Not the most riveting read, but worthwhile if you’re interested in the potential value of digital portfolios in school settings. Completed the review with my practicum partner, Scott Simontacchi, based on our fieldwork at Little Red Elisabeth Irwin, a fantastic progressive K-12 school in the West Village, NY.
John Dewey famously observed that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Reflecting on experience makes education both personally and intellectually meaningful. Reflection also permits us to monitor our own comprehension and evaluate our own progress, activities which maximize learning. In the digital age, meaningful reflection is an increasingly scarce resource. This paper focuses on the value digital portfolios offer as a reflective learning tool. Further, this paper also explores how teachers can use digital portfolios to re-conceptualize curriculum, pedagogy, and student engagement.
Though schools have used portfolios for over 30 years (Zubizarreta, 2009), they have become increasingly popular in response to innovations in digital technology over the last 10-15 years, and the associated relevance of information, media, and digital literacy skills. Interest in digital portfolios has also spiked as traditional pedagogy, which relies on a teacher directed, downward transmission of knowledge, gives way to active learning models that emphasize knowledge construction, and the primacy of experience. However, given the relative novelty of digital portfolios, schools have faced many challenges using them effectively. This paper studies these challenges, and offers evidenced based solutions for how schools can leverage the many benefits of digital portfolios.
We have divided our analysis and recommendations into four themes. First, we define digital portfolios, and explain their purpose in schools. Second, we explore how digital portfolios specifically impact teaching and learning. Third, we review the common pitfalls of digital portfolio implementation, and present solutions to those challenges. Finally, we analyze how schools can create a sustainable and properly scaffolded digital portfolio programs.
Theme 1: The purpose and value of digital portfolios
A digital portfolio is an online venue for students to organize, archive, and display work (Zubizarreta, 2009). In contrast to paper portfolios, digital portfolios give students new opportunities to interact with their teachers, solicit feedback, and share work with peers. A digital portfolio may exist as a wordpress blog, where students can post material, curate content, and share learning artifacts, or it may exist on platforms like Pathbrite and Seesaw, which offer pre-set templates managed directly by teachers. Digital portfolios confer many educational benefits, outside of simply making learning visible (Eynon, et al 2014a); they help students reflect on their learning, engage in higher order thinking, and “do the critical thinking necessary to make intellectual connections across the disciplines and assignments” (Johnsen, 2012).
Digital portfolios provide vehicles for children to grow metacognitively, while allowing them to demonstrate competence in telling the “story of learning” (Barrett, 2005). The story of learning refers to the narrative arc of comprehension, where understanding evolves over time. Metacognitive habits include inquiry, planning, and reflection, which researchers also associate with the benefits of growth mindsets (Matthews-DeNatale 2014). Another primary benefit of digital portfolio lies in the way it advances “social pedagogy.” Portfolios allow students to construct purposeful identities as learners, involving them in collaboration and exchange with faculty, students, and other members of a school community (Eynon et al, 2014a).
Theme 2: Digital Portfolios and Reflective Learning
While digital portfolios can be used as a digital repository of student work, the most effective portfolios are reflective and integrative in nature (Matthews-DeNatale, 2014). Portfolios can give students a venue to reflect on formal and informal learning, and observe the patterns and connections that exist between those experiences (Eynon et al, 2014b). Reflection also promotes greater fluidity between the formal curriculum and an experiential co-curriculum, while allowing students to develop observational, descriptive, and analytical skills (Bass 2012b; Rodgers, 2002). Further, research shows that reflection slows down cognitive processing, thereby giving the learner the time to process and link material to prior knowledge. Further, reflection encourages students to challenge their learning so that it becomes personally meaningful, a process that leads to greater self-understanding (Rodgers, 2002).
Theme 3: Common pitfalls in the implementation of digital portfolios
For a digital portfolio program to be effective, common pitfalls need to be avoided and anticipated before implementation. The first problem that a school can encounter is underestimating the necessary faculty professional development required to integrate portfolios smoothly in the classroom. Professional development should focus on helping teachers design reflective prompts for students; if teachers aren’t comfortable with this task, students will begin to feel lost and portfolios may begin to feel esoteric (Zubizarreta, 2009; Rodgers, 2002). These prompts also need to discuss learning in very explicit terms, employing the vocabulary and terminology of reflective inquiry (Johnsen, 2012). Schools should also keep digital portfolios manageable in size, so they don’t become an “unwieldy repository of continually expanding artifacts and reflective commentaries (Brookfield, 1995).” It is also important for teachers to develop grading rubrics that make feedback clear, and targeted towards evidence of reflection. (Zubizarreta, 2009; Rodgers, 2002). Finally, effective implementation should also focus on helping teachers realize the best times to use digital portfolios in the classroom; if not, implementation can be stymied by time constraints (Zubizarreta, 2009).
