blog post

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.


Theory and Practice

Beyond Technology

The medium is the message. – Marshall McLuhan

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 6.54.50 PMNew York City libraries will soon let patrons “check out the Internet” by Nancy Scola (The Washington Post, December 4, 2014)

New York City residents can now check out an Internet hotspot to use in their own homes. This normally monthly financial obligation is available to any patron with a library card and are currently enrolled in a community-based program, such as citizenship classes. This is in response to a University of Albany-SUNY study that found that “in 2011, nearly 30 percent of households in New York City were not subscribed to broadband at home”. It is part of a broader initiative by the city to close the digital divide. A related program includes turning city pay phones into WiFi hotspots.

Critical Digital Literacy Explained for Teachers (Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, December 2014)

This website highlights a framework developed by Juliet Hinrichsen and Anthony Coombs from the University of Greenwich. Their purpose: To provide a conceptual understanding of how we read in the informational/digital age.


These five domains and descriptions may be a departure from our current understanding of literacy. For example, learners need to “develop familiarity with the structures and conventions of digital media”. This standard would likely include the use of hashtags and the difference between saving and publishing. In addition, educators should understand the “issues of reputation, identity and membership within different digital contexts”.

Maryanne Wolf: Balance technology and deep reading to create biliterate children by Joan Richardson (Phi Delta Kappan, November 2014).

In this interview with literacy researcher Maryanne Wolf, Richardson investigates the current status of deep reading in the age of digital texts. She also inquires as to how educators might want to change their instructional approach. Dr. Wolf shares from her findings that reading an eBook, such as on a Kindle, does not adversely affect comprehension when compared to reading in print.

At the same time, Dr. Wolf recognizes that learners need to be taught how to select the format of text based on the purpose for reading. She highlights her own experiences in reading on a screen. “I become more like the medium: I read for speed and immediacy.” The interview is concluded by Dr. Wolf proposing a new term for the educational lexicon – “biliterate”, or the ability to successfully read both in print and online – to describe the new expectations for learners in the 21st century.

Daniel Learned ALL About Audiences Yesterday by Bill Ferriter (Center for Teaching Quality, December 11, 2014)

Bill Ferriter, a middle school teacher, shares his frustrations with regard to a series of negative comments his students received on their blog. Mr. Ferriter and his class are actively involved in sharing information about the negative affects of sugar on human health, using the hashtag #sugarkills to connect their thoughts. One commenter pointed out the possible errors in the students’ thinking, apparently unaware of the effect his negative responses had on the students. Mr. Ferriter deleted this person’s comments, and lamented on whether providing a global audience for his students is worth the risk.

The Mismeasure of Boys: Reading and Online Videogames by Constance Steinkuehler (Department of Curriculum & Instruction/Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin–Madison, July 2011)

This working paper describes a study conducted three years ago, regarding the connection between reading and videogames. Dr. Steinkeuhler points out the decline of males pursuing post-secondary degrees, as well as the increased likelihood that boys are being diagnosed with ADHD. Dr. Steinkeuhler also questions the negative perception of video games, and how many assume that this activity takes away time from boys actually reading.

Instead, “for many young people, reading is not an activity replaced by videogames, but rather it is an integral part of what it means to participate and play”.  This theory is supported by her findings, that when motivated to achieve the next level in a video game, the participants were able to read six grade levels above their current reading level. Dr. Steinkeuhler concluded this study by stating that “the findings about videogames can be viewed as one powerful solution to—rather than a cause of—the problem of adolescent boys and reading.”

Searching for trends…

I hosted my second Professional Learning Communities (PLC) Twitter chat on Thursday night. We use the hashtag #atplc, a community supported by Solution Tree, publisher of many PLC resources. Our topic for discussion: Beliefs and Values. We tried something different that night. Instead of our regular Q and A, I posted a Google Form to survey the participants on their own beliefs about PLCs. Out of seven statements, we found total agreement on one. I shared out the results to the participants, which then directed our subsequent discussion in the chat.

From the moment I shared out our beliefs survey and started watching the results, the Twitter chat stopped existing as a Twitter chat for me. It became an authentic examination of our beliefs as a community of practice. The technology faded away as I shared out the final results, read the participants’ responses, and followed up with questions that would help the discussion reach deeper levels of learning.

It is in times like these that I realize technology is more than just a tool. Just like the professor who assumed the role of a student from a previous post, I have found that technology is a context for learning and not merely another tool for instruction. The chat I just described would not have occurred without the affordances of what is possible online. To designate digital access as anything less than this may reflect a lack of experience or understanding in the possibilities. I have been guilty of this misconception in the past.

The five highlighted articles here all have one thing in common: The discussion is not about whether technology is necessary, but about how technology can best be applied to the context of learning. Sometimes this context may need help to be realized, such as allowing library patrons to check out WiFi hotspots, or exploring the effects of video games on boys’ reading comprehension. But the more technology becomes an integral part of the learning process, the less it feels like technology at all. It is often simply how we learn.

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