Karen Fadum is a helping teacher in British Columbia, Canada, who previously taught 1st and 2nd grade. It was during her time as a classroom teacher that Karen started using digital portfolios to capture student learning and communicate it with families. Matt Renwick talks to Karen about her experience.
Matt Renwick: Why did you introduce digital portfolio assessment in your classroom?
Karen Fadum: I started using FreshGrade because I was approached as one of eight teachers to pilot this tool, more as a digital gradebook. The portfolio part took off, and that was not expected. After the pilot was over, I continued using it but not because of the technology—I am more about the pedagogy.
Kids are often told that they are not capable of being in charge of their own learning. But they are really powerful little beings. Portfolios started to help me have more conversations with my students. This led to how we talked about our learning and them owning it. Pretty soon, they were telling me what they wanted to document: “What I think I just built is really a good example of my number sense.” The language in our classroom changed.
Once you start documenting students’ pathways towards their goals, it is hard to go back to the more traditional way of doing things. After the pilot, the district offered a choice in how teachers could communicate learning with families. Many more teachers started using FreshGrade once it became an option.
Matt Renwick: In what way(s) were the effects of implementing digital portfolios in school unique or unusual?
Karen Fadum: My portfolio experience started with reading, both as a teacher and as a parent. Besides my classroom, watching my own children in school helped me rethink my assessment process. Knowing that each student is very different led me to believe that this type of assessment process—one that celebrated their strengths and looked at next steps—was much better for all students. Portfolios allow students to progress at their own rate instead of achieving a predetermined destination.
Portfolios allow students to progress at their own rate instead of achieving a predetermined destination.
Allowing students to determine their own learning pathway through documentation, reflection, and goal setting helps students at all levels. We purchased iPod Touches and then taught students how to capture and upload their learning artifacts. Having these small devices for little hands allowed them to be independent with this portfolio assessment process. When they select their best work from the past month or so to upload to their digital portfolios, they are reflecting on their learning and they don’t even know it.
Matt Renwick: How would you describe the characteristics of the products from the digital portfolio work and of the educators who were involved?
Karen Fadum: One characteristic of a successful digital implementation is that the technology needs to be easy to use yet robust enough to inform learning and future instruction. Another characteristic for successful digital implementation is working on these innovative practices as a team. If a school is known for strong learning communities and stability, it tends to be selected by district administration for trying something new. We would have been considered “edge players” since we were connected educators who had led district initiatives before and had the confidence to explore new ideas.
Matt Renwick: What resources were used to support the use of digital portfolios?
Karen Fadum: A change we have noticed because of this innovation is how other schools are embracing these new practices. This has been greatly helped by the district’s decision to upgrade the curriculum to a more competency-based format. Students have to show what they know and are able to do. Teachers started hearing about our work and reached out for more information. In addition, the district facilitated a website hub where teachers could post questions and ideas in online communities. We could reach out together through that forum and on social media. Also, having a leader who’s available to support this initiative was critical in getting the ball rolling.
Matt Renwick: What specific outcomes do you attribute to the use of digital portfolios?
Karen Fadum: One of the bigger changes we observed is the level of engagement boys had with books, especially at the elementary level. Allowing boys to show their learning in different ways values their learning preferences and allows them to share their understanding in different ways. This comes from the teacher knowing his or her students and using the digital tools to their advantage.
We saw a specific increase in reading confidence. Reading levels are not always accurate for younger students. When we were able to engage with them where they were and where they were going, they started to more regularly recognize their strengths——and not just reading. For example, one of my former students who was pretty transient came to me without a lot of skills, either academically or socially. He was living with his grandmother, so she and I started a conversation about where to start. That’s what we did; we highlighted that student’s initial successes and shared them with home. At the end of the year, his grandmother commented about how much he grew over the year.
Matt Renwick: In your opinion, what other factors contributed to the achievement of these outcomes?
Karen Fadum: A critical factor contributing to the success of important student outcomes was the evidence-based assessment process. Kids need specific feedback about how they are doing as learners and what they need to work on for the future. Saying, “This is an A” does not tell them their strengths. When the teacher and student are able to show progression of learning, starting with the learning intentions and criteria at the beginning of the year and setting the goals together, this is more effective.
When the teacher and student are able to show progression of learning, starting with the learning intentions and criteria at the beginning of the year and setting the goals together, this is more effective.
Our portfolios are somewhat minimal. We are focused on quality versus quantity. How many writing samples would I need to show proficiency for this learning intention? More important, it’s about how much we are involving the kids in the assessment process. How do students perceive these quizzes and checks for understanding? If it is about getting good grades, then they are not focussed on learning. This has been a real shift for students who have come from a more traditional learning environment.
The curriculum needs to be strengths-based and kid-friendly. In addition, teachers need to be intentional about setting those checkpoints of when to assess learning with each student. Adding activities to the gradebook helps remind the teacher not to miss any regular portfolio conferences.
Matt Renwick: What problems did you encounter when developing or introducing digital portfolios?
Karen Fadum: A main problem is the actual technology, both in the wireless access and in the hardware. If it doesn’t work, then teachers are less likely to use it during instruction. Also, there has to be a purpose to the digital tools. We have to know why we are using it. You cannot just drop off technology into the classroom and expect these innovations to happen.
Related to this is the lack of knowledge about technology in general. People might not know there is a camera on a tablet or what the term web browser means. What we have done that has been effective is working with other innovative educators who are ready and willing to learn how to use the digital tools. They can then guide more resistant staff to embed technology in their instruction.
Matt Renwick: What else do you think a teacher or school should know before implementing digital portfolios?
Karen Fadum: We need to have lots of conversations about promoting digital citizenship. That means for example, whether or not we need to post images of student’s faces or if we can highlight the learning with them included. A question that often comes up is, “Can I post a picture of students if other families are going to see?” What we have pointed out is we are celebrating our students’ learning in the hallways, so doing so on the website is not a whole lot different. Taking that approach of highlighting student successes has been helpful.
Parents and families also need to be educated about the history of grades, understand student privacy policies, and have their questions answered. If they understand that teachers will be using these new digital tools with intention, they seem to be very supportive. Explaining that mistakes will be made early on also gives everyone some latitude in trying it out and learning together. These initial conversations have led to rethinking grading and possibly not using traditional assessments. It is the curriculum that drives the assessment–not the grades.