Theme 4: Implementation challenges and opportunities
For a digital portfolio program to thrive, both students and faculty need to feel enthusiastic and supported. For students, this means that they need act as information architects of their work, a responsibility that gives them a sense of agency and control (Barrett, 2005). Empowering students also means giving them the technology and tools to customize their portfolios (Johnsen, 2012). This flexibility will make students feel excited about managing and personalizing their portfolios. Faculty support means helping teachers redesign their curricula so they can seamlessly and organically use digital portfolios to meet learning goals (Bass, 2012a). Also, teachers need to practice designing questions that organically stimulate reflection, and learn to understand the contexts where those questions should be asked in order for them not to feel trite and undermine enthusiasm for the program (Rodgers, 2006).
Critique of the Literature
In our analysis of the literature, we did not see a sufficient focus on portfolio differentiation and scaffolding. Naturally, as students progress through school, they become more resourceful, confident, and self-motivated. As a result, schools should give high school students more freedom and flexibility to control content and design, while primary school students may need to depend on teacher managed templates which take into account privacy concerns and developmental learning differences. The literature also failed to evaluate the role of advisory in the management of portfolio work flow; while teachers can encourage students to use portfolios as a reflective tool for specific subjects, advisors can help students design and manage the portfolios, so they reflect a broad range of formal and informal learning experiences.
Faculty cooperation in this regard can help distribute and broaden responsibility for the success of the program, while increasing awareness about dynamic events in the learning lives of the students.
The research makes a strong argument for the importance of digital portfolios in schools, and their relationship to meaningful learning and student engagement. In progressive educational environments, digital portfolios provide the ideal medium for reflection. Further, digital portfolios provide a holistic portrait of student learning, which is organized, curated, and archived in a single destination. The emphasis on reflection, inquiry, and personal narrative not only deepens understanding for the learner, it also helps teachers understand how students experience school. This process allows educators to develop programming tailored to student interests, while giving the school community access to the learning lives of the students. It is also worth noting that schools often fail to recognize the collective influence of disparate learning experiences; likewise, students, under pressure to satisfy curricular and co-curricular obligations, may lose sight of the common threads that exist across subjects and disciplines. A properly conceptualized digital portfolio program will address this gap, while fostering a school culture that focuses on unifying and integrating learning experiences. Certainly, there are significant challenges involved in developing a sustainable digital portfolio program; technical logistics, faculty buy-in, and administrative support, to name a few. Yet the clear benefits to student learning should outweigh any pragmatic concerns. Innovation always entails risk; yet innovation is also the way schools adapt to a changing world, and provide learners with a relevant, exciting, meaningful education.
Barrett (2005) Researching Electronic Portfolios and Learner Engagement, White Paper. Retrieved from http://www.taskstream.com/reflect/whitepaper.pdf.
Bass (2012a) Disrupting ourselves: The problem of learning in higher education. Educause Review, March/April.
Bass (2012b) Social pedagogies in ePortfolio practices: Principles for design and practice. Retrieved from http://c2l.mcnrc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2014/01/Bass_Social_Pedagogy.pdf.
Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey-Bass.
Eynon et al (2014a) What difference can ePortfolio make? A field report from the Connect to Learning Project. International Journal of ePortfolio, vol. 4(1): 95-114.
Eynon et al (2014b) Reflection, integration, and ePortfolio Pedagogy. Retrieved from http://c2l.mcnrc.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2014/01/Reflective_Pedagogy.pdf
Johnsen (2012) Making Learning Visible with ePortfolios: Coupling the Right Pedagogy with the Right Technology. International Journal of ePortfolio, volume 2(2): 139-148.
Matthews-DeNatale (2014) Are we who we think we are? ePortfolios as a tool for curriculum design. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, volume 17(4): 1-15.
Moon (2001) Reflection in Higher Education Learning. Generic Centre, Learning and Teaching
Rodgers (2002) Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking.
Teachers College Record, volume 104(4), 842-866.
Rodgers (2006) Attending to Student Voice: The Impact of Descriptive Feedback on Learning and Teaching. Curriculum Inquiry, volume 36(2): 209–37.