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4 minute read

Why paper just can’t compete – the 7 benefits of digital portfolios

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on July 22, 2015
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How do you capture the full picture of a student’s learning? And how close do the images match with reality?

Do you deal with blurry snapshots, the result of imperfect tools that aren’t quite calibrated right? Or maybe you’re working with a telephoto zoom lens, allowing you to focus intently on some elements of learning but leaving little insight into others. Perhaps you’re crafting an oil painting – beautiful, yes, but requiring exhaustive work each time.

Capturing the complexity of a student’s learning is an almost impossible task. Maybe that’s why so many educators are thinking again about digital portfolios. Hanover Education even named them one of four key learning developments for 2015. So what makes digital portfolios so different from paper ones, which have been around for years? A lot, it turns out. 

1. They're easier

I once knew a teacher who was the portfolio master. Once or twice a week as we were leaving school, she’d be carting home her buckets of student work to be commented on, assessed and then glued into the student portfolios. 

Today there’s a much easier solution. With a digital portfolio that can be accessed at home or school, there’s no need to cart work back and forth. And you can put away the glue as well.

2. They foster student ownership

My former colleague’s approach wasn’t only more work, it also lacked student involvement. And while some paper portfolios are more student-centered, they can go only so far.

With a good digital portfolio, students can post several drafts of their work, reflecting on the changes. They can comment on other students’ work and respond in turn when a peer offers a compliment or a helpful suggestion. And the process of selecting items to share more widely can deepen learning. Digital portfolios in the classroom

3. They enable ongoing feedback

Paper also often results in one-way communication. This isn’t surprising – developing a robust feedback loop is tricky when every comment made needs to be written by hand and then passed back and forth.

Digital portfolios unlock so many more options. Once students post an assignment, feedback can come right away from teachers, parents, specialists – even experts from the larger community. Responding is fast, and everyone knows what’s going on with the learners they are committed to helping. 

4. They reduce environmental impact

I remember the day I found out how much money my school spent on photocopier and paper costs every year. It was horrifying.

That’s another thing I love about digital portfolios – they’re so much easier on the budget and the environment. By putting project expectations and rubrics within a digital portfolio and then having students capture their work (digital or not) in the cloud, we can drastically reduce costs.

5. They span multiple years

I’m not ashamed to admit it – I’m a pack rat (or family archivist, as I prefer). I’ve kept every craft my four-year-old has ever created. But most of that paper just gets stuffed in a box and is too soon forgotten. That’s often the fate of a paper portfolio as well.

Going digital changes everything. A student who starts such a portfolio in kindergarten could have a record that spans learning the alphabet to writing a resume. And teachers would have insight into all the learning that took place in earlier years.Digital portfolios in the world

6. They capture a wide range of learning

An educator I know recently said something that stuck with me: education isn’t a place – it’s what we do, all day and every day. It would be ridiculous to define learning as only what happens within classroom walls. And yet when you use a traditional portfolio, that’s usually what we see.

But with digital tools, sports competitions, band performances or other after-school activities can be captured and placed in their digital portfolios as well. So when students apply for jobs or college placement, they can demonstrate a much fuller picture of their learning. 

7. They foster digital literacy

We hear all the time that students are digital natives. I read recently that 83 percent of millennials sleep with their phones! So why not move our portfolios into the digital space – it’s where our students live.

But more than that, the right digital portfolio provides students with a safe space to learn the skills they need. Because even though our students are digital natives, their technology skills can still be lacking. When students have ownership for posting work, reflecting and commenting in a digital portfolio, they can practice strong digital literacy skills and find out how to build the right digital footprint. 

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Topics: Assessment Student-Led Learning