At one high school, computer wizard and science teacher Scott Horan signed up 20 students in a digital portfolio class to organize the entire project of documenting their schoolmates’ work. “We treat it just like a yearbook-no teacher has any say as to what goes in,” he says. “At the end of the year kids can take the disk home and put it on their mantel if they like-it’s for them to display.”
Each student in Horan’s class is the contact person for a dozen or more outside it, who have agreed to enter all their important accomplishments-from the big football game or school play to a recital, an exhibition, or a final paper-in digital form. The material is collected at lunchtime, when kids from the digital portfolio class sit at a special table; then they take the videos, audios, artwork, or text and translate it into the permanent record.
“We are not editors,” Horan declares. “We put in work warts and all. We want students to own this whole portfolio idea before we start using it to assess them.” Nonetheless, the students themselves do notice and comment on the quality of their peers’ work. “It’s well known that kids respect other kids’ opinions more than anyone else’s,” he says, “and next come employers and colleges. Teachers are the least respected audience.”
Ultimately, Eastem will also use the digital portfolios as an assessment record, just as Thayer does- though Horan hopes kids will maintain a non-assessment portfolio as well. Because Kentucky’s Education Reform Act already requires portfolio assessment in English and mathematics, with science and social studies soon to be added, Eastem is already knee-deep in file cabinets. A high-tech system, he expects, would solve this problem even as it presents its own storage challenges.
“One of the reasons this is taking so long is that you need a 2- gigabyte drive to save material on CD-ROM for 200 students,” he says. “No student’s portfolio is going to take up more than about 20 megabytes of memory. Still, that requires a massive storage capability-you’re looking at a large tape backup drive system.” Horan, who manages a computer store in Louisville himself, advises schools not to plan budgets for such projects based on what products currently cost. “The industry is growing and proliferating,” he says. “Prices will come down.”
Aside from acting as a superb organizing tool, what does the digital portfolio add to the quality of assessment practices? Among both teachers and students, its developers hope, it can raise awareness of what each task reveals about student learning. It can provide instantaneous comparisons of student work across the spectrum and at several points during the school career. And it can spark a useful dialogue between student and teacher as the work included undergoes revision along the way.
“My view is that teacher and student must go through a long-term negotiation aimed at raising the quality of the initial work,” says Mark Gordon, a school librarian who recently moved from New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School to Oceana High School in Pacifica, California. “The digital form is ideal for teacher input.” For that matter, portfolios could also serve to evaluate teacher feedback, Gordon says, raising the quality of the entire learning dialogue.
At scholastic.com they point out that digital portfolios also could help drive meaningful student work well before the point of assessment, observes Judith Shlink, a teacher from Elmwood Junior-Senior High School in Elmwood, Illinois. “Individual assessment portfolios would make it easier to set the standards at the beginning of a course, then let students move on into independent work or the next class as soon as they demonstrate they’ve met them,” she says. “We’d like to set up classes along a coaching model, moving through modules that create problems for kids to solve at their own pace.”
If colleges were to accept a digital portfolio instead of a conventional transcript, its advocates say, a critical barrier to serious school change might at last be breached. Only half jokingly, one teacher at the Coalition’s 1993 Fall Forum suggested that prestigious high schools not allow college recruiters to visit unless they could guarantee they had the equipment to read CD-ROM portfolios in their admissions offices. Employers, too, could review evidence of real student work digitally in a far more meaningful form than school records usually supply. And accreditation committees or state education departments could select random samples from districts to get a richer picture of school performance.
Breaking Staff Isolation
Aside from the many ways that technology can open up students’ horizons to a world of learning, it has enormous power to break through the traditional isolation of classroom teachers. At Essential schools around the country, teachers are tapping into electronic communications networks to trade assignments, coordinate student projects, plan and attend workshops, get information, collaborate with other professionals, apply for jobs, and ask expert advice.