Digital Portfolios aren’t the future. Everything that calls itself the future is never the future (see Crystal Pepsi). Like all forms of technology, the digital portfolio is a tool. And like all tools, it can be used to build, develop, construct, or communicate something new.
Deep, right? Not really.
Let’s get more specific. The digital portfolio is a particular kind of tool, one that allows students to reflect on their learning, while curating, archiving, and organizing learning artifacts. Digital portfolios allow students to see the unique threads connecting different subject areas; they’re able to narrate their own story of learning, and express their understanding in diverse and dynamic ways; through words, video, audio, images, and other expressive formats. Instead of keeping all learning private, the digital portfolio brings the learner out from the shadows, into a community of learners who enjoy reflecting on interesting experiences, and sharing those experiences with others (click here to learn more).
Of course, digital portfolios can also be a total fail. And usually failure is facilitated when digital portfolios devolve into a static repository of work; an online folder with discrepant learning artifacts mixed in with random iPhone pictures of field trips and report cards. Failure also is likely when there’s no audience for the portfolios, and no effort to constructively integrate them into the curriculum– so they capture unique and meaningful moments where reflection comes naturally. Failure is also likely if the portfolios are a high maintenance affair; i.e., they can’t be accessed easily, it’s hard to provide feedback, they’re difficult to navigate, and the technology is fussy and unreliable.
So much of “the formal curriculum” is devoted to “what” students achieve or produce at the end of traditional units, creating scenarios where teachers judge learning after it’s done. There’s far less attention to growth, and nurturing a spirit of reflection, self assessment, and self directed learning. Digital portfolios can help cultivate these competencies, as they shift the emphasis to how students assign meaning. They give students the opportunity to express themselves, and bring what they observe and perceive to the fore. In so doing, the portfolios give teachers, parents, and the community a window into how students experience school. And they help make learning more social.
The key, like all progressive learning, is focusing on process, not outcome. An outcome is something finished; a process is something in the making. When we speak about teaching “understanding,” what we mean is something more valuable and enduring than mere knowledge goals. It’s knowing what the knowledge means; it’s also recognizing that intelligence comes in many different forms; academic, creative, athletic, artistic, etc. Digital portfolios are designed to capture these aptitudes, and give students a real sense of ownership. They are far from the only way to meet these important goals, but they make considerable headway in bringing the life of the learner to the center using the medium of technology. And what every school should be looking for is leveraging the benefits of technology– access, sharing, connection– while minimizing its downsides–infinite distraction, empty chatter, noncritical thinking.
And digital portfolios allow schools to do just that.