Student colouring

How Digital Portfolios Revive and Transform Assessment

When I was teaching eighth grade language arts about 20 years ago, the principal joined our department meeting one evening and announced a new initiative that she claimed would transform teaching and learning. I perked up, eager to know more about this revolutionary idea.

“We are moving to portfolio assessment,” she said. I smiled and nodded enthusiastically. Even though I didn’t understand what she was talking about at the time, the phrase, “portfolio assessment” certainly sounded innovative. And when I learned the theory behind this cool phrase–we would collect student artifacts that demonstrate achievement throughout a school year to help guide exit and entrance interviews with students–I was even more excited.

The following year, students worked diligently on a variety of assignments and projects. Once they were graded, we added them to large accordion-style folders. As the year and this practice progressed, these fat folders became unwieldy, many bursting with yellowed notebook paper, cardboard, Popsicle sticks, and string. Creating these portfolios was a fun, if chaotic, chore, which came with the best intentions.

Our first year with portfolio assessment ended with each student reviewing the material in her tattered folder, attempting to explain what was learned from each artifact. These chats were often long and awkward, as both teacher and student searched for the right things to say.

Three years later, hundreds of folders collected dust in a vast storeroom, and portfolio assessment disappeared quietly, along with other heretofore ill-conceived reform ideas.

What went wrong?

Portfolio assessment went wrong on its drawing board, long before it was introduced to teachers at my school and at other schools around the world. The problem may have been in the name; after all, this wasn’t really assessment–formative, summative, or any other kind. Like many education reforms, from decades ago and from today, portfolios arrived heavy on fanfare but light on professional development. We were told, as I suspect all other teachers were, to gather the best examples of student work each marking period, stuff them in a folder or box, and review them at the end of the year.

“Teachers can also go through them at the beginning of the year,” someone once said, “as a way to get to know their new students.” This never happened, because few teachers found time to rummage through collections of essays from prior years and/or they couldn’t locate the portfolios, many of which had been lost or removed from their storage area. Some students took them home or left them in a locker for industrious custodians to discard during the summer. In any case, old-school portfolio assessment failed mainly because of the tools used to collect information and the lack of training on how to use student artifacts to assess learning.

An old dog with new tricks

While portfolio assessment may have been ill conceived long ago, the idea had merit. As is the case with many failed inventions, when technology advances, an old idea often takes flight (there was a time when people thought putting a camera in a phone was a ridiculous notion).

Thanks to 21st-century technology, including powerful media tools, cloud-based storage, and simple sharing using mobile devices, portfolio assessment is back and, excuse the cliche, better than ever. Digital portfolios are reviving portfolio assessment and giving it a modern-day makeover. Advanced technology is turning that old, fat folder into a virtual learning archive and building an ongoing conversation about learning that everyone can see.

With both web and mobile platforms, a tool like FreshGrade empowers all education shareholders. Gone are the hardcopy folders and binders and the carefully selected assignments and projects (what could a teacher really learn if a portfolio contained only a student’s best work?).

The new digital portfolio captures everything students do, even if an artifact is not produced on a computer. Using FreshGrade, Teachers can snap pictures, record conversations, shoot video, and capture anything students create, in order to demonstrate learning.

These pictures, audios, and videos are housed on a cloud-based server, accessible to students and parents in real time–even when a student moves to the next grade. There is no need to retrieve a portfolio from a closet or locker for an awkward year-end conversation, because the digital portfolio is available anytime from any device. Want to see what your child did at school on a given day? No problem; open up FreshGrade and learning comes to life on your tablet or smartphone.

Getting it right

Apart from being misguided and misunderstood, old-school portfolio assessment failed to provide the one critical element of assessment that a digital portfolio like FreshGrade provides every day: the opportunity for students to make mistakes, receive feedback, revisit prior learning, try again, and truly demonstrate mastery of a concept or skill. This iteration in a real-time digital space creates learning that never stops.

Best of all, the traditional grade–a number, percentage, or letter–is de-emphasized. Students using digital portfolios stop asking, “What did I get?” or “What’s my grade?”

When they see their work and the feedback provided from a teacher or a peer in real time, students start asking, “What did I do, and where should I go next?” This is most likely what creators of portfolio assessment had in mind a long time ago.

FreshGrade is now making that vision a reality.


FreshGrade Advisor Mark Barnes is a longtime teacher, author, international speaker, and publisher of the Hack Learning Series, books that provide right-now solutions for educators. Mark is a recognized authority on digital learning and alternative assessment practices. Follow Mark on Twitter @markbarnes19.

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