Digital Portfolios and the Independent Learner

Digital Portfolios and the Independent Learner

One of the most important aspects of K-12 education will not be found on any standardized test.  It won’t be found in a textbook or in an online curriculum.  It is found in our students and our teachers.  Teachers that encourage students to reflect on their learning and students who go through the reflection process as a part of their journey to becoming an independent learner.  One wonderful tool for this process is the student digital portfolio.  Portfolios can be used for many things such as a demonstration of student success, an assessment tool or an archive of student work.  I would like to explore the digital portfolio as a tool for helping students become independent learners by having them constantly reflect on their learning and how they can improve it. If you are thinking that this sounds like it would take up a lot of your class time, stay with me.  It won’t. This post will explore various tools for creating digital portfolios and steps teachers can take in order to smoothly implement digital portfolios in their classrooms or schools.

Before we discuss the rest of this topic, I urge any school interested in implementing digital portfolios to do so as a team.  Not necessarily an entire school at one time, but a group of educators at one time.  For example: if you have a seventh grade language arts class maintaining a digital portfolio, it would be more beneficial for the students if they kept a digital portfolio that encompasses all of their classes as opposed to just one.  A digital portfolio in language arts may help them improve their writing, but a digital portfolio that encompasses all of their seventh grade classes will improve their overall learning.  If organized well, this process should not take much time away from the coursework and should help all students become better learners by improving the quality of their work.  Ok, enough of my soap box, let’s get into the details.

Tools for creating digital portfolios.

I am a fan of using Google Apps for Education since it has all of the tools needed for making wonderful digital portfolios.  Here are the portions of Google Apps that you can use:

  1. Google Sites – This is the most important piece.  A portfolio template can be created by an adult (tech team or educator) which can be used by students.  Providing a framework allows students to focus on their work instead of spending time manipulating the look of the portfolio.  Here are a couple of templates I have used in the past.  Feel free to make a copy. (ElementaryMiddle/High, ArtMiddle/High General)
  2. Picasa Web – Assuming that “Picasa Web Albums” is available in your Google Apps domain, this is a great way to help students store and organize images.  Students can create picture albums within Picasa Web that correspond to the subjects within the portfolio. Storing images in Picasa makes inserting them into the Google Site very easy.
  3. Google Docs – If your students use Google Docs to complete some tasks, the student can embed that document (or Google Presentation) directly into the portfolio without the need to take a picture of it.  Embedded presentations are working presentations, not screenshots, so if you embed a presentation into a portfolio, the portfolio visitor can flip through the presentation.

Outside of Google Apps, you will need a way to take pictures of student work.  If the work is digital, a screenshot can be captured and uploaded to Picasa Web.  If the work is not digital, I find the iPad (or any tablet) to be very useful.  You could do things the old fashioned way and use a digital camera, but that adds more steps to the process, and who wants that?  If you take an image with a mobile device, you can immediately transfer that image to Picasa Web, and in some cases take the image in an app that uploads the image to Picasa for you (such as Best Album).


Organization of a Student Digital Portfolio

This is a tricky one.  Although most of us could agree on what goes into a digital portfolio,  many people have different ideas of how to organize it.  In my experience, there is no single correct answer.  Primarily, the organization of a digital portfolio needs to be:

  1. Easily understood by the student
  2. Easily understood by the portfolio visitors
  3. Easily navigable (topics and sub-topics clear and easy to find)

The screens within a digital portfolio should follow a logical sequence and have a similar look and feel to all other pages (hence the idea of making a template for kids to use). Portfolios that use different backgrounds and where the information is in different places on each page are difficult to follow. This is a great opportunity to help students understand how to present information on the web. (a very important skill)

Classroom Time and Digital Portfolios

If a template is used for portfolios, the time needed to work on portfolios should be minimal.  It take a little more time at the beginning of the school year, but once the students learn the routine, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes or so a week.  Let’s look at the time needed.

Time is needed to collect the visual for student work examples.  This could be done as the assignments are handed back to the student or as they complete a task.  For example:  When students receive a written homework assignment back from the educator, the expectation is that they use their iPad (or whatever device) to take a snapshot of the assignment and add it to their Picasa Web account (this is also a good way to keep the students productively occupied when passing out papers).  If an assignment is in Google Docs, they can take the last 3 minutes of class to add that document to the appropriate digital portfolio screen (this could also be a simple homework or study hall assignment).

Time to write is critical.  At first this will take longer, but as students get into the habit about analyzing their work, the time it takes them to write their thoughts should be drastically.  This process should only take 10-15 minutes per assignment.  Note: Students don’t add every assignment to their portfolio.  A few assignments per subject per grading period should work well.  If you are doing digital portfolios as a group (see my suggestion above), students will become accustomed to writing about their work much more quickly, improving their writing, their reflection and the amount of class time needed.

The Non-traditional Learner

If you have students in your classroom who have difficulty writing, or who have difficulty with English, there are other ways to get them to reflect on their learning.  One way is to have them use a mobile device or laptop to record their thoughts on a quick and easy video. This video can be uploaded to YouTube (using the same Google Apps account you have used for everything else) and that video could be embedded into the portfolio instead of the writing. (Mobile devices such as the iPad make it very simple to take video footage and upload it to YouTube.)   Those who are video shy, could do an audio only recording which can be uploaded, but in my experience the video works better with Google Sites.

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