In Rob Van Nood’s classroom at the 365-student Trillium Charter School in Portland, Ore., students use iPod touches to take pictures of their work, record audio reflections about their projects, and file them into their digital portfolios with the click of a button.
Using an application called EverNote, Van Nood’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders can clip Web pages, store photos, type in notes, save screenshots, attach audio files, and even pinpoint their exact geographic location on a map. Those media resources are then sent into each student’s account, where they are filed and indexed to be recalled later.
Web 2.0 and other technology tools are making it quicker and easier than ever to create digital portfolios of student work—a method of showcasing student progress that experts say increases student engagement; promotes a continuing conversation about learning between teachers, parents, and students; and extends academic lessons beyond school walls.
“The kids are motivated knowing that their work is being documented,” says Van Nood. “It changes their attitude about their work.”
In his classroom, Van Nood also set up a scanner that transfers documents directly into students’ EverNote accounts, making it easy for students to add materials to their portfolios without teacher assistance.
For Van Nood, the use of digital portfolios was spurred by a desire to move away from traditional report cards and more toward a running discussion about student development.
“I’ve never found assessment at the end of something very helpful,” he says. “Assessment is only really beneficial for the kids if it’s immediate.”
Helen Barrett, a former professor in the college of education at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has been studying e-portfolios for 20 years.
“What the portfolio provides is something richer than just a number or a grade,” she says. “It provides a depth of understanding for both the learner and the observer.”
While assessments generally focus on what students know at a particular point in time, e-portfolios are better at showing student growth, especially in the earlier grades, says Barrett.
And Web-based e-portfolios open the door for ongoing exchanges by teachers, parents, and students, she says.
“A lot of those conversations often historically have happened in [conferences],” says Barrett. “The e-portfolio is online, so [those conversations] can happen anytime.”
Beyond Standardized Tests
Digital portfolios also offer an opportunity for students to showcase skills and kinds of intelligence that often are not measured on standardized tests, says Evangeline Harris Stefanakis, an associate professor at Boston University’s school of education.
“A lot of kids are quite bright in multiple ways, and until we use a collection of their work in a portfolio, we can’t see that, and we really misjudge them,” she says.
All applications are free or have free versions available for use.
EverNote: An application that clips Web pages, and stores images, audio, video, and screen shots. Files and indexes media for easy searchability.
Google Apps: A series of services provided by Google that can store information such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google sites.
VoiceThread: Allows users to create multimedia slideshows using images, documents, and videos. Other users can then comment using text, audio, or video.
Weebly: A platform to create free websites or blogs using a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface.
Wordpress: An open-source blogging tool and publishing platform.
Yola: A website-building platform.
Mahara: An open-source e-portfolio system created by New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Commission’s e-learning Collaborative Development Fund.
Elgg: An open-source social-networking engine that provides a framework for building social networks.
SOURCE: Digital Directions
Many colleges now accept portfolios from students in the admissions process, adding another purpose to the collection, Stefanakis says.
The Shorecrest Preparatory School, a private K-12 school in St. Petersburg, Fla., recently underwent a shift in the role of digital portfolios, says Anna Baralt, the director of technology for grades K-4 at the school.
Previously, teachers were asked to keep track of student work and put together portfolios for the students to take with them when they graduated to middle school, says Baralt. They used PowerPoint software to store the documents, and students didn’t receive the portfolios until graduation day.
Teachers soon lost interest in the labor-intensive process, and the portfolio program was almost dropped until Baralt decided to take a stab at revamping it.
Now, portfolios are created in the 2nd and 4th grades, and students are responsible for documenting their own work, Baralt says.
“It used to be teacher- and administration-driven, but now it’s a true teacher-student partnership,” she says. “The students really have a say in what they’re doing.”
The 2nd graders use a Web-based program called VoiceThread, which archives and indexes images, videos, text, and audio. Fourth graders create their own Web pages to display what they’ve learned throughout their time at Shorecrest.
“We scan writing, [and] put in pictures and short videos,” says Baralt. “The kids record themselves reading their stories.”
Baralt also added a reflection component to the portfolios. “It’s about getting the students to take ownership,” she says.
In addition to putting together a collection of their work, creating digital portfolios provides an opportunity to teach students technology skills, says Baralt, such as how to import pictures, resize images, take screen shots, or use a digital or video camera.
Getting teachers back on board with the portfolios was the most important step, Baralt says. “If you can’t get the teachers to buy in, it’s not going to happen.”
Part of the challenge of digital portfolios is the time it takes to maintain them, she says. The students receive help from teacher assistants and parent volunteers to scan in their documents, which can be time-consuming.
Getting students more involved in the process has alleviated some of the time concerns, however, and has turned the portfolios into richer learning opportunities, Baralt says.
Another challenge in implementing digital portfolios is providing enough access to technology to make them a workable option, says Connie Hendrix, the curriculum and technology integration specialist for the 650-student Francisco Middle School in San Francisco. “It’s really the dilemma for all schools right now, especially with budgets being the way they are these days,” she says.
Getting teachers comfortable with the technology is a challenge too, she says.
“There are people who get it and go with it right away, and then there are people on the other end of the spectrum who are kind of resistant for as long as they possibly can be,” says Hendrix. “Most teachers want to learn new things, but given what’s on their plate already, it’s not easy to find the time.”
The Hawaii Department of Education, which runs the 178,000-student statewide school district, hosts a platform for student e-portfolios, say Hilary Apana-McKee, the section administrator for the office of curriculum, instruction, and student support, and Anna Viggiano, an educational specialist for the system’s gifted and talented program. The department used to provide training for teachers to learn how to use digital portfolios with their students, but funding and personnel cuts have eliminated that service.
Apana-McKee and Viggiano work to provide training on a one-on-one basis for teachers who approach them about wanting to use e-portfolios, but both say more support is needed to establish a successful program.
“If teachers are trained to use the pedagogy and technology, they need to have continued support and a place to go to ask questions,” says Viggiano. “We’d like to have funding where we can start to upgrade the platform so it can [accommodate number] grades, continue the training, and let teachers know that there is a help desk.”
At San Diego’s High Tech Middle School—part of a group of charter schools created with an emphasis on technology, innovation, and real-world learning—students use digital portfolios to document their progress.
Azul Terronez, a 7th grade humanities teacher at the 300-student school, has watched the portfolios evolve from a place for students to showcase finished work to a way for them to document the process of learning.
“It’s not about being right, it’s about being transparent,” he says. “[For teachers], it’s about being able to access [students’] thinking.”
Ellie Bach, a 7th grade journalism student of Terronez’s, says she enjoys using digital portfolios.
“It allows us to share what we’re doing with a lot of different people,” she says. “People get to see how hard we’ve been working.”
Her classmate, 7th grader Ana Reynoso, agrees. “It’s nice to write about projects and what we think of them,” she says. Having a space to reflect and share the project is beneficial to her learning, she says.
Creating projects that can be used outside classroom walls is a priority for Terronez and other teachers at High Tech Middle.
For example, Terronez had one of his students write a press release to promote a play his class was performing. Instead of just filing the press release into the e-portfolio and being done with it, Terronez encouraged the student to send the release to local papers to drum up excitement about the class’s upcoming performance.
“[The projects] should be real-world,” he says. “It shouldn’t be isolated and hidden and only valuable in school. [The digital portfolio] is more of an archive before the final product is pushed out to where it needs to be.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as E-Portfolios