Why electronic portfolios? Traditionally, the way to report on a student’s progress is through a paper-based report. This report is usually a mix of either letters or numbers and perhaps a teacher comment to indicate the student’s performance throughout his or her academic year. The purpose of these reports is often to inform parents of their child’s performance, to provide insight for future teachers of their incoming student’s academic proficiency, and as data points for schools in assessing instructional effectiveness. When analyzed critically, though, a student’s report is often as generic as the paper it is written on. However, as educators, we now have the possibility of using technology to move beyond paper-based reporting to create a rich and dynamic digital profile of student progress and performance that evidences their growth and more clearly articulates their skills and competencies.
A popular saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words. Technology in the form of smart-phones, tablets, laptops, audio recorders, and even basic cameras allows for a richer reporting experience by providing students with digital evidence of their learning through audio, video, and images. In this context an electronic portfolio (ePortfolio) serves as a digital vessel, a means of enabling students to collect their artifacts in multi-modal format. All personal growth is developmental, proceeding in stages, and as such reporting should not focus on the final outcome or product but on the learning journey. At a most basic level, the purpose of an ePortfolio is to provide evidence of student learning and growth over time. A critical component of any learning journey is self-reflection, something that should be present in all ePortoflios to help parents and students answer the really important question. So what? Why is this picture here? What is this video showing me? When used effectively as an assessment and reporting tool, the inclusion of a self-reflection component provides those viewing an ePortfolio for a rationale and justification of the artifacts that the student chose to include. No two students are the same and no two ePortfolios should be either.
There are many ePortfolio solutions available, from open-source, to proprietary systems, and personal use modifications of existing popular productivity suite software. The hardware required for digitizing student artifacts is readily available in a smart-phone, tablet, or personal computer, is fairly easy to use, and cost-effective. Of course there are some important drawbacks and considerations to be aware of when deciding to implement ePortfolios. If digital media, students, and the power of the internet are discussed, privacy and security concerns are never very far off. A lack of sufficient time and resources are another popular complaint. Student and teacher training in the hardware and software tools used in creating ePortfolios are another concern, especially in educational systems with transient populations. One could argue that many of the concerns and drawbacks listed above are not unique to ePortfolios as such, but to constraints and limitations in general, whether this be capacity building in people, financial resources, technical expertise, or time. Shifting the reporting paradigm to a growth mindset though, imagine all the other positive ePortfolios make possible. ePortfolios free us from the constraints of paper. ePortfolios allow us to share across time and space, with students, colleagues, and families, from right across the room to right across the globe. ePortfolios allow us to carry our learning profiles digitally, without fear of them being burned, lost, or stolen. ePortfolios are never “done” but can be added on and contributed to for a lifetime, affording learners an authentic opportunity to reflect on their growth over time.
Like all things new, there is a learning curve involved. It takes time to understand a new piece of software. It takes planning to collect, digitize, and upload artifacts. It takes a commitment to wanting to do things differently. In the final analysis however, creating an ePortolio is a rewarding process whose final outcome “shows” students as the learners that they really are, instead of merely “telling” us about them. Universities, professional organizations, and employers all look at digital footprints for assessing individuals. It is now time to embrace the possibilities of technology for doing the same from our youngest learners to our senior graduates – allowing everyone to see who they really are in their own individualized context – and preparing them for the digital future of which they are already a part.