Student Portfolios – Paper or Electronic?


In the spring, most elementary schools will host a portfolio night where students and their parents come to school to sit in the classroom and look through a portfolio of work created over the course of the year.  This event has taken the place of the traditional parent-teacher conference at the end of the school year.  My purpose here is not to debate whether portfolios conferences are better or worse than parent-teacher conferences (although that may make an interesting future post)  Instead, I am interested in looking at a  different way to archive and present student work.

For close to three years I have been reading and writing about the importance of teaching students to use Web 2.0 tools in their learning.  The use of blogs, wikis, podcasts, video, and other tools has been shown to increase student engagement, interest levels, and self-directedness.  In schools and in classrooms all over the world, teachers are incorporating the Read/Write web into their instruction.  I would include my own school in that group of schools that are moving forward (slowly, but surely) into the educational blogosphere.  So why are so many children still creating paper portfolios to demonstrate their achievement when their learning is moving into the electronic world?

What sparked my thinking about this topic was a discussion I participated in with a group of district technology coordinators and couple of assistant superintendents.  We had some terrific dialogue around the the most appropriate types of portfolios for elementary and middle school students.  I will admit that I believe the time has come for students to start creating electronic portfolios to showcase and warehouse certain pieces of school work.

These portfolios could be started in the primary grades and move with the students through eight grade, or even into high school.  Students would save writing pieces, research papers, podcasts they create, PowerPoint projects, Inspiration projects, links to research, videos they create, and so on.  Sure, some of this can be done with a paper portfolio, but completing work on paper is very limiting, hard to differentiate for student learning styles, can more easily get lost or damaged, and typically, once a piece of work is completed on paper, the student rarely goes back to revise or re-do portions of it.  (Students have been known to return to wikis and blog posts to revise and add more information well past the due date, and sometimes even during the next school year.)

With an electronic portfolio, the posibilities are limitless.  Imagine using a wiki for a portfolio.  Pretty much anything can be stored there.  Obviously, student work created on paper can be scanned in.  Artwork can be photographed and included.  Students can create podcasts of their reading fluency showing growth over time, they can record their poetry, stories, and essays, they can sing in a podcast, and they can embed videos they create.  I have seen full research papers created on a wiki, including the thesis statement, the research notes and links, the first draft, the revisions and edits, the final draft and the bibliography with links.  Over the course of many years of schooling, a student’s electronic portfolio will continue to grow with work from all subject areas from Art to Zoology.  An electronic portfolio would be an incredibly comprehensive review of a student’s education.

There certainly are some speed bumps in the road to fully implementing electronic portfolios.  One is the issue of storage.  Will school districts have the ability to electronically store all of the work students will create over the course of numerous years?  All of the teachers in a school or even the entire district will need to buy in to this new concept.   Otherwise, there will be gaps in a student’s portfolio of work.  Also, if assessment materials are part of the portfolio, do they become part of a child’s legal permanent record?  If so, they must be maintained for a certain number of years after the child graduates.  Finally, are parents ready to sit at a computer and review their children’s work instead of turning the pages?

Even though there are some issues to be resolved, I believe the time has come for students to start cataloging their work electronically in a linear manner from year to year.   We are expecting college graduates to be prepared with electronic portfolios when they apply for jobs.  Student teachers are required to create electronic portfolios, and they are asked to apply online for teaching positions.  That is the reality our students will face when they enter the work force, and we need to start preparing them in elementary school.

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One thought on “Student Portfolios – Paper or Electronic?

  1. Dave you bring some interesting points to my attention. The logistics of keeping a e-portfolio for a child’s education can be overwhelming. What if the student moves to another district? Do they get a copy of their portfolio to take with them? Shouldn’t they? Or how about when they graduate from High School?

    Is it really that valuable for a 17 year old to still be hauling around examples of their work from Kindergarten???

    I do think that as we begin making more of our projects mulitmedia we have no choice but to set up some kind of eportfolio option for our students.

    Thanks for a thought provoking read!

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