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Using Design Thinking to Bridge Theory and Practice with Digital Portfolios

By Beth Holland — August 14, 2015 5 min read
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In graduate school, I took a course on the synthesis of theory, design, and practice. We explored case studies and educational programs through three separate lenses: that of the researcher (theory), the instructional designer (design), and the classroom teacher (practice). The premise behind the course was that oftentimes, a disconnect exists between these three parties. For example, a new tool may be designed with excellent pedagogy in mind, however it could be too complex for practical classroom application.

As I began designing a digital portfolios workshop this summer, I reflected on the lessons learned in that course. The objective of our two-day workshop was to “formulate an understanding of the ways in which students can incorporate digital portfolios as a means to curate artifacts as evidence of their learning and reflect on not only what they have learned but also how and why.” From a theoretical perspective, I wanted to focus on developing Essential Questions, engaging in Reflection, and encouraging participants to consider How they could have their students think critically about their learning. Previously, I wrote an Edutopia post on Digital Portfolios: The Art of Reflection. As a result, I had a grandiose vision of spending the entire two days of my workshop engaging in “Understanding by Design” as a guiding principle. However, when I considered the realities of this workshop, I realized that my plan would fail.

Participants would want hands-on, tangible experience with a number of technologies to actually accomplish their goal of designing digital portfolios. Essentially, I had a design challenge, so with that in mind I decided to use Design Thinking as an organizing principle. We would incorporate the three main tenets—empathy, ideate, and prototype—as a means to consider the theory, design, and practice of digital portfolios.

Stage 1 - Empathy

The first stage requires the designer to consider the end user of the product, lesson, or experience. In this case, I had to consider the needs and desires of my participants while, at the same time, encouraging them to think about those of their own students. Our ultimate objective was to identify a portfolio platform and process that would encourage students to think about not only what they learned, but also how they learned it, and why. In order to do that, we had to consider their individual learning needs as well as the available technologies.

In the past, when teaching the concept of digital portfolios, teachers often commented to me that their students didn’t “know how to reflect.” Empathy encouraged me to offer a tangible solution, so I incorporated visible thinking routines throughout the workshop and modeled how they could be used with similar activities. For example, while asking participants to read a series of articles, I asked them to use the routine of see-think-wonder.


  1. What do you see that you want to remember or possibly use later?
  2. What do you think about the concepts and perspectives?
  3. What does it make you wonder as you consider your own class and curriculum?

On Day Two, I used connect-extend-challenge as a warm up activity via a teacher-paced Socrative quiz.


  • How were the ideas and information from yesterday CONNECTED to what you already knew?
  • What new ideas did you get that EXTENDED or pushed your thinking in new directions?
  • What is still CHALLENGING or confusing for you to get your mind around? What questions, wonderings or puzzles do you now have?

By incorporating these strategies, participants could see how reflection might become part of the overall process while simultaneously gaining a set of tools that they could then use to support their students’ reflection.

Stage 2 - Ideate

Throughout the workshop, I stressed that one of our goals was to develop new ideas and discover what may be possible. Technically, during this stage, the goal is to brainstorm as many ideas as possible to then actually test out. However, in this workshop, my participants needed me to provide the tools and options in order to guide their thinking. Rather than seeing the Ideate stage as the mechanism to generate ideas to later design and prototype, we actually used it as a way to extend our thinking about the technologies and concepts. After completing a set of challenges with each tool or app, participants shared links to their work on a Padlet wall and then brainstormed potential applications. This iterative cycle allowed participants to constantly reexamine the possibilities within the structure that I provided.

Stage 3 - Prototype

By using the term prototype to describe how participants would approach each tool or app, they were able to examine each technology more critically as they never felt forced to consider it a solution. By using a series of challenges, they could test out concepts, platforms, and strategies with the goal of discovering possibilities rather than the pressure of creating a completed product. To provide some structure for their exploration, I divided the workshop into four prototyping experiments:



    1. Google Sites - We shared one common tool so that we had a benchmark product that we could refer back to. While some teachers saw this as an immediate solution, others did not.
    2. Alternative Website Tools - While we provided suggestions for alternative tools - Kidblog and Tackk - participants could explore any other tool that fit the criteria of being “website-like.” At this stage, elements of choice came into play as participants could prototype with any of the available tools, their school LMS, or even go back to their original Google Site.
    3. Curation Tools - As we dove deeper into the concepts of curation, reflection, and publishing, it became obvious that students may not create a single digital portfolio, but almost a portfolio of portfolios. For that reason, we prototyped a number of different tools such, as Padlet and Book Creator, that could curate content and be incorporated with any of the previous web site tools.
    4. Documenting Process - Throughout the two days, we discussed the need for both progress as well as performance portfolios. Students might leverage one set of tools to reflect throughout the process of learning and then something else to display the final product. To make this concept tangible, participants used ThingLink to document all that they had created in a visual format (illustrated below).

The Synthesis of Theory, Design and Practice

Over our two day workshop, we wrestled with three essential questions:


  • What does “reflection” look like?
  • How do we curate learning artifacts in a meaningful way such that we encourage their revisiting?
  • How do we teach students to uncover how they learn?

Despite my initial concerns about bridging theory and practice, by engaging in design thinking as a workshop framework, the ideas and concepts came together in a logical and actionable way.

For regular updates, please follow me on Twitter (@brholland). You can also view my resume and other articles at brholland.wordpress.com.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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