Ask Helen Barrett of the University of Alaska College of Education how students feel about creating learning portfolios, and she’ll tell you a story about a group of high school seniors in the Pacific Northwest who got together on graduation night and built a bonfire. After four years of chronicling their high school experience, the graduates met up not to celebrate their achievements, but to watch their work go up in smoke.

For years, hundreds of high schools across the country have required exiting seniors to keep academic portfolios of everything from their resume to their favorite assignments and samples of their coursework. And for years, students have resisted, viewing the assignment as just another in a long line of requirements standing between them and graduation.

But thanks to digital technologies and the internet, proponents of the portfolio as a pedagogical movement–including Barrett, who has spent more than a decade studying and promoting the use of electronic portfolios in schools–believe both students and teachers are warming up to the idea.

Barrett says digital portfolios free students from the constraints of paper-based collections, enabling learners to more easily customize their portfolios, incorporate the use of video, save their work to a compact disc and take it with them. Digital portfolios appeal more to today’s tech-savvy students than paper-based binders, she contends, and can grow with students as they progress through school and on to full-time employment.

Several states, such as Kentucky and Washington, have rolled out ePortfolio projects for higher education. And at least one other state, Minnesota, has launched a more widespread initiative that provides access to ePortfolios throughout the larger community–from K-12 schools, to colleges, to residents or employees of state agencies.

One of the largest such initiatives of its kind in the country, eFolio Minnesota now boasts a collection of more than 26,000 different ePortfolios–at least 18,000 of which are maintained by students, project administrators told eSchool News.

Unfortunately, Barrett said, although much research exists to support the usefulness of ePortfolios in higher education, there is little scientific evidence of their effectiveness at the K-12 level, where talk of standardized tests and increased accountability have dominated the conversation under President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Hoping to change all that, Barrett hooked up last month with TaskStream, a maker of electronic portfolio solutions for schools, to launch a large-scale research project that will explore the impact of ePortfolios on student learning, motivation, and overall engagement in K-12 schools.

Called REFLECT, which stands for “Researching Electronic portFolios: Learning, Engagement, and Collaboration through Technology,” the massive endeavor is designed to examine the use of electronic portfolios in secondary education, as well as to enhance TaskStream’s student portfolio system–predominantly used in colleges and universities–to meet the needs of high schools.

Related item:
  • Details of the
    ePortfolio study

    The company has invited up to 50,000 students and teachers to sign on to the two-year study. For their efforts, participants will receive free access to TaskStream’s ePortfolio software for the duration of the project. Educators who are interested in contributing to the study should contact TaskStream by April 21. (For more information, see the accompanying story.)

    As with other electronic portfolio systems, the TaskStream solution provides a place online where students can store and catalog their work, building a digital representation of their academic achievements. Aside from storing classwork and projects in these online repositories, students also can create personal profiles, display photographs and video images, and import and export files from their home computers.

    Comparing the ePortfolio with the blog and eDiary–two other forms of online expression that have become increasingly popular in K-12 schools–Barrett hopes the research will indicate a change in the way students and teachers view these online tools.

    Rather than shrugging the portfolio off as a simple graduation requirement, Barrett believes today’s tech-savvy students are more apt to see their ePortfolio as a personal reflection of themselves as learners–something they can take with them after high school and continue to build upon as they enter the professional ranks.

    “A lot of pre-research indicates that this type of learning allows students to transfer knowledge from one level to the next,” said Risa Sackman, executive vice president and director of education for TaskStream.

    Of course, for that philosophy to work, students must develop some sense of ownership for the project. Barrett said she hopes students will come to use these tools as a means to document and preserve their learning experiences.

    “It’s literally their voice,” she said of the portfolio. By encouraging students to tell their own story, she said, the idea is to graduate a class of “self-directed, lifelong learners.”

    And educators, too, stand to benefit. As part of the project, Barrett said, teachers will be asked to set up their own portfolios and then use their experiences to draft a set of questions that will be posed to students.

    “This is not just a research study, but an enormous professional development effort that we are undertaking in these communities,” said Sackman. Along with providing the software, TaskStream also plans to give participating schools free on-site and online staff development.

    Teacher buy-in is absolutely critical, explained Barrett, who co-directed a similar project for the International Society for Technology in Education with funds from the federal Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program. “You never really have an accurate understanding [of] portfolios until you’ve actually managed your own,” she said.

    Barrett would know. She has documented her experiences with 17 different ePortfolio tools on her web site.

    Despite her experience, Barrett acknowledged that using student portfolios as an assessment of learning in today’s school climate is difficult.

    “The portfolio as a test philosophy doesn’t really work,” she noted–especially in this era of standardized assessment. Whereas NCLB is driven by a sort of paint-by-numbers ideology–measuring students’ proficiency almost solely from state test scores–ePortfolios represent a different way of thinking about student understanding.

    With that in mind, she said, the project is not intended to demonstrate whether students who use ePortfolios do better on standardized tests. Instead, it aims to find out whether there might be a place for ePortfolios as another measure of student achievement and, if so, under what conditions they are most ideal.

    The project is slated to begin in the fall of 2005.

    “We really have no idea what we’re going to find,” said Barrett, “but we’re hoping to at least explore what’s possible.”

    Related Item:

    Details of the ePortfolio study

    Links:

    REFLECT Initiative
    http://www.taskstream.com/pub/reflect/overview.asp

    TaskStream
    http://www.taskstream.com/pub/default.asp

    Helen Barrett’s ePortfolio web site and blog
    http://www.electronicportfolios.org

    eFolio Minnesota
    http://www.efoliominnesota.com