Digital Portfolios: Old wine in new bottles?

First of all I can not take credit for the awesome metaphor of old wine in new bottles as a way to unpack educational change. It is a phrase I have been asked to reflect upon as part of my last (yippee, almost there) course for my MA degree in Language & Literacy Education. After tracing major developments in research and theory over the past one hundred years, Dr. Robert Tierney positions our discussion group to “explore the notion that these are not just old wine in new bottles.” Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 3.18.27 PMBeing the efficient learner that I must be balancing school, work and family, I am exploring this notion in the context of digital portfolios. As the Communicating Student Learning Helping Teacher in a district where portfolios may (emphasis on may as this is optional) be created on FreshGrade in lieu of traditional reporting methods, this is a significant topic for me.

collaboration.jpgI am choosing to share these thoughts on a blog rather than the private space of UBC connect because I believe the time for change is now and the only way to start (or keep the momentum going if you have already started) is to open the dialogue and share, share, share. I welcome and invite all thoughts, questions, concerns and suggestions. Learning is reciprocal and we are all on this journey together: parents, students, teachers and everyone else interested in relevant and effective education. Rather than debate the best option (there really is no one size fits all, so we can just stop trying) what if we start pulling together our collective understanding and paradigms to simply explore new possibilities with a growth mindset? What if we approach roadblocks and concerns with curiosity rather than fear, and allow teachers and students as learning partners, to choose a path that makes sense for their journey?

Okay so my thoughts on the wine. I love wine, like actual liquid wine, preferably red. Perhaps that is why this metaphor resonates with me but I also appreciate the complexity of this simple phrase. Are digital portfolios just old wine in new bottles or are digital portfolios new wine in old bottles? A subtle difference with the exclusion of the word ‘just.’ See how beautifully dynamic language is and how personal the event of reading/meaning-making is?  For some “old wine in new bottles” can be seen as “just old wine,” a negative or criticism of recycling old ideas. For others, and this is where I land, wine is good because of the wine, not the bottle. In turn, bad wine is bad wine even in a shiny new bottle with a fantastic label. You know how frustrating it is when you splurge on that expensive bottle with the brilliant label only to find it tastes the same as your favourite bottle for half the price?  Frustrating, waste of time searching for something new and better and waste of money.

Something new and better or the latest buzz word in education: innovation. Are digital portfolios innovative? Yes and no. The tool, as in the actual technology that allows teachers and students to capture video and picture evidence in the learning moment, communicate simultaneously with parents in an online space and collaborate with all stakeholders to document personalized, evidence based learning maps, yes. I believe the technology in this case allows for new ways to capture and communicate learning. In my experience using FreshGrade it was a much better way to document learning, engage my students in the assessment process (I am talking 5 and 6 year olds by the way) and build reciprocal and meaningful relationships with my parents. That being said, the concept of portfolios is far from new and in my opinion not innovative. For me, portfolios are like a wonderfully  balanced red wine with full flavour and deep notes. Not the cheap stuff dressed up but a good wine that stands the test of time.  Perhaps digital portfolio’s have the potential to be culmination of good wine and good bottles? Quality assessment practices supported by research meets transformational technology

I use the word potential intentionally as the use of digital portfolios, like all technology is simply a tool. FreshGrade, Quio, OneNote or any of the other options for digital portfolios do not transform learning. Teachers transform learning alongside their students. Although the Surrey School District has chosen FreshGrade as our tool this is simply the bottle, the shell. The good stuff that will really make a difference for our learners is inside. For teachers embracing the shift from reporting as an event to the ongoing communication of learning with digital portfolios I hope you find time to consider what we already know. Back to the wine metaphor for just a moment. Just as good wine gets better with time we should not be approaching digital portfolios as some new phenomenon but building on the good work that has already been done. Although some of this research may seem old and not reference the technology we use today, much of it is still good and relevant, so why would we throw it away and start from scratch?

