tablet on white background. Isolated 3D imageThis past spring, I was asked to substitute teach in one of our first-grade classrooms. There were no guest teachers available that day so, as the elementary principal, I was it. Being a former fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, I was a bit out of my comfort zone. How would I document what students learned during their time with me?

During the literacy block, I found moments to capture learning with my iPad. Using the device’s camera, I was able to take photos of both the students’ work and of them actually working. Along with images, I typed up reflections from our experience. In addition, I recorded audio of one student reading aloud their own writing to me. All of this information — text, images and audio — were stored within one note in Evernote. When I was done, I emailed the note to the classroom teacher. Once shared, the teacher was then free to add any or all of the content from this one note to the students’ digital portfolios within Evernote. View the note.

Why digital portfolios are important for students

With the spreading use of computers and mobile technology in schools, going digital with student portfolios has become more popular. Simply put, digital portfolios are online collections of student work. They allow us to archive, curate and analyze samples of student learning from both the past and the present and keep that data — literally — at the tip of our finger.

Students and teachers can use digital tools to document current understandings, make revisions as thinking changes, share student products both locally and globally and celebrate successes with peers and parents. Although this practice is only one part of a balanced assessment system, there are many benefits that learners, both student and teacher, can gain for developing digital portfolios.

Become a digital citizen

The access that technology provides gives learners a lot of freedom. But to become a good citizen in the 21st century, greater choice needs to be balanced with greater responsibility. When teachers and students can capture their own learning and then make thoughtful decisions about what artifacts are worthy of sharing with the world, they become more mindful contributors to a global society.

Use technology with purpose

When our elementary school first brought iPads into the classroom, we didn’t want to use them as the lowest common denominator, cognitively speaking. Basic math fact games have their place, but we could do better. This is why we explored productivity tools such as Dropbox and Evernote to be able to capture student learning while it was happening. Collecting these student artifacts as a way to formatively assess student progress has brought a bigger purpose to using digital tools in the classroom.

Find a global audience

As our K-5 teachers became more fluent and comfortable with using technology at high levels, it opened the door to other digital possibilities. For example, many teachers now have classroom blogs and social media sites to post student learning for parents and extended family to view throughout the year. Also, a number of classrooms have hosted Skype chats with favorite authors and with classrooms beyond our location in central Wisconsin. In addition, we have participated in the Global Read Aloud, connecting with other learners around the world via Edmodo and Twitter who were all reading the same book.

Redefine student data

When we think of the term “data,” what comes to mind? Numbers, percentages and levels? Data should have a much broader definition when analyzing student learning. Qualitative measures such as video, images, work documents and student interviews should be considered just as important when assessing learning. This is where the digital student portfolio comes in. Being able to capture more authentic types of data can be a real boon for teachers. This process also lends itself well to teachers becoming more assessment literate.

Improve instructional decision-making

With only quantitative data, a teacher’s ability to make sound instructional decisions is limited. Educators do not have a comprehensive picture of their students’ knowledge, skills and current dispositions if all they see are numbers. For example, if a student did not perform well on a mid-year reading assessment, the teacher can look back through that child’s portfolio to find additional artifacts that might paint a different picture of their abilities — abilities that would not necessarily emerge on a paper test.

Become students of our own practice

The data we collect should not only serve our immediate student needs. If we open ourselves to personal assessment, we can discover how to improve our own teaching practice. For example, one of our teachers was searching for a way to break through with a student who hated to write. None of her typical strategies worked. After some reflection, she wondered whether the solution might lie in shifting the student’s beliefs about his own writing abilities. She took images of that student in each stage of the writing process. Later she showed these images to him within his Evernote digital portfolio. As he saw himself with pencil in hand, she asked him questions such as, “How do you resemble a real writer in this image?” This focus on process, instead of a product alone, helped him build a better self-concept about his abilities and his persona as an authentic writer.

Develop personal learning networks

As they say, none of us is as smart as all of us. That is why, as a professional staff, we have encouraged each other to branch out beyond the school walls in our pursuit of excellent instruction. After several years of work, we have the skill set of being able to capture, organize and analyze student learning artifacts in online spaces. We have knowledge worth sharing. This makes us essential members of other educators’ personal learning networks (PLNs). Subsequently, we make connections with others who have essential knowledge to share with us.

Helping students develop digital portfolios can garner a bevy of benefits for everyone in the learning enterprise. In my view, our work in growing our schoolwide portfolio program is one of the most valuable, strategic improvements we’ve made in my tenure as principal.

Matt Renwick is a 15-year public educator who began as a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. After seven years of teaching, he served as a junior high dean of students, assistant principal and athletic director before becoming an elementary-school leader in Wisconsin Rapids.

Matt blogs at Reading by Example, tweets @ReadByExample and writes for EdTech magazine. He was recognized as one of SmartBlog on Education’s monthly Editor’s Choice Content Award winners in March. His new book Digital Student Portfolios: A Whole School Approach to Connected Learning and Continuous Improvement will be published by Powerful Learning Press in July.

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