E-Learning | Q&A

A Balanced Approach to E-Portfolios

An e-portfolio pioneer discusses the value that e-portfolios provide in the K-12 learning environment, what's holding them back in the age of standardized assessments, and which tools teachers can use to improve the effectiveness of e-portfolios in their classrooms.

In 1991, long before the term "e-portfolio" was being used in the educational space, Helen Barrett began dabbling with the idea of creating online repositories where students could store, manipulate, share, reflect upon, and archive the work that they were doing in school.

That exploration led to a grant that Barrett, who was a part-time professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage at the time, used to experiment with a concept that would eventually become known as the electronic portfolio, or "e-portfolio." By definition, e-portfolios are collections of text, electronic files, blog entries, hyperlinks, multimedia, and images that demonstrate learning outcomes, skills, and competencies.

"I created my own e-portfolio and then recreated it multiple times to get a sense of what the tool was and how it could be used effectively in an educational setting," said Barrett. When Web 2.0 tools entered the picture, Barrett stepped up her work in this area and began using Google Sites and Google Apps to create easily sharable, collaborative portfolios.

Having created more than 40 different versions of her e-portfolio since initially dabbling in the field in the early-1990s, Barrett is a pioneer in an arena that many K-12 educators are just beginning to recognize as a valuable component of their classrooms.

Here, Barrett discusses how far e-portfolios have come, how they can be effectively leveraged in the classroom, the challenges they pose, and the benefits that they provide.

Bridget McCrea: What is the e-portfolio's role in the K-12 classroom right now?

Helen Barrett: Portfolios went away institutionally over the last decade because of the standardized test. In this era of No Child Left Behind, some people believe that portfolios can replace standardized tests but that idea bridges two different learning philosophies.

A standardized portfolio is an oxymoron; if it's being implemented in lieu of standardized assessments then you lose the student in the process. Portfolios came out of the writing discipline via the constructivist learning model. When you have to so highly structure them to use them for high-stakes accountability, you lose that personal ownership over the portfolios. One school in the Northeastern U.S., for example, implemented e-portfolios using the Sakai Project system and the portfolios completely lacked student individuality and personalization. The portfolios looked like textbooks; they didn't "look" like the students who were actually creating them.

McCrea: What are the most effective tools for implementing e-portfolios in the K-12 classroom?

Barrett: First, ask yourself why you're doing this, what the purpose is, what your vision is for the classroom, school, or district, and what you're trying to achieve. Then consider the two different approaches to using e-portfolios. The first is the student-centered approach, where students take ownership of learning and use their portfolios to maintain a persistent learning record over time. The portfolio helps them set their own learning goals, express their own views of strengths, assess their weaknesses and achievements, and share their work with others.

The other type of portfolio is used more or less for formative and summative assessments. This teacher- and institution-centered approach to the development of the portfolios includes an analytic framework that allows teachers or institutions to collect data through the use of rubrics to quantify that data. They can look at the student's work and then assess that work based on those rubrics and collect quantified data based on that information.

McCrea: Which approach is more effective?

Barrett: There must be a balance between these two approaches. Too often I've seen e-portfolios only created for assessment purposes, with the students' interests, needs, or priorities not necessarily emphasized.

One school that's managed to achieve the right balance is High Tech High of San Diego, where students are given a structure for their portfolios but not a "fill in the blanks" portfolio. They use the e-portfolios three times a year to do a presentation of learning. The digital portfolios, or "DPs," are public by design and accessible online, although parents can opt out if they so desire. I visited the school two years ago, and, when I asked the students about their DPs, their eyes lit up.

McCrea: How are different grades using e-portfolios in K-12?

Barrett: I've seen them used as early as third grade with students managing the technology themselves. For the younger grades a "class portfolio" or a blog seem to work best, with the teacher handling the technology side of things and the students contributing, sharing, and collaborating.

One way to do it is by storing work chronologically to represent learning over time and allow for reflection. Students can reflect on the past, present, or future by looking at the chronologically ordered work and by organizing it online with tags and categories.

Another option is the showcase portfolio, which is organized thematically. Going back to the High Tech High example, students go through the work they've finished over the last semester and select specific pieces that they want to highlight.

Teachers are using applications like Blogger, WordPress, Edublogs, Google Sites, or any other number of Web 2.0 tools as the platform to create both types of portfolios. I'm working with a district in Texas right now where teachers are using Edublogs to implement e-portfolios for students in grades 3-6. Another school in Auckland, New Zealand is using Blogger in a similar fashion and using the e-portfolios to help students reflect on their work over time.

McCrea: Is there a point where e-portfolios become nothing more than busy work in the classroom?

Barrett: Reflection is not busy work. If it's perceived as such then the e-portfolio strategy is unfocused and not meaningful for the student. Reflection is the heart and soul of the e-portfolio. Students need a place to reflect. It used to be done in paper-based journals and this is the online version of that. Technology has also taken some of the "busy work" out of the process by making it much easier to facilitate the pulling together of a showcase portfolio--without having to shuffle a lot of paper around.

3 E-Portfolio Resources

Balancing the Two Faces of E-Portfolios

Introduction to K-12 E-Portfolios

Portfolio Examples: Most K-12 e-portfolios are private, but High Tech High publishes its students' digital portfolios openly online.

McCrea: Are e-portfolios typically teacher-driven?

Barrett: I'm hoping that they're student-driven but that probably isn't always going to happen. When I look at who is leading the charge right now I'd say it's primarily a classroom phenomenon although there are some districts that are starting to adopt e-portfolios for student learning and formative assessments. At the district level, however, the accountability factor is usually built into the implementation and some of the key, student-centered properties and characteristics tend to get lost. They lose that choice and voice because the e-portfolios tend to be much more standardized and highly structured. As I mentioned earlier, being able to strike a balance between student creativity and school accountability is extremely important.

McCrea: Will the e-portfolio continue to evolve and perhaps take on a bigger role in the K-12 classroom?

Barrett: I am seeing a greater awareness of the power of this tool for student learning. I think we're going to see more evidence that the e-portfolio is becoming not so much a tool to change the high-stakes accountability environment, but one that will transform the way students can take control of and showcase their own learning. The more we can emphasize students' self-assessment and their own collection, selection, and reflection wrapped around the entire e-portfolio environment, the more we'll see of them adopted in the classroom.