For example, I found an article published almost 20 years ago to be incredibly relevant to the discourse of digital portfolios today. In Portfolios: Assumptions, tensions, and possibilities Tierney (1998) discusses the potential for collections of student work in ‘learner-centered portfolios’ as a vehicle to transform the practices and goals of assessment. This is long before the advent of mobile tablets where teachers (and students) could quickly snap a picture, take a video or record an observation with ease and have it uploaded to a student portfolio immediately. Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 7.07.07 PM.pngBefore wifi was commonplace in schools and parents could have a virtual window into the classroom through blogs, portfolios and websites. Yet the possibilities for student engagement, meaningful descriptions of the learning as a process and the potential for teachers to use assessment to move learning forward remains the same. Why are we still talking about the fallacy that standardized tests, comparative assessments and weighted grades measure learning? Perhaps because some of the limitations with paper based portfolios left educators with few other options?

As we work towards the implementation of digital portfolios in our school district the same questions and concerns exist as with paper portfolios. What does a learner-centered portfolio include? In the early 1990’s portfolio-based writing assessment attracted the attention of several literacy scholars including Kathleen Yancey  and Rick Stiggins. Much like the discussions I have with teachers today around the shift from reporting to communicating student learning, Stiggins (1994) describes portfolios as a collection of learning rather than an assessment of the learner. Yancey (1992) defines a “portfolio pedagogy” where reflection and inquiry are foundational concepts to help teachers avoid the creation of a scrapbook. Her concerns align with the thoughts in a post by my colleague and friend Kelli Vogstad titled Digital Portfolios: Moving beyond the Glorified Scrapbook. When I review the big ideas with paper based portfolios as described by researchers such as Tierney, Stiggins and Yancey the foundation is the same for digital portfolios: learner-centered (even our youngest students should have choice & voice), reflective, inquiry based, formative, quality over quantity and designed to make learning visible (the process and connections, not the product).

Here are a few quotes that resonate for me from Tierney’s article (1998).

Learner-centered portfolios are:

  • a movement from summative to formative
  • sites for reflection and inquiry
  • a way to capture the unique patterns of learning by individuals
  • an opportunity for teachers to assume role of participant-observer
  • sites for growth in self-assessment (for teacher and student?)
  • an opportunity for teachers to use professional experience to guide learning 
  • sites for collaboration designed to support students, teachers and caregivers as they engage in conversations around curriculum and development
  • a place of exploration where students try out, try on, and test possibilities of who they are and who they might become

This aligns with my views of a quality digital portfolio. I believe this is the good wine that we can showcase in a new bottle. I am curious to know what other teachers using digital portfolios would add to the list above? What do you consider when designing and building your portfolios? What role do parents and students play? I believe we need to continually ask ourselves these questions to avoid a collection of work, much like the bursting pages of a paper folder, at the expense of an excellent opportunity to build on existing research and make a profound difference for our students.  

For teachers using digital portfolios I invite you to consider the 13 principals suggested by Tierney (1998) in Literacy assessment reform: shifting beliefs, principled possibilities and emerging practices and how they might be reflected in your practice.

  1. Assessments should emerge from the classroom rather than be imposed upon it.
  2. Effective testing requires teacher professionalism with teachers as learners.
  3. Assessment practices should be client centred and reciprocal.
  4. Assessment should be done judiciously, with teachers as advocates for students and ensuring their due process.
  5. Assessment extends beyond improving our tests to the purposes of assessment and how results from assessment are used, reported, contextualized, and perceived.
  6. Diversity should be embraced, not slighted.
  7. Assessment procedures may need to be non-standaridized to be fair to the individual.
  8. Simple-minded summaries, scores, and comparisons should be displaced with approaches that acknowledge the complex and idiosyncratic nature of literacy development. Straightforward comparisons across individuals are usually arbitrary, biased, and narrow.
  9. Some things that can be assessed reliably across raters are not worth assessing; some  things that are worth assessing may be difficult to assess reliably except by the same rater
  10. Assessment should be more developmental and sustained than piecemeal and shortsighted
  11. Most interpretations of results are not straightforward. Assessment should be viewed as ongoing and suggestive, rather than fixed or definitive.
  12. Learning possibilities should be negotiated with the students and stakeholders rather than imposed via standards and assessment that are preset, prescribed, or mandated.
  13. Assessment should be assessed in terms of its relationship with teaching and learning, including the opportunities learners are offered and the rights and respect they are accorded.

