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Think you’re doing digital portfolios? Think again.

At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, I have wanted to point out a misconception that some educators have regarding digital portfolios and what is facilitated in classrooms.

This post comes from the idea that by merely publishing student work online for families and a wider audience to view, that students now have a digital portfolio. This isn’t accurate. Digital portfolios are defined as “a multimedia collection of student work that provides evidence of a student’s skills and knowledge” (Niguidula, 2010). This collection is not as simple as baseball cards or dead bugs. Student work within a digital portfolio has been carefully selected by a student and teacher and is accompanied with some sort of reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting. The online space in which a digital portfolio exists matters less than the learning acquired made evident by the content.

Here are three situations in which educators may think they are doing digital portfolios but actually are not.

  • Social Media

If a teacher can get families to join a classroom Facebook page or follow a teacher-directed Twitter account, that is great. Teachers can model for students how to create a positive digital footprint and what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century. Pictures, video, and text that are shared in this way provide parents a window into the classroom. Most families also seem to like this way of staying connected with the classroom, especially if they already use that social media.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: Social media is a popular way people communicate in today’s world. But it is not a useful tool for collecting and curating important artifacts of student work. Students need more permanent digital spaces to call their own when sharing their learning. In addition, social media might have unreliable security settings and can be susceptible to hackers.

  • Home-to-School Digital Communication Tools

A number of applications that used to do one thing are now proclaiming that they also have a digital portfolio component. For example, Class Dojo, a behavior management app, allows teachers and students to share images and video with parents in addition to the points they accumulated for positive behaviors. Families can comment on what is posted and engage in a conversation about the work.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: We are getting closer here, as each student has their own account for the teacher or student to post their work. The missing component is in how it’s used. Typically, the teacher is the one posting pictures and video for parents to see. Technology providers that advertise a digital portfolio function often do not see it as an assessment tool. There is little guidance provided for students or the teacher to reflect or self-assess on their work. The work and effort are usually owned by the teacher.

  • Single Year Digital Lockers

In these situations, a teacher might actually be having students lead the digital portfolio process, including uploading their multimedia work and reflecting on it. The free version of digital portfolio tools such as FreshGrade or Seesaw is integrated into instruction. Over the course of the school year, families and the student can see how they have grown from fall to spring. This type of work can have a positive impact on learning.

Why it’s not a digital portfolio: Simply put, the student’s work disappears at the end of the school year, like cleaning out the lockers on the last day. There is no plan for maintaining past artifacts of learning from year to year. Students cannot look back on prior years to better understand their learning journey. Teachers cannot look at student work from the previous year to assess their needs for the current school year. There is no learning legacy for a student in these situations.

So what is a digital portfolio, for practical purposes? An online space that students maintain throughout their school career. It is directed by the student with guidance and support from their teachers. Students identify their best work to publish in a variety of areas that better represent who they are as a person, not just a pupil. True digital portfolios serve as a mosaic of their educational experience. It can even follow them beyond the K-12 years and serve as a professional portfolio for college applications or a job search.

Here are some ideas of what they could look like, year after year:

Of course, all of the posted artifacts of student learning are accompanied with reflection, self-assessment, and goal setting for the future. Otherwise, it’s only sharing content. Nice, but not necessary for students’ education.


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My new book, Digital Portfolios in the Classroom: Showcasing and Assessing Student Work, is now available for pre-order through ASCD! Click on the link below for more information and read the first chapter:

http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Books/Overview/Digital-Portfolios-in-the-Classroom.aspx

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An Interview with Chalkup: Classroom Technology and Digital Portfolios

I recently connected with Chalkup to talk about classroom technology and how I’ve seen digital portfolios win in classrooms.

Big picture, what’s your philosophy on classroom technology?

Classroom technology, especially mobile and cloud-based, is still in its infancy. It seems like these devices and apps have been around for a long time, but it really has been only a couple of years. So, my philosophy right now is to select one or two things to try regarding technology integration in classrooms, and then do it really well. Introduce it to students, provide lots of modeling and guidance, share your celebrations and frustrations with colleagues, and then reflect on and refine your practice.

With everything being so new, just trying something out and modeling the innovation process is a benefit not only to you, but everyone around you and connected with you. They learn from your learning.

How does collaboration play a role in integrating classroom technology?

Collaboration is critical. It is not feasible to have one or two technology experts in a school to solve all of the technology integration issues that come up. Schools have to build “techpertise” within everyone in the building.

When the technology fails (and it will), who can I count on to help me in a pinch? Knowing who those go-to people are and how they can help you is a much more reliable model of technology support than the old system of calling the tech cadre when things go south.

Explain what digital portfolios are and how they benefit learning.

I define digital portfolios as online compilations of learning artifacts that allow students to represent their learning and reflect on their knowledge, skills, and dispositions in unique and differentiated ways. Whew – a long definition!

Here’s a concrete example: Think about a paper and pencil test you might have just given in class. Did it give each and every child in your room reasonable access to show what they know and are able to do? If not, then we need to rethink how that assessment could allow for all of our students to be successful. A digital portfolio can facilitate and house a variety of ways for learning to be assessed.

Instead of the paper and pencil test, could you record a student speaking the answers? This might not only help that student have equal access to conveying their understanding, it might actually augment the assessment process for you, the teacher, such as having no paperwork to take home. In addition, parents can also hear their child’s learning if it is shared with them through the portfolio tool, such as Evernote or FreshGrade. Rethinking how assessments are administered can have multiple benefits for those involved.

How were you first introduced to digital portfolios? What’s been your biggest success using these products in the classroom?

Our staff knew technology was coming, and we wanted to integrate these tools with thougtfulness and purpose. I learned about digital portfolios in the excellent ASCD resource Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World (2010), edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs.

After reading the related chapter by David Niguidula, a pioneer in digital portfolios, I felt like this approach to technology integration was both doable and had the potential of making a powerful impact on student learning.

Our biggest success has been viewing them as products, and not the reason we are using them.

As an elementary principal, could you tell us how digital portfolios – or other tools – help keep your school connected?

Communication is the key to building trust and developing relationships. I’ve never had a parent complain that the school is communicating too much, especially the good stuff. When the school shares student learning on a regular basis via social media, digital portfolios, and other electronic means, families can see it taking place in real time. They don’t have to wait for conferences or portfolio night. Using the tools that parents are already familiar with, such as on smartphones as well as in print, honors all preferred methods of communication. As long as we follow privacy procedures for sharing information, being connected is a win-win for everyone.

What would be one tip for teachers integrating technology for the first time?

Share your learning journey with your students. This might be the first time in the history of education where the student have just as much access to essential knowledge and skills as the teacher. Use this to your advantage. Allow kids to be the drivers of learning in your classrooms, instead of just the recipients. They will surprise you with their intuition and creativity. Just as important, move yourself to the side of the assessment process, acting more as a coach instead of the “expert” in the classroom. School is more fun when everyone is a learner.

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