FreshGrade's Blog: How to Choose A Digital Portfolio for your classroom

How to choose a digital portfolio for your classroom

Article written by: Gerard Dawson

The options for teachers and school leaders when it comes to digital portfolios have advanced significantly over the last few years. To make the right choice, it’s important to understand exactly what you’ll need to do with the digital portfolio tool, and what your educational goals are for using digital portfolios in class.

In the past, teachers got little more than a folder for work posted online, where students could drop documents or other files. Today, with developments in user interface, cloud storage, and more, you can manage all parts of the learning process with a powerful digital portfolio tool.

The best way to approach looking for a digital portfolio is to first imagine all of the tasks that you’d like to be able to do both as a teacher and as a student. Then work backward to check each of the available options, and see which meets the needs that you have.

Below, I’ve organized the specific tasks teachers, students, and parents can do with the right digital portfolio, so you can use this as a guide for your own decision-making process.

Planning & Instruction

Creating Activities

One of the assistant principals I worked for had an email signature saying, “Plan your work, then work your plan.” This is the perfect motto for teachers. In order to run an effective class using a digital portfolio, teachers need to easily create and communicate plans, both for themselves and the students and parents of their class. When it comes to portfolios, this involves a few tasks:

  • Creating and posting learning activities and assessments
  • Tagging it with the standards or objectives you want students to demonstrate
  • Posting learning materials like articles, photos, and PDFs students can use for their work

A great digital portfolio will allow teachers to easily do the tasks above and will allow students and parents to see the content posted by teachers in a well-organized layout. Few tools available today offer a robust set of features for parent access.

Using a Digital Portfolio to show planning and instruction within a classroom
With FreshGrade's Digital Portfolio, Teachers taking a constructivist approach to digital portfolios know that assessment is ongoing, embedded into the learning process, and not simply a grade on an assignment.

Assessment

Teachers taking a constructivist approach to digital portfolios know that assessment is ongoing, embedded into the learning process, and not simply a grade on an assignment.

Approaches like standards-based grading helped further promote the importance of a more nuanced approach to assessment. As Josh Work says in his Edutopia piece, “Three Peaks & Pits of Standards-Based Grading,” “Standards-based grading allows me to clearly communicate with students and parents where individuals are with their understanding of each concept. No longer are students able to hide behind weighted averages.”

This captures both the opportunity and the need that teachers have for selecting a good digital portfolio tool. These needs include:

  • Grading assignments within the portfolio so the teacher has context for the student’s work
  • Easy movement between and within student portfolios (a big time-saver)
  • Use multiple criteria or standards to grade student work

And once assessment enters the conversation, the next step is to determine your needs for feedback and reflection.

Feedback & Reflection

In one way, a digital portfolio is a perfect antidote to our times: students often see polished depictions of life online through social media, missing out on the edits or process that led to final outcomes. It’s important for a digital portfolio tool to adequately support feedback and reflection, so teachers can guide students through the whole process of learning.

Matt Renwick captures the spirit of feedback, reflection, and growth inherent in digital portfolios in his article “4 Things You Should Know About Digital Portfolios” from eSchool News. Matt writes:

FreshGrade's digital portfolio and learning network results in Instructional leadership being a part of the classroom on a daily basis.

We might think of an artist’s body of work when considering digital portfolios as an alternative assessment…The development of their skills and talent didn’t just happen. Many mistakes, quiet reflection, and new pursuits of learning had to have occurred prior to mastery.

Matt Renwick

This concept reveals a few specific needs of digital portfolios when it comes to feedback & reflection:

  • Teachers need a powerful and easy-to-use mechanism for giving students good feedback
  • Students need to easily provide an explanation to teachers when submitting work, so the students can explain any questions, challenges, etc.

Viewing & Displaying Work

One of the primary drives of digital portfolios is the ability to create an authentic audience for student work, especially when it comes to sharing work with parents.

This important point is supported by The Conference on College Composition & Communication’s acknowledgment in their resources “Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios”, which states that “students engage in audience analysis of who they intend to read their e-portfolios” as one of it’s suggested best practices.

If this is going to happen, then the digital portfolio needs to do a few things well:

  • Teachers need some control in regards to the content students can post publicly in their portfolio
  • Students need an easy way to share their achievements with teachers and parents through their portfolio

Of course, this leads to the importance of parent involvement in student learning, and the particular needs that a digital portfolio tool has when it comes to parents.

FreshGrade's digital portfolio is easy to use for parents so that they can engage with teachers and their children

Parent Involvement

The NEA Policy Brief titled, “Parent, Family, Community Involvement in Education” outlines the importance of parent involvement in the learning process showing that research shows that students with parents involved in their school work stay in school longer, earn higher grades, and enroll in more challenging programs than students whose parents are less involved.

When it comes to digital portfolios, though, the tool must be easy to use to encourage parents to check in and stay involved in their children’s work. This means that a few things must be true:

  • Parents need a “real-time” way to see their students learning (not days or weeks later)
  • Parents need to see student work and teacher feedback to help the learning process at home
  • Parents needs an equitable access to information, regardless of the device they use or the language they speak
  • Parents need to know when their children are missing assignments so they can encourage them to make up their work

Begin with the end in mind

In his seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey suggests that you must “Begin with the end in mind.” In their groundbreaking framework Understanding by Design Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest that educators must begin with the knowledge, skills, and understandings they want students to have, and work backward from there.

When it’s time for teachers and school leaders to select the right digital portfolio tool for use in your school or classroom, the process is the same. Once you understand all you need your digital portfolio to do, you can limit your options to only those tools powerful enough to meet your needs. Then, you’ll be more likely to select a tool you can stick with, that keeps teachers, parents, and students happy, and that leads to learning.

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