“Assessment practices should enrich teaching and learning” Tierney 1998




Suggestions moving forward?







Stiggins, R. J. (1994). Student-centered classroom assessment. New York: Merrill.

Tierney, R. J., Clark, C., Fenner, L., Herter, R. J., Simpson, C. S., & Wiser, B. (1998). Portfolios: Assumptions, tensions, and possibilities. Reading Research Quarterly33(4), 474-486.

Tierney, R. J. (1998). Literacy assessment reform: Shifting beliefs, principled possibilities, and emerging practices. The Reading Teacher51(5), 374.

Yancey, K. B. (1992). Portfolios in the writing classroom. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.


Digital Images:




Show me the Learning! Using Digital Portfolios to Communicate Student Learning.

Comfort zoneLast January I took a giant leap out of my comfort zone. I left an amazing classroom and school community to work as a District Helping Teacher. My primary responsibility is to provide support and guidance to educators in our district looking for innovative ways to communicate student learning.

This year, teachers in Surrey have the option to use digital portfolios with FreshGrade to document and communicate learning in lieu of traditional paper report cards. And, it is very exciting and scary, all at the same time.

Innovation with the intention of lasting and meaningful change is simply not easy because there are no instructions and one size does not fit all. As we navigate our way as a district down this very new road, we are creating and adjusting the map along the way. And to make it more exciting and scary all at once, there are many different maps. Surrey is one of the most diverse cities in the province and as such we have the opportunity to work with a plethora of families and communities. The opportunity to provide students and their families with a personalized learning portfolio is brilliant yet teachers who are choosing to do so are constantly wondering what does a quality digital portfolio look like? What is a valuable addition to a portfolio, how often is it updated? Where is the learning?

As a helpingparadigm teacher I love hearing these questions. It tells me that the educator I am working with is intentional and reflective. I believe this is the first step to creating a quality digital portfolio. As it truly is a paradigm shift from the current system we must constantly reflect and refine our practice to better meet the needs of our students. Keep the end in mind, make decisions towards that end and adjust as necessary. A quality digital portfolio mirrors quality assessment where the learning process in central and evidence is gathered to inform teaching and learning in meaningful ways.
As a classroom teacher my end was for each of my students to walk in to summer empowered to continue learning, alongside parents who felt confident to support their individual needs. To this end my documentation on FreshGrade needed to clearly show where a student was (strengths), where they were going (performance standard or goals) and specific markers for success, across the transparentcurriculum. This is where transparency, which I believe is the second step to creating quality portfolios is essential. Although as educators we know the power of formative assessment and appreciate the process of learning there are times when we need to summarize that learning and make sense of all the documentation for parents and students. In my practice the way to find the balance was to be open and honest with parents and students about my intentions with digital portfolios and invite their feedback, both positive and constructive.

I have the pleasure to work with hundreds of educators who are indeed reflective, intentional and transparent in their efforts to improve student learning through assessment. Although I know they are grounded in effective pedagogy and have stepped up to be leaders they are still looking for guidelines in their documentation to make learning visible and support students.  We seem to love acronyms in education so I have created one to keep in mind as we document student learning in FreshGrade: FRAME. I like this acronym because it reminds me that digital portfolios provide parents with a window into the classroom. Also, a framework for quality assessment focuses on learning as a process and as such is not a single event. The digital portfolio is only one part of the bigger picture where educators facilitate and communicate student learning.

