To Leap Ahead

Using digital portfolios to transform the classroom.

GUEST COLUMN | by Chris Besse

CREDIT FreshGrade progress.pngThe Germans have a saying, vorsprung durch technik. You’ve probably heard it before—Audi has used the phrase as a slogan for 30 years. Roughly translated, it means ‘progress through technology.’ There’s no single word that is an exact English equivalent of ‘vorsprung’, but ‘to leap ahead’ comes close.

Today’s generation is more at ease with technology than any that have come before them. Technology is changing the way students learn and the way teachers teach. To see ‘vorsprung durch technik’ in action, you need only look at digital portfolios and the way they are enabling educators to drive change in assessment.

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”

Thanks to advancement in technology, combined with research validating observational methods and support from public policy, educators are moving beyond the reliance on summative assessment and traditional letter grades. Using digital portfolios to document and capture learning, teachers can combine traditional grading with ongoing feedback. This method allows for enhanced communication, greater ownership of student learning, personalization and parent engagement in the learning process.

The Evolution of Communication

Traditional assessment in the form of a letter grade provides the student a snapshot of how they are performing at a moment in time. Letter grades do a poor job with providing teachers with data about a student’s strengths or weakness and give parents little information about how they can support their child. When it comes to telling us how much a child has grown, or what skills they have developed, a grade is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Digital portfolios have made it easy for teachers to capture learning and provide personalized feedback on the go. Instead of waiting until the end of term to report learning via report cards, teachers can communicate progress with students and teachers systematically. By capturing and documenting learning, teachers can collect evidence of the learning journey that can be accessed throughout the year. Assessment becomes more data-driven, feedback can be more constructive and testing less stressful for all parties involved.

The late Steve Jobs said, “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” We are seeing educators and leaders doing some truly wonderful things with digital portfolios.

Take reading for example. Educators are using audio tools to track reading process, tagging that activity, and allowing students and parents to go back and hear throughout the school year how their reading has progressed. Parents tell us, “Not only am I hearing the progression but even listening to the way that the teacher is correcting my child has made me better at reading with them at home.” Stories like that come from a mindset of, “Let’s try to create some variables and give teachers a variety of tools to use.”

Helping Students Think Critically About Their Learning and Reflection

Using digital portfolio tools is an effective way to teach students the ability to think critically about the products of their learning and the development of their skill set. Thanks to research from leaders like John Hattie, we know that it is also an effective method of increasing student outcomes. Teachers like Samantha Wise, a 3rd grade teacher from Ohio, are having great success using this method.

“We are a school that loves to incorporate technology and 21st century skills, so we were looking for a digital aspect to our portfolio and reporting system,” said Wise. “I love using portfolios to share student work, communicate with parents and students, and to get the students involved in sharing their work and passion for learning with their family members. I have had the same class for the last two years, and it has been awesome to see their mastery of posting, commenting, and determining what to put on their portfolios. They are always excited to share the media they create, writing pieces, project progress and the mastery of the content they are learning.”

In some classes, where checking in with every student can be a challenge, digital portfolios offer students and educators a new channel for conversation and partnership. In addition to self-reflection, students are also able to draw attention to their work for help or celebration.

Allowing for Personalization

Growth looks different for every student. Educators have told us that using digital portfolios helps them know their students better. With all their communication in one place, it is easy for students to post questions and comments for teachers to view and respond to them. They also allow for students to pursue areas of interest outside the curriculum and demonstrate learning in those areas, or to demonstrate understanding of curricular standards in forms of their own choosing.

Digital portfolios “create another dialogue beyond the classroom,” said high school art teacher Sarah Scott. “It starts a conversation more than email does.” In class, Sarah can pick up on visual cues that students are struggling or excelling, but comments from students in digital portfolios provided her with a different perspective. Some students who were working very successfully were struggling internally with their creations and creative process. Sarah now uses those insights to directly address some of the general challenges for the group or the more specific challenges faced by individual students.

Parent Engagement

Parental involvement in a student’s education is consistently found to improve academic performance. Technology helps us increase parent engagement by bringing parents closer to their child’s learning. It can bring student progress directly to a mobile device in the form of notifications or an email summary. This means that parents can track their child’s learning journey wherever they are.

“I believe the real power lies in how digital portfolios connect home and school,” said 6th and 7th grade teacher Rob Heinrichs. “One small example can be found in how parents have responded to the speeches my students have done this week. I took video of every student performing their speeches and posted to their individual portfolios. Parents were able to watch their child’s speech only minutes after their child performed it for the class. They were able to give their child feedback right away. I also gave my students the task of watching their speeches and reflecting on how they could improve their public speaking. Finally, I have my own feedback for student learning. Portfolios make the reflective/feedback cycle possible in exciting ways that I have not ever been able to do so easily. My parents love knowing how their children are doing, and I feel like I am finally able to give meaningful feedback that students actually take to heart.”

When you can get students really focused on talking about their learning and demonstrate evidence of learning, then there is a real chance for change. Technology will continue to have a significant role in the advancement of education in general and assessment specifically. As technology advances, an educator’s abilities increase. That’s vorsprung durch technik!

Chris Besse is President and COO of FreshGrade Education Inc., a learning collaboration and digital portfolio platform company focused on making learning visible to meet the challenges facing teachers, parents, and students in a 21st-century classroom.


    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: