Alabama ASCD

Digital Portfolios: Guiding Students Toward Accomplishment

“We’ve got to begin shifting our thinking in schools from achievement…to accomplishment.” -Marc Prensky, author of Teaching Digital Natives

What does accomplishment look like in this new era?  How do we record it?  More importantly, how do we inspire it?  As we focus on creating school experiences for our youth that will lead them to connect, partner, create, share, solve problems, and become better citizens, we have to supply them with the proper vehicles to reach these new heights.

In Madison City Schools, we have found one critical area of focus that we believe is a giant leap forward: digital portfolios.  Many districts have begun the process of experimenting with or implementing digital portfolios in their schools, but our research in Madison brought us back to the drawing board.  We knew that we wanted to create an experience that our students could carry with them into adulthood–something they owned.  We wanted to help our students develop a positive digital footprint that would continue to evolve even after their time with us.  To meet those needs, we turned to free web tools that anyone on earth with a device and an internet connection could use.  We haven’t looked back.

We have developed detailed plans for all students K-12 to tackle digital portfolios.  Every student in Madison–regardless of age–has the same mantra: Show then Reflect.  By distilling the complex idea of digital portfolios into its simplest form, we have been able to create a thematic through line to reduce confusion, focus time and energy, and create a culture of reflection.  While a kindergarten student may be using an app like Seesaw to show and reflect between himself, his parents, and his teacher, a high school senior may be developing her own compelling website using Wix to market her skills and experience to the world.  Meanwhile, a seventh-grade student at one of our middle schools is beginning to experiment with Weebly to explore web design, self-reflection, and digital citizenship.

While digital portfolios can take many forms, our end goal is to produce deep thinking and reflective students who are accomplished in a variety of fields and can show the world what they are able to do.  We have seen high school students receive scholarships and internships from their compelling digital portfolios; we have seen middle school students begin to consider their digital footprint and purpose in life; and we have seen previously disengaged elementary students become activated into reflecting on their own learning and their own brand of self.  Open-world digital portfolios that are real, not just relevant, motivate students to explore their passions.  This exploration and constant connection to self drives learning into a new realm. For all age groups, setting their own expectations and telling their own stories to the world has guided those students into a greater sense of oneness between their lives and their learning.

And we are just at the beginning.

So now you know why we are doing this, and you know what our students are doing.  The critical question becomes how?  The key to this process is partnership.  Digital portfolios are not going to happen if a classroom is an island unto itself. Partnerships are born through professional conversations and connections when teachers collaborate with media specialists, coaches, and central office instructional staff for the greatest impact.  The process of organizing one’s selfhood into a website is a very challenging endeavor, and it takes partnership at all levels to make this process a productive one.  The more mentors we can provide for a group of students, the better the results will be.  And what better way to involve parents!  By maximizing the adult-to-student ratio during the planning phases, we are working to ensure that each child gets the attention he or she needs to plan properly, but then the deeply personal endeavor of creating begins.  We know that six or seven adults cannot be dispatched at all times, but we strive for that goal.  We have found that, if we make it a priority, we can typically approach this ideal.

Digital portfolios are unexplored territory for many educators, so teachers are cautious and hesitant to dive into this endeavor without substantial support. For this very reason, the partnership approach guides the teachers through the full coaching cycle of implementing the digital portfolios.  The cycle starts with preplanning and moves forward with planning, modeling, side-by-side practice, teacher practice, reflection, and debriefing for each phase of the process.  Through partnering, teachers become comfortable and ready for gradual release to continue working with digital portfolios independently. Through partnering, capacity is built among all involved, and each member of the team becomes equipped to engage the cycle with future partners.

There is so much to this story, and there is just not enough space in this forum to demystify it completely for educators, students, or parents.  At the outset, Madison City Schools decided that we would solve this complex problem for ourselves, but that we would then share every resource we had developed with the larger education community…for free.  We also pledged at the outset to create an informative and entertaining documentary about our work, and we are currently in the process of fulfilling that pledge.

We look forward to publishing our documentary and all our resources to make this exciting new area of education a reality for all schools systems.  Stay tuned for a public release of everything this summer!  It is about to become very difficult to remain in the dark about digital portfolios.

To see just a couple of student portfolios from our year-one pilot, click below:

Jared Wilson, James Clemens High School graduate:

Maggie Moore, Bob Jones High School junior:

Daniel Whitt

Natalia Dooley

Mollie Bounds

Madison City Schools

Author: Alabama ASCD

Alabama affiliate of ASCD and CLAS

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