100% Digital portfolios? Why I like diversification

I love it when students interact and ask questions, it makes me a better teacher. It teaches me as they take me to places I would never have gone in a one sided discussion with myself.

Likewise, I appreciate the comments on blog postings. I take each one and look at it, often drilling down into the blogger's profile to read about them and what they are blogging.

On the posting about end of semester assessments from last Friday, Aaron Nelson in Mexico City had this thought provoking comment:

Hi Vicki,
This was very interesting. I totally agree with you around walking away from exams. Authentic assessment is starting to become very important to me, and I am preparing to deploy a portfolio solution for my ESL students. (I teach business English in Mexico City.)

I'm curious: have you ever used a 100% digital format for your portfolio work?

How do you introduce the whole concept of portfolios? I would really love to learn how you do/did it from start to finish.

Aaron in Mexico City
# posted by Aaron Nelson
Aaron asked a couple of great questions about portfolios which are part of the genuine assessment philosophy that is so important. I don't profess to know all the answers, but I'll share what I've found to work in my classroom.

Have you ever used a 100% digital format for your portfolio work?

The answer is no. I know that many of my former students as well as my sister at Savannah College of Art and Design report that they are seeing an increasing use of 100% digital portfolios, I've always told them to make sure they have a copy of it for themselves for a couple of reasons:

A) Can they afford to lose it?

A great deal of work and creativity goes into college and high school projects that are as comprehensive as a portfolio. So, although I require them to create wikis and the majority of the portfolio is online, I still have them print it out to retain in a binder. I use a different binder for each year I teach them and each year has a slightly different purpose.

Why a print copy?
OK, I admit it, around the middle to the end of 1999 -- I did A LOT of, well, Y2K consulting.
(There the secret is out!) One thing I and many others did learn from that misunderstood chapter in computing history is to ask ourselves --

What if our computer evaporated -- could we still run our business? Could our organization still function? Would we still exist?
Redundancy is part of any good technology plan. Redundancy is always a good idea in anything dealing with computers. I teach backup principles to my computer science class and the fundamental question of assessing backup needs is:

"How much data can I afford to lose?"

In terms of their resume and the amount of time and creativity invested in their portfolios, I believe it is too important to afford to lose. Yes, they can lose the paper copy. However, the onus is on their shoulders, not mine!

My husband is an engineer and although they use CAD and automation for everything, the absolute modus opperandai for engineers is the printing of a hard copy of plans of any kind. Final plans are printed and archived, always! This is because computers and software changes and this is the only way engineers can ensure that they have an original print available. In other words, they cannot afford to lose the original.

Likewise, I think if the portfolio is meaningful and relevant, it is irreplaceable and a hard copy should be used to document what was produced digitally as much as possible.

B) Am I willing to maintain the software/ system used to time infinitum?

Quite simply, no! After a school year is up, I will make every effort to keep things for students, but invariably as upgrades, swapouts, and maintenance occurs - data is lost. Sometimes I switch services and in some cases, the service on the Internet ceases to exist. (Besides the obvious fact that I may not be in my position forever.)

In fact, last week one of the Web 2.0 sites that a student signed up to assess, did just that "ceased to be maintained." It happens.

Some of my portfolios take literally a whole year to create. Although most of my students go on to college, many of them have to work their way through college and countless have used their portfolio to secure a job.

How do you introduce the whole concept of portfolios? I would really love to learn how you do/did it from start to finish.

JW Fanning, one of the founders of the Leadership Georgia program used to always say:

"If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know somebody had to put him there."
In this case, the person who can take credit for the portfolio is a pioneer in computer education -- my mother! (She opened the computer lab in 1990.) Much of what I do has evolved from her original portfolio projects. The assignment changes every year as we make sure the students are doing the things most relevant to the education they need in technology.

When do I introduce it?

At the begining of the year or semester, I let the students know there will be a portfolio and the importance of saving on their memory key and their folder on the server. During the year, I have certain major projects earmarked for the portfolio, and I let the students know that when we do them.

When do I give out the assignment?
It is a balance when to give them the assignment, I usually give it out 6-8 weeks in advance. I also make sure that the majority of the portfolio has been created during the year. The portfolio is never less than 30% of the 8 week grade and never more than 40%.

How important is appearance?
I do stress appearance, particularly in the Computer Applications class. The fact is, most of us unconsciously grade portfolios that look better in a more positive light. This is also reflected in the business world as presentations with "pizzazz" tend to get rave reviews. I expect my students to use the color theory, font theory, and graphics techniques that I've taught them.

How much class time do I give? The use of milestones?
If you give a huge portfolio to a high school class and never check a portion of it, I think you will probably be dismally dissappointed. It is our jobs to teach them how to complete such projects. The key to procrastination: break it down into smaller pieces! (See my 9th grade planning wiki.)

I take each portfolio and "break it down" into mini due dates. At these due dates, I review the section at hand giving feedback, marking errors, and giving suggestions. It is not a formal grade. If it is complete at the beginning of the class period when it is due it is a check plus (103), by the end a check (100), if it is almost there but a little is missing a check minus (89). I do let them show me late, however, I usually deduct 5 or 10 points depending upon the level of the class. (I am a firm believer that zeroes don't benefit anyone. I give them if necessary, but not without a fight!)

This shows me if the students are on track and if I need to get parents involved. It also gives me grades and forces me to give them feedback and discuss each section with them. My first year I did not do this and it was tough. Now that I do project milestones, I rarely have students who have late portfolios and never have them that turn them in.

Do I give class time?

I do give time in my classes for portfolio work. (Not the whole six weeks. Spring is great for this with the spring sports!) Not all students have computers at home or printers. Also, when work is done at home, sometimes parents get a little too "helpful." (A pet peeve of mine.) When they work in my classroom, I know the work is original and it is done. I NEVER allow students to tell me they have it at home -- I want it done in my classroom and if they don't have the work, they will work on something else for the portfolio.2q1

I make sure each milestone is reasonable and I monitor the room and make sure students are on task. Portfolios are definitely not "hands off" time for me, but rather, somewhat exhausting.

Most importantly, although I'll answer some questions, this is not the time to reteach something a student "should have gotten." Teaching students to be intiuitive learners is part of the process. I'm the "guide on the side" not the "sage on the stage." Some "helpless handraisers" try to get me over a barrel to do the work for them. (Often these are the students with the "over helpful parents.") If they should know it, I will point the direction but I will not drive the truck! Often, they are putting on and using such complaints as procrastination techniques.

These portfolio
assessments are something that my students are always proud of and always keep!

How about grading?
I use a grading rubric that assigns points to each section. It also defines how much bonus is available for each portion. (I believe in giving incentives to rise above.) I work hard to make the grading of these portfolios non subjective and very fair as it most often determines the academic awards for my class.

Scholarly articles on portfolios and genuine assessment:

Here is what four of my classes are doing this semester.

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