Monday, December 9, 2013

Personal Learning Portfolios From Start to Future

A Little History

A learning portfolio is a wonderful thing. It brings a variety of content together for the consideration of others and serves as an archive that demonstrates a person's growth in their personal learning. It also becomes a valuable sharing space in a personal learning network. As more and more educators embrace the concept of Open Education Resources, it also becomes an important place for sharing not only ideas but tools and resources as well. Schools, employers, colleagues and friends can all benefit from the sharing that takes place in a portfolio. I'm just beginning to learn about all the potential a learning portfolio has to offer and I'd like to share some of my thoughts and experiences with having students create electronic versions of their own learning portfolios over the past few years.

Photo Credit: e.b. image via Compfight cc
My students have been creating class specific learning portfolios for the past 8 years. Back in the day we made interactive portfolios as web-sites designed graphically in Fireworks and Dreamweaver. This website on CD was a simple way to showcase student work at a time when we didn't have the means to put things on the internet. This wasn't an ideal situation and was much like those old suitcases above. If you wanted to someone to see your work, you still had to have them rummage through the actual work. If students wanted to, they could of course FTP their sites to some space they purchased on the web. If not, they could submit a copy of their CD for consideration. It was pretty basic and clunky even though the portfolios were very original and interesting to look at once you put the disc in the computer.

The second version of student portfolios began a few years ago when my students began using Google Apps for Education Accounts. We used Blogger to create simple portfolios. Students have the ability to change the visibility of their blogs so it is up to them to decide if they want their portfolios to be visible to the world, people within our school system or only to specific people. The ability to change the level of privacy on this project was key in being able to do this with all of my students. Now we had the ability to share portfolio work with anyone by providing a link. This was far better than the previous version! Here's an example of a great portfolio from last year:

This year we are continuing to use Blogger as a platform to host our portfolios. We use Blogger because our school system has Google Apps for Education and we have the ability to give every one of our students an account. I have the good fortune of being an administrator on our Google Accounts system so I can add accounts whenever I need to. This makes life super easy down the road as I don't have to bother anyone when it comes to setting up and maintaining accounts. Once in a while I may have to reset a password for the odd kid who forgets how to log in. The school that I am in is working towards having every student on Google Apps for Education. That's over a 1000 students! The big change with this version is in using personal devices to create and curate a blog rather than a full lab of shared computers.

The largest hurdle we face is the availability of technology within our school. We have a lot of students and it's rare that you can find a computer lab with vacancy at the time when you need it. So we've moved to using BYOD as a solution in the classroom. This is less than perfect at the moment as there is not guarantee that every student has their own technology. There is a lot of sharing and lending of equipment to make this possible. I'm in a high school and so far I'm lucky that most of my students have their own devices. I've seen tablets, laptops, smartphones and iPods new and old coming into the classroom more and more since telling students it's ok for them to use their devices during class time. For some this is distracting... but more and more I find that kids are using their devices for work during our hour. It seems that the novelty and distraction of texting, social media and games fades quickly when their is so much to be done in class. I think students are finding that their devices are so much more powerful than what they knew them to be previously.

This year's portfolios are a work in progress. I'll post some examples in the future but for now, they are not really show and tell worthy but will only get better with time.

Why Use Blogs as Learning Portfolios?

I've had the great opportunity of learning from a blogging master over the past few months. Sue Waters of Edublogs shares so much information about blogging in schools in "The State of Educational Blogging in 2012". From my own experience I feel that blogs are easy to set up, easy to customize and easy to edit and manage. They provide a slick framework for connecting any type of web resource and can have many types of content showcased within them. Blogs are easy to use both on computers and mobile devices with functionality growing on mobile devices all the time.

Blogs provide the real possibility for us to showcase our work in a highly accessible and portable way. People can subscribe to get updates when there are new posts. Blogs provide an excellent platform for sharing ideas and accepting feedback in the form of comments. Blogs can be created collaboratively or stay very personal.

The organization Canadians for 21st Century Learning and Innovation outline seven competencies in their publication "Shifting Minds." As you read the rest of this post consider those seven competencies as you do and see if you can fit much of what I'm talking about with Student Learning Portfolios.

The Seven 21st Century Competencies outlined by C21 Canada in "Shifting Minds":

  • Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship
  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Character
  • Culture and Ethical Citizenship
  • Computer and Digital Technologies

Considerations When Building Learning Portfolios

My number one caution to anyone wanting to introduce blogs as portfolios to their students is to take it slow. Don't expect a lot of glitz and glamor right at the start. These projects take a lot of time to develop. If you look at this blog as an example you'll see that I've really only begun to curate my own personal portfolio.

Besides taking it slow, keep it simple. I made the mistake of creating a bunch of blogs for a variety of purposes. I also made the mistake of limiting student portfolios to just my class. The portfolio can become so much more! Also, if students have to keep up a separate blog for each of the things they do, things are going to become impossibly complicated very quickly. 

Posts and pages are two very important features that make it possible to organize a variety of content within a blog. Blog posts can be labelled or tagged. Say a student posts about an art project for their AP art class. They could simply include a label or tag (this depends on the blog platform you use) that would categorize the post as fitting in to AP Art. As their instructor, you can navigate to their blog (I just put bookmarks in a folder on my bookmarks bar in Google Chrome) then select the appropriate label or tag for the class you teach and bam... you can see all their posts for your class. This makes for a very simple way for you to be able to provide feedback on student work and evaluate projects learning. To save a little more time, you can navigate to the label or tag before bookmarking their blog. When you select the bookmark you will be taken automatically to the right part of their learning portfolio that reflects the work that is being done for your class. This is something I wish I would have done a long time ago! A future project for me is to go hunting for things I've done and move them into this blog! Don't make that mistake!!! Pages can become placeholders for content that may be more static in nature such as lists of skills and certifications or showcase larger projects, philosophies and so on.

