I remember the first time I started using digital portfolios in my classes I was motivated by the idea of getting students to take part in creating online content rather than just consuming it. It was getting easier and easier for students to add to the world wide web of knowledge, and I wanted my students to know how to take part in the digital world. That was a few years ago. Since then, I continue to support digital portfolios for the value they can bring to the learning process for students. I believe that educators can use digital portfolios to train students to take authentic ownership of what they are learning and how they are learning it.
Taking ownership of their learning process is vital to helping students see that school isn’t just something that happens to them. Students often see themselves as passive participants in the learning process. Have you ever asked a student: How do you know when you’ve learned something? The answer I frequently get from students is something along the lines of: “When I get a good grade” or “When I get a high score on a test” or “When the teacher tells me what I learned.” Good grades and high test scores are nice, but I argue that it’s more authentic for students to be able to point to a demonstration of their learning, beyond a score or a grade. In the near future, no one will care what grades or scores our students received in high school, they are going to want to know what our former students can do.
Make Thinking Visible
As a teacher, I understand how assessments can be used guide students as they develop skills. I think something is getting lost in translation, though. However much we stress learning in our classes, our students often value grades/scores more than what they have learned. As students go through school, they perceive that high scores and grades have more value than the learning that high grades and scores represent. This flawed value system is bad for all students, but it’s especially bad for students that may not necessarily value high grades/scores in the first place.
Digital portfolios offer us a way to train students to put more value on learning and the learning process. As a teacher in a 1:1 school, I’ve witnessed the tendency for students to passively engage in the digital world vs. actively engage in it. Our students’ tendency to be passive learners when we focus on grades and scores bleeds into being passive technology users.
But what if, rather than only having students demonstrate understanding on tests and chasing “points” for high grades, we asked students to prove that they have learned by giving evidence of their learning? The learning demonstrated and defended by students on their digital portfolios would be a more authentic assessment of their understanding compared to a score on a test (a number) or a grade in a class (a letter). To repeat, in the near future, no one will care what grades or scores our students received in high school, they are going to want to know what our former students can do. Digital portfolios allow students to show what they can do. More than that, digital portfolios offer students a plethora of possibilities when it comes to how they want to represent their learning. With student choice comes more meaningful, personalized learning and more buy-in.
Rethink the Audience
Digital portfolios will help our students shift away from the “is this good enough for the teacher” mentality. When we ask students to use their digital portfolio to demonstrate their learning, we should stress that making their understanding public means broadening their audience. Digital portfolios allow students to share their understanding with teachers, future teachers, parents, college admissions officials, future employers, their future selves, and their personal learning network. Students should understand that their learning enables them to join a wider conversation, to participate more broadly in the discussions that shape our world. With digital portfolios, students can learn to connect to to a wider audience.
How to Make Digital Portfolios Happen
As much as I’ve tried to implement digital portfolios in my classes, I admit that I haven’t perfected them. It’s very difficult to unleash the amazing things that digital portfolios can do when students are used to a passive educational model. It’s also tough to get digital portfolios going when only a handful of people on a campus are using them. Still, I have seen students grapple more with some of the most valuable educational questions they can consider: What do I know? What did I learn? How do I know that I learned it?
I think digital portfolios can benefit the learning goals of every class on campus, so I am advocating for a school-wide push to incorporate digital portfolios into our instruction. I’m not talking about simply adding one more thing to our list of things to do in class. I’m talking about using digital portfolios as a way to demonstrate understanding–something we all have our students do in some way or another in all classes. What do you want your students to know? How can they demonstrate that understanding on their digital portfolios?
In order to make digital portfolios meaningful for as many teachers as possible, I would like to meet up with staff members who are willing to give insight as to what a digital portfolio needs. For now, I have created a skeletal template of a digital portfolio in Google Sites. Why Google Sites? Isn’t it old and clunky? Well, it isn’t the prettiest website building service out there, but as a school in a Google Apps for Education district, Google Sites integrates very well with a majority of the web tools that our teachers are using. It’s very easy to embed docs, slides, sheets, drawings, and YouTube videos in Google Sites. Here is what the template I created currently has:
- a home page with instructions to students to edit anything and everything on the site
- a self introduction page
- an archive page to keep the site from getting too cluttered
- a help page with links to Google Sites tutorials
- a learning blog page for each subject to show thinking and reflection
- a sample project page for each subject to demonstrate learning on larger assignments
- room to grow
I look forward to working with my colleagues to give students more ownership of their learning process. Thanks for reading!
Additional Reading and Resources
- Stop Telling Us It’s Not About The Points by Maddy Moriarty
- The Digital Use Divide
- My previous blog post on digital portfolios.
- Link to the digital portfolio template I made for the English Tech Summit last week (feel free to copy it and modify it for your own digital portfolio purposes).
- Digital Portfolios Google+ Community