On Electronic Portfolios

Over the decades I have been working with digital technologies, teachers, and learners; electronic portfolios have been a recurring topic. The story usually plays out like this: I arrive in a school (maybe k-12, maybe college) and there are groups (often departments in colleges) in which there is interest in adopting electronic portfolios. I hear, “we have tried in the past, but it has not been unsuccessful.” I am asked to research and recommend a platform and to work with faculty to develop the plan for their students. Most faculty have been through this in the past, and they are reluctant to try again, thus the project fails.

I have seen this play out enough that I have seen common elements:

First, the project is motivated by the sense that students are learning more than can be captured in course grades. Also, that students need experience recognizing themselves as learners, distancing themselves from the day-to-day work of being a student, and explaining ow they have grown. This is all true. With portfolios, we capture the ineffable (but very important) aspects of formal learning.

This is one characteristic of portfolios that make faculty reluctant to value them. Faculty have been inculcated to value only measurable outcomes, but we then ask them to help students develop portfolios. They see this inconsistency, and they (reasonably) question the value of portfolios when every other practice is focused on other documentation learning.

Second, the project necessitates unfamiliar technologies. Until everyone started carrying smart phones, there was some difficulty in having students capture evidence of their learning. Now, in classroom, field, laboratory, studio, or clinic; students can capture and annotate picture, audio, and video documenting their work. The problem remains of how to add those artifacts to the portfolio, however.

Third, portfolios are intended to accommodate learners’ perceptions and learning from the individual’s perspective. For more than a generation, education has been grounded in standards. Standards are intended to ensure “all student learn the same thing;” in portfolios, we see how each learner differed from the others. Faculty see this inconsistency.

Some leaders try to compromise and develop portfolio initiatives in which, “individuals demonstrate the difference ways they achieved the standards.” In my experience this is an untenable compromise. If you value standards, use standardized measures. If you value individuals as learners, use portfolios. Combining them ensures you will fail.

Fourth, faculty are often disenchanted that student select the “wrong” artifacts. One of the first extended electronic portfolio projects I developed found middle school students documenting how they had become communicators, problem solvers, responsible citizens, and how they had grown personally. Over the years we did this, students added pictures of projects they had made in shop class (this was that long ago, the school still had a wood shop and metal shop), home economics and art classes, clubs (including Boy Scouts, dance, horse clubs, and similar out of school activities), school athletics, serious hobbies (we had a very active skateboard community in the school), and other “non-academic” pursuits.

Teachers rejected the value of portfolios as they did not include work they had done for class. (The poetry that appeared in the portfolios was from students’ own notebooks, not works submitted to teachers; problem solving was documented in work done outside of the “problem solving activities” the science teachers taught.) I would pose the question, “So, what can we learn from the students’ choices?” The response was always, “Well, can we require they include something from our classes.”

Portfolios are a valuable tool for teaching and learning. We can use sophisticated capabilities in learning management systems to strengthen connections between course work and learners’ perceptions of themselves as competent learners. The contents of portfolios can inform students, potential employers, even institutional planners and program reviewers.

The insights from the learning documented in portfolios can only be gained if faculty and leaders and technologists:

  • Understand the value of portfolios, and avoid using them for other purposes;
  • Design systems for multimedia documentation that al perceive to be easy to use;
  • Our curriculum includes authentic projects that students value enough that they will reflect on their importance