Sunday, November 09, 2014

Divergent Purposes for K-12 ePortfolios

I received the following inquiry about ePortfolios from a K-12 educator:
Our school is implementing e-portfolios using Google Apps. I was reflecting on the information given to the students during advisory and was thinking about what students are preparing. I was expecting the portfolio to be standards based and to show knowledge and skills students have gained showing they are career and college ready. Career and college ready is one of our district goals. It seemed students were informed differently to make it sound fun and be accepted. The students are creating a yearbook of sorts. If so, the yearbook I have is in a box in the garage collecting dust. I want the portfolio to extend into their lives past these four years of experience. So, I was looking for information on how to approach e-portfolios from a standards approach and to make them useful past high school. I am not sure we are all on the same e-portfolio page at our district.
Here is my response:

Regarding the “purpose and function of e-portfolios” I would ask one question: Whose purpose? Student or school? Let me tell a story from my experience with e-portfolios in teacher education programs. For the most part, teacher education students create portfolios that are standards-based, showing that they have met the teacher education standards. And many of these students are so turned off to the process that “portfolio” is a dirty word and many student teachers won’t subject their own students to the process after they graduate (plus, universities don’t use the same tools that are used in schools). After leaving their teacher education programs, some of them create portfolios that are more of a showcase to apply for jobs.

One thing I did not read in your message was the concept of reflection. There are multiple purposes for developing e-portfolios, but self-understanding as reflected in the work products themselves, as well as reflections that the students write about their own learning, is, in my opinion, the heart and soul of a student-centered portfolio. There are trade-offs between institution-centered goals (graduation requirement, standards, etc.) and student-centered goals (more of a learning journal that becomes a “laboratory for constructing meaning”).

I always advocate for a balance between the two approaches. Several years ago, I watched/helped my own granddaughter complete a paper-based high school graduation portfolio… a process that she saw no purpose in, other than busy work (documents created in Word based on a template provided by the district, using an outline/requirement provided for her, rather than created by her). She left if for the last minute (of course, and at the end of the evening). I tried to help her find the meaning in the process. I asked her if she learned something about herself by going through the process. She grudgingly admitted that she did, but I’m afraid a lot of her fellow student were not fortunate enough to have teachers or family members that helped them find meaning in the process… just complaints about “jumping through hoops!” In some school districts in this state (Washington), students build a bonfire and burn their portfolio notebooks after graduation!

So, you have a choice: create a process that involves students and invites ownership, or create a process that feels a lot like standardized testing. As I said, finding a balance is the challenge.

You want the students to continue developing their portfolios after they graduate, but they have to be intrinsically motivated to do so. I did a TED talk about intrinsic motivation in the ePortfolio process: and a PDF paper with the script:
You might also look at a PDF paper I wrote on “Balancing the Two Faces of ePortfolios”:

The underlying philosophy of two models of assessment (Assessment for Improvement paradigm vs. Assessment for Accountability paradigm) can be found in this article by Peter Ewell: (p.8)
Where do ePortfolios fit within these two paradigms? I prefer to see portfolios used for continuous improvement, rather than for accountability. This approach puts the student at the center of the process, and in charge.

This is probably not what you wanted to hear, but I think ePortfolios have been hijacked by the accountability movement in higher education (especially teacher education). Portfolios-in-education began in K-12 education under a constructivist paradigm of learning. Now, some K-12 educators are trying to implement portfolios under a behaviorist paradigm, to emulate/replace standardized testing, and in my opinion, the benefits of the true portfolio process are lost in the behaviorist/accountability model. I believe there is an opportunity cost when we approach portfolios from the “testing” approach (we lose the opportunity for deeper student learning). There are some early papers published on portfolios that discuss the “portfolio as story” (rather than the “portfolio as test”). ERIC document ED 377 209 Paulson & Paulson (1991) “Portfolios: Stories of Knowing”
(this is the article on my Google Drive)

In my research, the best implementation of DPs (digital portfolios) is at the High Tech High schools in the San Diego area. I have interviewed students there about their portfolios (they love them!) and you can see examples on their website:

If you want to review one of my most recent presentations, you will find it here:
One of my favorite slides is Slide 43 (the underlying purpose of portfolios that goes back 2500 years).

I hope all these resources provide some insight into the dilemma your students face.  I also offer a free self-paced online course on ePortfolios using Google Apps:  (even more resources!)