Press. Retrieved from
OECD (2007), Participative Web and User-Created Content: Web 2.0, Wikis and Social Networking, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/9789264037472-en
University of Canberra. (2012). Personal Information and Privacy. Available at 
University of Canberra. (2012). Copyright Guide. Available at
University of Canberra. (2008). A Code of Professional Ethics for Staff at the University of Canberra. Available at


Popular posts from this blog

What does 2021 hold for student #learningexperience at my university

"Handwriting Text E-Learning Loading. Concept meaning Forecasting the future event"   by  is licensed under  CC BY 2.0 This year we have a unique opportunity to capitalise on what was 2020 and all the impacts it had on learning and teaching.  Staff ICT literacy levels and confidence increased because they had to use digital tools for teaching, there was no choice. This situation was complicated, academics of all levels of ICT literacy had to adapt. Some staff had zero experience with digital tools and were using online tools for the first time, while others are always pushing boundaries and looking for alternative tools available from central support areas. As with staff, some students have very low ICT literacy, while others blaze ahead of the curve, using the tools like pros and needing much instruction. They just work it out. Shifting this cohort of students and staff to fully online was a massive undertaking and a huge shock for everyone.  Going into 2020

University of Canberra Library adds #VR Headsets to the catalogue - on the road to immersive learning resources in #Education

In September 2018 the UC Library added VR headsets to the catalogue, available in the short loan section. Students can loan the headsets for up to 3 hours. Support for using the headsets will be limited to basic guidance, and beyond this it will be up to students to have their apps and content ready, just needing the headset to get going. Supporting this technology is difficult given the number of different phones, OS versions and apps out there giving rise to any app recommendations working on one phone and not another. For this reason support will be limited, however as our in-house knowledge grows more advice will be able to be given. A small number of headsets to start with represents a low risk investment that also allows staff to up skill in VR technology. Demo sessions and training given to Library staff has been fun and a valuable sharing activity as everyone is at different stages of familiarity. Now that a number of staff in the library have been up skilled we can begin t

Conference Notes: ACODEs AR + VR + MR (XR) = #anewreality #acodenews

#aNewReality Workshop @ Griffith University Griffith University held a 2 day Immersive Learning event where those Colleagues who manage emerging technologies, and leading practitioners from across the Australasian Landscape shared their experiences, both at an Institutional and ‘on the ground’ development levels. Some of the questions UC went in asking: What are other Higher Education Institutions are doing around Immersive Learning and Emerging Technologies?  How is XR being used to increase student engagement, retention, and learning? How does XR support online students to feel more connected and situated? What strategies and technologies are a good fit for UniCanberra? Which approaches are not only educationally effective but also scale in terms of adoption and supportable, and are equitable? How much physical investment is needed to create various content in-house, what kind of content can be created using different technologies, and what ongoing support/