Throughout the course of a typical academic career, hundreds of worthwhile projects are created. After countless hours and massive amounts of energy expended, where does a research paper on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War belong? What about the Rube Goldberg video a group of students collaborated on and shared via YouTube? If returned to the student in physical form, most projects hit the trash or are sent home to become a stack of papers in the basement. For digital items, they are simply lost in the abyss of the Internet.

There is a simple solution, providing respect for work that will change the entire way academic growth is handled. It’s called a digital portfolio.

Sadly, only a handful of my projects from high school and college made their way to a box in my garage, with very little, if anything, saved from my elementary years. To be clear, this scenario is no longer a viable option for a 21st century student. To offer the old school approach, would be a great disservice. Today, students are comfortable using digital tools and should be immediately introduced to the concept of curating their work…and never stop! Hard work should be digitally showcased to the community, not left in a basement box. Students should be curating, managing their digital footprint and empowered to use digital tools appropriately.

On a larger scale, if we are to truly prepare 21st century students for their future and what awaits them in the work place, our past transgressions can’t affect what a student needs to succeed in the future. Update: Carl Hooker shared a link from Daniel Pink at a recent conference I attended at Holy Cross College. This tweet is a lot better and more concise.

Who’s in charge of the portfolio?

A digital portfolio allows a student to create, reflect and have open dialogue with peers and teachers about themselves as a learner. Writing for an audience, outside the classroom, is a game changer. The entire process also helps prepare students to become strong digital citizens capable of providing critique and showing their understanding. With the use of Google Apps for Education accounts and Blogger (both free), the setup of a digital portfolio system is device agnostic and a great use of existing technology.

Given an opportunity to be in control, students will be inspired to share their best work. The portfolio should be more than just an online folder, hosting random posts and papers. Instead it should strive to reach a wide audience and receive thoughtful commentary. The idea of reaching a wider audience, beyond the classroom with a digital portfolio, is exactly what the Common Core State Standards are looking for!

Also, a by product of maintaining a digital portfolio is the student maintains their digital footprint and is a perfect showcase for the school and a promotion of the amazing teachers and lessons being taught. Everyone wins here.

What age should a digital portfolio begin?

With thousands of digital opportunities available,  kindergartners should be publishing and sharing with an audience outside of their classroom. Of course for younger students, there is a need to help in the creation and showcasing of their work, however as students mature through middle school and beyond, teachers should play more of a supportive, facilitator role, while the student supplies their energy and passions.

Looking back on my younger years, there was nothing better than having an original piece of artwork or special article hang outside the classroom. My teacher always showcased work in a display case for people that might catch a glimpse walking by. This method no longer cuts it. The opportunity to showcase work outside school walls is important for this generation and a great motivator. The article on display was a snapshot in time and I was never allowed to return to the piece for follow up or for editing. Another amazing by product of the digital portfolio experience is the process of sharpening writing skills. (Note: I have made edits to this post, which is a wonderful way to make the piece clearer and better for the audience. Imagine students taking this step to sharpen their writing skills?)

Using the example from earlier, what if that Abraham Lincoln paper from above was published to a portfolio and had the ability to accept feedback from peers and staff? What if the following year, the student was able to reflect and demonstrate additional knowledge? What if the same student was applying for private high school or even college and their digital portfolio was the first result found in a Google search by the admission department? What if a prominent Civil War author posted feedback on the post? This is the next level and we need to support students getting there.

Digital portfolios fit in with the Common Core

As a part of the Massachusetts K-12 Frameworks for English Language Arts, students who are college and career ready in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language showcase the ability to:

  • Comprehend as well as critique
  • Use technology along with digital media strategically and capably
  • Build strong content knowledge
  • Understand other perspectives and cultures

In addition to being a showcase for student work, the portfolio enhances and supports the mastery of many Massachusetts Frameworks and Common Core standards. Just review the reading and literacy anchor standards. A digital portfolio can capture and provide evidence of their best work. (Might I add, teachers should maintain a digital portfolio, providing evidence of their best work too!)

A digital portfolio is a call to replace bland, dry, boring prompts with genuine questions. Give students the power to put something out there of interest for their audience to become engaged with! It is also a call to give students a great deal of power over their learning and digital footprint.

For technology decision makers, offering training to teachers on available tools is the first step. However, after that, take baby steps or move along at a faster pace if your staff has a greater comfort level. For teachers that are slower to adapt, converting existing projects to a portfolio is a worthy start, with an eye on creating new, digital projects in the future.

A digital portfolio is simply a blank canvas and a suitable home for a student’s effort. What the final product looks like and how it is presented will greatly vary by district and school, but we need to take the first step. Educators have opportunities to promote the exciting, amazing work of their students to the greater community and world. This starts with each student having their own digital portfolio.

Portfolio Tools