Technology Lab 3: Online Portfolios

Online surveys could serve some interesting roles in the composition classroom: they could be used to check homework progress or to administer informal, yet anonymous, “quizzes” to initiate discussions about assigned reading. They would be particularly valuable tools for giving students a voice in the classroom—allowing both me and their peers to see what everyone likes about the class, how they would like to see the class progress, what they would like to see changed, etc.

And while I think these are valuable functions, I’m not super attached to online surveys. Inspired by this article about using Google Sites for online portfolios, and recognizing that many comp. programs are portfolio-based, I decided to find out more information about online portfolios.

I’m pretty familiar with online portfolios. I’ve created them for my own professional purposes—which have involved building them in Adobe Dreamweaver. And I have used them to teach, but not often. I’ve had great results with Weebly because it’s easy to use, intuitive, and gives students a fair amount of design freedom without overwhelming them with too many options. I have also seen really great student portfolios made with WordPress and with Google Sites. All of these sites are also ideal places to host a class website—that way, students gain some experience using them (to locate assignments, readings, class policies) before they set up their own sites.

Online portfolios are really valuable in a writing classroom for a number of reasons:

  1. There is a (potentially) larger audience, which means students have more opportunities—and incentive—to spend time thinking about selection, visual rhetoric, and arrangement. This often means gaining a deeper understanding of the course goals—thinking critically, choosing words (and documents) carefully, considering the value of photos and videos, etc.
  2. Students gain practical experience composing and working with digital media, which is certainly valuable for entering the 21st-century workplace. If it’s a really nice portfolio, students could definitely link to it on a résumé.
  3. Online portfolios are often more engaging than print. There is more flexibility with what students can include and how they display that material. This flexibility could extend to providing instructors with a better sense of students’ learning and writing processes.
  4. They present a great opportunity to discuss web content accessibility standards and what factors students should consider when making their websites as accessible as possible.

There are certainly drawbacks to online portfolios, though, ranging from privacy to accessibility:

  1. There are material accessibility issues with using online portfolios. I rarely have access to a technology classroom, and not all of my students can bring laptops to class. If the group isn’t accustomed to the medium (or genre), it helps to be able to work on the portfolios together in a lab. I wouldn’t assign an online portfolio if everyone didn’t have the access to computers in class.
  2. There are privacy and legal issues that must be negotiated. Most websites allow you to choose whether or not your website can be found via search engines, and you can usually set your site to private, sharing the link with whomever needs to view it. 

    I didn’t know about the legal issues with using online portfolios before I went to a Google Sites presentation in my department at the beginning of the year. Students grades are not allowed to be posted outside institutionally-sanctioned spaces (e.g. Blackboard). This means you can’t share a student’s grade through email or through any other web site. Those rules would need to be clear so students knew not to post graded papers to showcase their learning/writing processes.

    Also, it’s important to talk to students about intellectual property, creative commons, fair use, etc. This becomes particularly prominent when students start including photos they find on the web (always use CC images!).

  3. And, keeping UD in mind, online portfolios cannot meet all students’ needs. An online portfolio cannot simply replace print as “better” for all students. No one would force a student with epilepsy triggered by staring at computer screens to create an online portfolio (I would hope). Some students, particularly tactile learners, may be more interested in creating a print portfolio that they can physically arrange. Low-vision or blind students could create online portfolios (assuming the class used an accessible web platform), but the student may prefer a portfolio option that wasn’t so dependent on visual design. And again, some students may not have the technological access to create a fully developed online portfolio.

Generally, I think online portfolios are a great option for a portfolio-based classroom. However, I hadn’t fully fleshed out some of their drawbacks, particularly in terms of privacy, IP, and disability. As with any assignment, an online portfolio should not be a 1:1 replacement of another, possibly more accessible, option that shares the same curricular goals.

These sites provided me with a greater understanding of the benefits, issues, and conversations surrounding online portfolios, both within composition and beyond:

“CCCC Position Statement: Principles and Practices in Electronic Portfolios.” CCCC: Conference on College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. 19 Nov. 2007. Web.

“E-Portfolios.” EDUCAUSE: Learning Initiative. EDUCAUSE. 2012. Web.

Steele, Kristen. “What It Takes: Issues in Implementing Electronic Portfolios.” Independent Studies and Capstones. Paper 444. Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine. 2009. Web.

  • This is actually a public capstone project for this student’s M.S. in Deaf Education, and she points to a lot of key questions that we should ask ourselves about the benefits and potential drawbacks to using online portfolios.