Ultimately I'd like to see every student in my school start their own learning portfolio by the end of this school year. With so many teachers and students this is most likely a lofty goal that will be very difficult to achieve. It think that if we start small and keep in mind that one blog will serve all classes, we just need a few people to start this project with their classes. All other teachers and course will benefit from their students quickly becoming learning portfolio experts in the years to come. 

Blogging Tools

Working with blogs is fairly simple and kids are pretty quick to pick up on the basics of blogging. There are some choices you have to make when starting out with learning portfolios. First of all you have to decide if all students will use the same blogging platform or if they will be able to choose the platform that works best for them. Edublogs offers a great level of privacy control for instructors and is simple to set up. You can change privacy setting for all student blogs, make edits and turn on approval setting for when people comment on blogs. Although Edublogs is based on Wordpress I find that it is not as easily customizable in look and feel for students. It's ease of use seems to come from all the support and ideas offered by the people at Edublogs. Blogger works well if you are using Google Apps for Education. Students need only one account to access all services. Blogger could be better integrated with other Google services at the time of this writing to increase overall functionality and ease of use when embedding content such as slideshows and documents. Wordpress offers a high degree of personalization and customizing.  There are mobile applications for all three. I have experimented and worked with each of these platforms and like with any tool, ultimately the decision is yours to make.

Get Started

  • Choose a platform or have students choose a platform. This depends on the age and ability of the students you work with.
  • Have students write a first post and demonstrate how to tag or label it.
  • Have your students customize the look and feel of the blog with themes, fonts, colours and original images.
  • It's time to create a page. Pages can become places for major projects, lists of skills and certifications. 
  • Set up basic functionality of the blog. Make labels or tags visible. Make page links visible.
  • Pages Sort Major Portions of the Portfolio
  • Create your own learning portfolio that models what you want students to do. Your portfolio becomes a place for you to share with students and other educators and is a representation of everything you do professionally.

Start Simple

Any kind of content can be posted to a blog. Posting photographs of completed work in an art class is a great place to start. This will provide the opportunity to improve their photography and photo editing skills. Writing a reflection on the project is a great way to demonstrate understanding and open the door for further learning. Depending on the level of the class or the literacy of the student these reflections may be simple and short in the beginning and hopefully will become more in depth with practice. You can challenge students to leave positive feedback on their classmate's blogs as well. This is a great way to encourage positive participation online and teach kids about their roles as good citizens in an online world. If you have a website or blog set up for your class you can provide links to all the blogs of students participating in your course.

Go Further

Students can increase the functionality of their blogs by adding widgets to the sidebars of their blog. There are many to choose from and it is good to try many of these out.

Embedding other bits of content such as documents, videos or slideshows can bring more impact and interest to the blog as well. This can be a tricky concept to learn in the beginning but is not difficult once you get the hang of it. All you have to look for is the embed code for whatever it is you're looking to embed. Do a web search on how to embed the thing you want in your specific type of blog. Help is never far away. Here I used the Pinterest Widget Builder to embed one of my boards into this post:

Pinterest can be a handy way for students to share their work or bring together many ideas during their research. It also provides a great way to curate a number of resources into one place under a specific title for teachers that want to kickstart student ideas.

Teach students about copyright and how to add attribution to their images. Compfight and Creative Commons Search are two very useful tools to find copyright free images that can be used with proper crediting for the creators of those images. The image of the old suitcases at the top of this post is a good example of this.

I've been linking to resources on the internet throughout this blog post. Showing students how to connect their portfolios to other people through the Hyperlinking of items in text in your blog can help your personal learning network grow.


Students need time to work to do a little maintenance on their learning portfolios from time to time. I've made the mistake of not giving students enough time in a computer lab to really work on a space they can be proud of. On my next go round, I will spend time at the beginning of my next course setting up blogs with students before we start a project. In fact, the blog will be the first project. As we do other work throughout the semester students will learn to document their work and reflect on their experience. It will be important to give time for them to engage in this process, not only on their personal devices but also in a lab situation. As good as mobile applications are, so much more can be done on a traditional computer when working with blogs.

In Conclusion

Can you imagine a learning portfolio created by an elementary school student and what it would look like 5, 10 even 30 years later. Learning portfolios could create the ultimate personal historical document of each of us. A living document that shares experiences and understanding openly with others. As I have learned during this project, sharing is a part of living. Sharing our experiences, our knowledge and our ideas will help to build a better world. The internet is perhaps our greatest achievement. Learning to participate in it's positive growth is a responsibility we as educators have. Working with the next generation of open and connected people can only help to provide our youth with the opportunity to learn and grow for the rest of their lives and to connect with people from around the world to further their experience as contributors to and benefactors of a world of culture, ideas and knowledge.


  1. Nice job, Jason. Definitely some great thoughts there about using blogs as digital portfolios and ways to enhance them.

    I am wondering what is in place for students who may want to take their digital portfolio with them after they graduate? Do students retain their account after graduation? Is Blogger export-friendly like WordPress? (I don't remember as it's been a long time since I used Blogger.)

  2. Students will lose their Google Apps Accounts for Education one year after graduation. They can transfer ownership of files to a personal Gmail Account or download the entire contents of their Google Drive to their computer. Blogger blogs can be exported to be migrated to other blogging services or another google account. Thanks for the question! Here's a link to see how to export Blogger blogs: