E-portfolios :: Making Things E-asy
A young teacher’s implementation of a simple-to-usee-portfolio program is helping to reform a troubled EastCoast high school.
With test scores dipping, dropout rates spiking, and disciplinary problems multiplying, student motivation was in short supply at Hope High School in East Providence, RI, when, in 2002, the state commissioner of education stepped in to stop the slide. After months of planning, the state reorganized the school into three smaller, semi-independent “learning communities,” each with a reduced student body and its own principal. All three communities would operate in the same building, and each would maintain a partnershipwith a local college or university.
Under this “triune” system, each learning community now offers a distinct curriculum: the Hope Leadership School teaches business, law and government, and Junior ROTC; the Hope Information Technology School allows students to work in television production or to focus on computers and computer networking; and Hope Arts provides courses in theater,music, dance, and fine arts.
In the midst of this reclamation project is Amy Weigand. Weigand joined the faculty of the newly established arts community in 2005 because she wanted to be part of the Hope High reform effort. During the previous three years, she had taught at Burrillville High School in Harrisville, RI—her first teaching job—where she got some hands-on experience with electronic portfolios. “Burrillville was into e-portfolios early,” she says, “so I was used to this idea of collecting and uploading digital examples of students’ work. E-portfolioshave been a part of my teaching from the beginning.”
E-portfolios, which emerged in the early 1990s, employ a combination of technologies to create and publish a collection of student work, which is stored in digital formats, either online oron disks. (See “Defining E-portfolios.”)
Burrillville was among a number of Rhode Island schools to implement various e-portfolio systems shortly after the state established a set of requirements to satisfy the No Child Left Behind Act, Weigand says. All Rhode Island schools are now required to choose two of four possible types of evidence of a potential graduate’s subject proficiency: senior projects, exhibitions, end-of-course exam results, or portfolios. There is no requirement that the portfolios be digital, but Weigand predicts that, once a school has the technology to support them,e-portfolios will become the norm in her state.
“That’s where we will have to go eventually,” she says, “if for no other reason than the fact that we’re going to run out of space to store three-ring binders. To have these things magically stored in this virtual place that doesn’t take up any space in the buildingis pretty compelling.”
Weigand actually studied under one of the creators of the e-portfolio solution she implemented at Hope Arts. She first saw Digication’s Spotlight e-portfolio application while a student at RISD. She took a class taught by Kelly Driscoll on introducing the technology into the classroom. Driscoll and her husband, Jeffrey Yan, another RISD faculty member, had developed the program.
"[E-portfolios] can provide multiple examples of each student's work...and they can be viewed anywhere in the world, literally. What you end up with is something like an online gallery." — Amy Weigand, Hope High School
Yan and Driscoll, educators by profession, are a somewhat reluctant pair of entrepreneurs. They both currently teach graduate- level classes at RISD, which is also where they earned their own graduate degrees. Back in 2001, dissatisfied with available applications, the couple began developing their own platform for publishing their students’ work on the web. “We built something really, really simple,” Yan recalls. “No frills;just something that would let us get our work done.”
Word of the couple’s pet project got around RISD’s Department of Art and Design Education, and eventually got the attention of the department head, Paul Sproll. In 2002, with Sproll’s encouragement, Yan and Driscoll took their show on the road and founded Digication, which now sells two components that the couple developed: the Campus course management software and the Spotlight e-portfolio solution. Today, more than 450 schools in the United States use the programs; about a third of them are K-12 institutions.
Modeled after a webmail client, such as Yahoo Mail or Hotmail, the application was designed to be dead easy to use, Yan says. He points to his company’s lack of training materials as evidence of the simplicity of the software. “I like to think that if someone can go online to the Yahoo website and create a Yahoo e-mail account, they can go to [our] site and set up an e-portfolio,” he says.
Interestingly, Spotlight is available free to the first 1,000 users in any accredited US school. Teachers, students, and alumni can sign up for an account on the company’s website and, with a few clicks of a mouse, create an e-portfolio, online course, or online community. Users also have access to all ofthe company’s online classroom tools.
“We certainly want this to be a sustainable business,” Yan says, explaining that the company makes money through the sale of services and support applications. “But we’re really educators first. Our ultimate goal is to help people to teach and learn better.”
Ease of Use
A key difference between an e-portfolio solution and the tools commonly used for building websites is ease of use, Sproll says, noting that RISD itself now uses digital portfolios. “The problem with students designing and building their own websites is that it’s so time-consuming,” he says. “Three years ago, we had our students building their own sites with Dreamweaver. It’s a fine program, but if you’re not studying to become a webmaster, it’s too much.”
Weigand agrees that simplicity is essential to the efficacy of the technology. She is able to set up online portfolios of student work with just a series of mouse clicks, and no special funding. “It’s not about programming,” she says. “It’s not about knowing HTML or Flash. It’s click here and there, and then you’re done.”
E-portfolios are proving to be a practical tool for Weigand, because they allow her to store digital representations of drawings, paintings, and sculpture online, rather than scrounging up cabinet and closet space for the real thing. “The e-portfolios are great for this,” Weigand says. “You can provide multiple views of each piece, multiple examples of each student’s work—all by photographing, scanning, or typing and attaching files. And they can be viewed anywhere in the world, literally. What you end up with is something like an online gallery.”
Sproll recommends that any school new to digital portfolios make sure to keep technical support close at hand. “We’re constantly tweaking our portfolios to meet the needs of our program designs,” he says. “That’s very important to us.” Sproll knows he’s fortunate to have at his disposal two of the technology’s pioneers. “It’s one of the best things about having Jeff and Kelly closely connected to RISD. When we have suggestions,they’re right here.”
As far as Yan is concerned, schools should not commit to any technologies that require a lot of technical support. He says the deciding factor in any e-portfolio purchase should be ease of use. “It’s one of the most overlooked but most important factors in the successful adoption of any technology in any school, whether it’s K-12 or higher, however theoretically cool the technology might be,” he says. “Teachers are already overworked. The last thing they need is a 20-hour training session. That’s old-school thinking. If a product is difficult touse, it simply will not be adopted.”
It’s also important to get the students involved in populating and maintaining their own portfolios, Weigand adds. Currently, Weigand takes all the photos that populate her students’ portfolios herself. You could call her Hope Arts’ one-woman e-portfolio show. “This is a pretty big job for one person,” she says.“You’ll definitely want to get the kids involved. It’s more practical,logistically, but it’s also part of giving them a more activerole in their own education.”
Focus on...PAUL SPROLL
The British arts educator was an early adopter of e-portfolios, seeing their potential to enhance teaching and learning.
A key component of the Hope High School (RI) reorganization plan was the formation of new educational partnerships with area universities. Hope Arts, one of the three learning communities that the high school was divided into by the new plan, found itself with a familiar partner, thanks to Hope High’s longstanding relationship with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The man behind that relationship is Paul Sproll.
Sproll is the head of RISD’s Department of Art and Design Education. A native of Bath, England, he taught for two decades in high schools in England and Wales. He came to the United States for the first time to teach high school in Maine as part of a yearlong Fulbright Teacher Exchange. He later returned to the United States to accept a teaching associateship from Ohio State University, and to pursue advanced studies in arts education. Sproll’s life’s work has been dedicated to his belief in the value of arts education, specifically the study of design in elementary and secondary schools. In 1992, he founded RISD’s Center for the Advancement of Art and Design Education, which established an institutional infrastructure to support the professional development of K-12 teachers and, more recently, programming for high school students.
In 2003, Sproll facilitated a formal partnership between RISD and Hope Arts. Later, he worked with the school’s administrators and arts teachers to articulate a clear vision for an arts-based public high school, and he helped to develop the curriculum.
“We’ve been sending student teachers [to Hope High] since 1990,” he says. “After the restructuring, it was only natural to say, let’s become more engaged with Hope Arts.”
Sproll has long been interested in the role of technology in teacher education, so when two of his own instructors developed an e-portfolio program for their own use at RISD a few years ago, he became an enthusiastic early adopter.
“I guess you could say that I became a beta tester,” Sproll says. “We were new to digital technology back then, but we felt that it had great potential. And it was clear to me right away that this technology could create opportunities for teaching and learning that were not available before.”
Sproll says that e-portfolio technology has emerged as a critical piece of his work at RISD. He believes it is imperative that anyone training to be a teacher, but especially an arts and design instructor, understands how to use this technology to enhance student learning.
“The e-portfolio allows you to archive a wide variety of materials, and then to disseminate those materials to a larger community,” he says. “The fact is, those materials can be incredibly valuable. The electronic portfolios allow us to reuse them.We are able to delve into a portfolio and draw out examples of previous work so that they become part of our instructional content, rather than just being archived on a shelf somewhere under the label, ‘Last Year’s Work.’ When students see other students’ work, it accelerates the learning curve enormously. It actually starts to make the teaching more authentic.”
And then there’s the e-portfolio rub: These applications are useless without the peripheral technologies to support them.“You have to make sure that your school is ready, technologically,”Weigand says. “You have to have the computers, thescanners, the digital cameras. If you don’t have those things,it’s very difficult to make one of these things work. If youcan’t get your students’ work up on the site, quickly and easily,what’s the point?”
If someone can go online and create a Yahoo e-mail account, they can goto [our] site and set up an e-portfolio....We certainly want this to be asustainable business. But we’re really educators first. Our ultimate goalis to help people to teach and learn better. — Jeffrey Yan, Digication
The impact of Weigand’s work with digital portfolios on Hope Arts’ turnaround efforts is tough to quantify, Weigand admits. Although the school’s supply of modern, internet-connected computers grew substantially with the reorganization, Hope Arts is not a technology-driven school, and she doubts that many of her colleagues will recognize the benefits of e-portfolios until they “feel the stress of the class of 2008.” That’s the first class to graduate under the state’s new NCLB requirements, under which each student must have a portfolio with 18 pieces of work.
And yet, word is getting around to her Hope Arts colleagues. History teacher Jonathan Mendelsohn and English as a Second Language teacher Erin Strnad, for example, used e-portfolios in an RISD summer workshop conducted by Sproll. They submitted to Sproll student work on art and literacy,which he uploaded to the Hope website.
Sproll sees e-portfolios as a potentially critical component of the high school’s curriculum. “What I see in the way those teachers are taking ideas, working with students, and publishing their work is a very interesting model,” he says.“What is so compelling about it is that their students recognizethat their work is being published, and they take a greatdeal of pride in that.”
It’s this newfound pride that Weigand hopes can help interest the kids of East Providence to overcome their environment, which exposes them to frequent violence and a host of social problems. In a school like Hope Arts, Weigand believes that eportfolios can be used to keep kids engaged in their schoolwork. “It’s incredibly motivating for students to be able to publish their work and to see that what they do matters to somebody other than a bunch of teachers,” she says. “Suddenly, their parents, grandparents, and friends can see it. They can see what other students are doing, compare their work, and get peer feedback. They can even display their work for potential colleges. This is an overlooked aspect of the e-portfolio that makes it justas powerful as a teaching tool.
“Most people think of electronic portfolios logistically, as just a better way to collect and organize student work. And they are that, for sure. They provide good storage, they can be used for grading purposes, and they can be used to demonstrate profi- ciency. But I’m using the technology now as both a resource for student and teacher collaboration, and as a powerful motivator for the students, who get to do something amazing.” She pauses for emphasis. “Publish their work.”
E-portfolios differ from other similar digital systems. They are not merely anaccount of one’s own history, like an electronic scrapbook, or a personalspace for expression, like a blog. E-portfolios are designed specifically tohighlight skills, represent work, and organize information. Teachers and studentsuse them to collect audio, video, graphics, and textual “artifacts,” suchas work samples, assessments, resumes, lesson plans, and personal reflections.According to the definition created by Educause’s National LearningInfrastructure Initiative, these collections are“designed for presentation to one or more audiences for a particular rhetoricalpurpose.” E-portfolios have been divided into three main types:
- Developmental, which provide a record of things that an individual has done over a period of time, and may be directly tied to learner outcomes.
- Reflective, which include personal reflections on the content and what it means for the individual’s development.
- Representational, which show an individual’s achievements in relation to particular work or developmental goals.
The three types may be blended to achieve different learning, personal, or work-related outcomes.
Weigand says Hope High’s digital makeover still has far to go. “There are schools in this state that are light-years beyond us. When the [NCLB requirements] were passed in 2003, some people got right on it; others who didn’t are just now starting to stress. Eventually, I think all three learning communities will move to digital portfolios. It won’t just be artwork, but samples of things from all the subject areas: a paper, a test, a science project, a lab report. When we have e-portfolios for every student, that will significantly change things. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.”
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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.