Many students have watched game tapes with their coaches—of a basketball game, for instance—looking for moments at which different choices would have led to different outcomes and seeing their progress over time. We can use digital technology to accomplish the same goals in the classroom.
Although digital technology is often associated with speed, we can use it to slow things down—to make a kind of game tape of a class—giving students the opportunity to review and reflect on their work. That's what happened at my school when we implemented a digital portfolio project that helped students think more deeply about the way they learn and gain insight about themselves as writers and thinkers.
Students often view schoolwork as a series of discrete assignments that lack coherence. Digital portfolios can alter this perception. When students post their work throughout the year on blogs or wikis, they can easily review it and, at the end of the year, assemble selected pieces into a portfolio. These digital collections enable students to see both their progress over time and areas that are still challenging for them. (See "Setting Up Digital Portfolios.")
As one of the two 6th grade language arts teachers who created the portfolio initiative in our school, I have observed three advantages of digital portfolios over traditional portfolios: Digital portfolios ease the process of collecting student work, they can include multimedia, and they can be viewed—and commented on—by people outside the classroom.
Putting It into Practice
At the beginning of the 2009–10 school year, each student in our middle school was given his or her own blog hosted on our server using the free WordPress platform. The initiative began in language arts classes, with students using the blogs to share their writing, but eventually the practice spread through other content areas as well.
In addition to traditional writing lessons focused on grammar and content, students received early minilessons on blogging basics, such as posting, tagging, and online safety. Throughout the year, as projects became increasingly complex, we covered more complicated skills, such as inserting pictures and embedding objects. Students in other content areas posted assignments on their blogs; these included recordings of band pieces they were practicing, science projects, and analyses of current events for history class. Some students also posted writing they had completed in their free time.
At the end of the year, when it was time for my students to select work to feature in their language arts portfolios, they didn't have to rummage through their binders or piles of paper at home. I was also spared the burden of taking up classroom space to store student work, as in previous years. Instead, students simply browsed through their blogs, looking for five pieces of work that fell into the following categories: multimedia, creative, literature response, post from a different class, and free choice. They created a new page on their blogs and linked to these pieces of work.
For example, one student's portfolio included a Japanese kamishibai, which combines picture cards to tell a folktale, using VoiceThread (multimedia); a cartoon created to illustrate a traditional German folktale (creative); a descriptive piece that connected an experience the student had at a Parisian market to an experience a character had in a language arts text (literature response); a PowerPoint created in history class with ads for fictional ancient Mayan products (post from another class); and a letter that one character wrote to another based on a class text (free choice).
If students did not have a digital copy of the work they wanted to showcase, they created a new post and added the text to their blogs; if the work involved an object, they took a picture of it and uploaded the picture.
After choosing and linking to assignments, students wrote a reflection on each assignment addressing the following areas: what they learned about themselves as a reader/writer/thinker; what they would do differently if they were to do the assignment again; and how the assignment demonstrated an area of improvement or strength. I encouraged them to include a mix of what they considered their best work and work that demonstrated ways in which they had improved or could improve.
What They Learned About Learning
Students' reflections often centered on the process of creating the work. A student wrote,
One of my sentences didn't make a lot of sense. … I think I rushed this assignment. I learned that I should take my time on all my assignments, even if they look easy.
Students also noted ways in which their work gave them insight into what they might be capable of. One student chose an assignment that required rewriting a scene in a class text from a different character's perspective. She wrote,
The purpose was to show our understanding of the characters' perspectives. I feel proud of this because I think [the scene I created] is actually a story worth reading, not just another old monologue. I learned that I have a knack for perspectives. I once read a book about four kids, and every fourth chapter was by one kid. I might be able to do that someday.
Because the portfolios were digital, students were not limited to written assignments. Students included music they composed for orchestra, slide shows they created for history, and cartoons they drew for world language classes. One student wrote about a digital poster—a graphical blog, or glog—that she created using the education version of Glogster:
My style and Glogster are like two pieces of a puzzle that fit. I learned that I enjoy 3-D or animation-like creations. … If I could redo my glogs, I would make them more organized. They were too busy, making it hard for the viewer to grasp the main idea.
Because the blogs were a conversational space, students' classmates and I could post reactions to or questions about each portfolio, which further developed students' evaluation of their work. Some reflections lacked the level of sophistication one might desire, but research has suggested that metacognition is not an all-or-nothing skill. Instead, it develops gradually; it's a muscle we can strengthen (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). As students mature, teachers can encourage increasing depth of reflection in student portfolios.
Deep Thinking in the Digital Age
Digital technology has also enhanced our Socratic seminars. In this practice, students sit in two concentric circles (Copeland, 2005). Those in the inner circle speak, while those in the outer circle observe and coach the speakers. Typically, the teacher observes the discussion but does not participate.
The group discussion should center on asking questions and sharing ideas about the text rather than creating a polemical debate. A typical seminar might address the question, “What makes a good teacher?” or “What does it mean to be lucky?” in relation to a text that we have read as a class. The purpose of the seminar is to demonstrate understanding and critical analysis of the text and to practice listening and speaking skills.
So what does digital technology offer to this centuries-old method? It enables students to reflect on the conversation after the bell rings. Recording the conversation and posting it for students to review promotes analysis of the conversation itself—what strategies were effective, what messages body language and speech conveyed, and what group dynamics were in play during the discussion.
I recorded my classes' Socratic seminars using a relatively inexpensive digital video camera and posted the recording to our class blog. During the seminar, students in the outer circle still recorded written feedback. However, instead of asking participants in the inner circle to reflect afterward on their contributions to the discussions, I asked them to watch the footage on the blog and post their answers to the following questions:
- What is one thing you noticed when you watched the video that you were unaware of while the seminar was going on?
- Which group members did you see actively working to include others in the discussion?
- What seemed to be more effective at drawing other people into the conversation—asking questions or stating opinions? Why?
- If you could go back and add another thought to the Socratic seminar, what would you say?
Reflecting on Process
Students' reactions were considerably longer and more detailed after viewing the video than when they were asked to give written feedback on the discussion from memory. For example, students noted the following:
I noticed that many people were looking at their laptops rather than looking at and listening to the speaker. I think this is because they were preparing to get their opinion in right after the speaker finished.
I noticed that I did not talk as much as I thought I did; and when I did, everyone else was also talking at the same time.
Students interacted with one another's comments about the video, agreeing or disagreeing with what others perceived. This was a useful corrective for the over-inflation of value that people often give their own performances when asked to rate themselves (Ariely, 2010). Some students recognized that they had not considered the text as carefully as they might have or that a classmate's perspective made more sense than their own.
Reflecting on Content
Reflecting on the content of the discussion as well as on the process helped reinforce the text that students had read and discussed. In response to watching the video of his group discussing what makes a good teacher in conjunction with Susan Fletcher's Shadow Spinner—a novel about a young girl who helps legendary storyteller Shahrazad of the Arabian Nights come up with new stories—one student noted,
You walk into the Socratic seminar with a few notes about the best teachers, but you come out with a full understanding of the characters, how they teach, why they teach the way they do, if it is right to teach the way they do. . . . Most of the things you learn are things you would never have thought of. [Students offer] different opinions and thoughts about a difficult concept . . . so vital to having a full understanding of the book.
Another student noted that the seminar as well as the video helped expand her understanding of forgiveness. She wrote,
If I could add another comment to that seminar, it would be that Marjan, the Sultan, and Shahrazad caused each other to forgive, learn about forgiveness, and teach forgiveness in many different ways.
Downshifting with Digital Tools
Slowing down may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering technology's use in the classroom. But these examples show that technology can create spaces for students to become more reflective, introspective learners. By using digital portfolios and classroom recordings, students come to see their classroom work not as something they create, submit, and abandon, but rather as part of a larger process of growth and exploration.
Ariely, D. (2010). Upside of irrationality. New York: Harper.
Bransford, J., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
Copeland, M. (2005). Socratic circles. New York: Stenhouse.
Setting Up Digital Portfolios
How will the portfolio function?
If the portfolio will be a cumulative, static project that a student creates at the end of the year to showcase selected work, a wiki may be the best option because it is, in general, easier to customize and manage than a blog. A teacher can set up a page for each student to link to previous work or post new work. If students will post work in the portfolio throughout the year, a blog may be a better option because it is organized as a chronological series of posts, which makes organizing a larger number of posts less complicated. Either a class blog or an individual student blog can serve this function.
How much control is needed?
Teachers should consider how available they want the portfolios to be for others both inside and outside the school community to view or comment on. There are varying levels of privacy control on virtually all digital tools. Greater openness allows for a larger potential audience for students' work. Teachers should discuss responsible online practices with students, such as determining what personal information to publish and thinking about the effects of their posts on their reputation.
Is funding available?
Many digital tools are free for educational use. However, a teacher who has many students, wants guaranteed ad-free space, or wants more control over the look and feel of the site, may need to seek funding to purchase an upgraded version of the service.
What restrictions does the district or school place on the use of digital tools?
Some districts or schools limit the tools a teacher can use for publishing student work online. Check with district or school technology personnel before creating student portfolios to ensure that plans fit within the district's or school's guidelines.
What are the best platforms to use?
WordPress, Edublogs, Blogger, and Kidblog are popular blogging platforms; Wikispaces and PBWiki are well-known wiki options. Teachers should explore the features of different sites to ascertain which best meet their needs.
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Meredith Stewart teaches 6th grade language arts and 6th and 12th grade history at Cary Academy Middle School, Cary, North Carolina. She blogs at http://meredithstewart.com.
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