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A quality digital portfolio highlights a students learning across the curriculum without overwhelming parents with too much information. Consider the following guidelines as you compile artifacts in FreshGrade as evidence of learning, and guide students as they choose what to add to their own portfolio

Is it formative and part of documenting progression towards a clear goal or learning intention? In this case you might consider creating an activity with custom objectives (I can statement) and including success markers or rubrics as part of the description so parents and students know where they are, where they are going and how they will know when they arrive. Choosing the anecdotal assessment and excusing students allows teachers to collect evidence over time. The combine feature and custom labels can help to keep artifacts organized.

Here is an example from Grade 2 Literacy


Is it relevant? As our purpose is to go beyond what students are doing and document learning it is important to include artifacts that will provide new information. For example, although students may write in their journals several times a week it is not necessary to take a picture of every entry. Picture and video evidence should be accompanied by the teachers descriptive feedback and be connected to a particular goal or learning intention. Also consider the relevance for a particular student. In the example above the teacher may have taken a picture of one or two students writing during a particular activity. One of the benefits of digital documentation is how personalized assessment can be.

Is it accessible such that parents and students can make a connection to the learning? Learning can be captured through pictures, notes, videos and uploaded documents. Consider what form will give your parents and students the best access to the learning.  What type of documentation will make the learning visible for a particular family? Parents who speak a language other than English may benefit from more pictures, mastery scale with symbols and concise feedback. Where technology access is limited outside of school, teachers might consider organizing portfolios where reports can be easily generated and printed. I recommend listening to the FreshGrade assessment and reporting webinar for more information about generating reports. With the proper organization, reports can be generated at any time to summarize the learning objectives and assessment of a personalized portfolio within minutes.

Is it meaningful and/or engaging? A quality digital portfolio is personalized and reflects student ownership. When students know what they need to do to be successful they will be more engaged in learning. Consider adding performance standards, criteria and rubrics to the activity description or as a resource. Giving students the opportunity to contribute to their portfolio can be very powerful. For example, teachers can create a quick add to post an essential question to all portfolios. Students can then add their feedback in various ways over time and the teacher can add comments and suggestions to guide the learning. The student app is a simple platform and has proven to be user friendly for even our youngest students to capture their learning. Consider asking students to take a picture of the writing work they are most proud of for example. This allows students to reflect on their learning and include a picture across learning areas and formats.

A tool like FreshGrade allows teachers to replace static and generic report cards with a collaborative and personalized learning map for each student. The platform also provides teachers an opportunity to align assessment and practice within the context of their classroom. It is difficult, therefore, to provide instructions for all teachers about what learning to capture and how often. As the curriculum in British Columbia’s shifts  to a competency based and more personalized framework, teachers have the opportunity to transform their teaching through assessment and meet the individual needs of the students in their classroom.

The FRAME I described may be helpful for some while others will have another way to guide their process for documentation. Professional learning parallels student learning and as such one size does not fit all. We do, however, share a common vision within the Surrey school district for Learning by Design – where we prepare students for a world in which they think creatively and critically, communicate skillfully, and demonstrate care for self and others. Quality assessment is one of four priority practices to support this vision and ongoing professional learning is pivotal. I encourage all educators to share their organizational tips and guiding principles for digital documentation with others.

In my experience working with teachers, parents, administrators and students effective portfolios:

  • are organized with intention and a clear plan to support student learning
  • intentions are shared with administrators, parents and students and feedback welcome
  • include clear examples of learning progressions across the curriculum in relation to individual student goals
  • are continuous and reflective
  • demonstrate how students can build upon and show their understanding in multiple ways
  • descriptive feedback speaks to learning intentions and core competencies
  • quality over quantity: pictures and videos are limited and represent clear evidence of learning with quality feedback (too much information becomes overwhelming)
  • incude formative and summative assessment
  • reflect student ownership and voice
  • include links or reference to ministry performance standards
  • reflect the learning over the doing and recognize that this will look different for each student

Slide2I look forward to adjusting this list as educators share their successes and work through the struggles in the documentation of student learning. We are facing big changes in education and I thank all of the teachers out there who are stepping outside of their comfort zone, taking risks and making this journey a meaningful one.

we cannot solve problems

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Comfort zone




Tom Cruise