Digital Portfolios: An Enduring Promise for Enhancing Assessment

April 1, 2000

In the mid-1990s, when I demonstrated digital student portfolios to teachers at conferences across the country, I always had to begin with explanations of the mysterious words that filled the presentation. Digital, hypertext, multimedia, links, and even portfolio were words that few audience members had encountered. In the course of just a few years, however, these words have assumed frequent-flyer status in informal conversation in schools, and particularly in those schools fortunate to have access to technology resources. Despite predictions that digital portfolios were just another trend in the search to enrich the assessment of student achievement, they continue to offer powerful possibilities for improving teaching and learning.

Portfolios have survived for two substantial reasons. First, advances in Internet-based technology-and the evolution of the Web as a commercial venue in particular-have irreversibly affected the way our society communicates and shares information. Improvements in the tools used to create multimedia and Web site documents have opened new authoring possibilities to nonexpert users of technology. Second, the ongoing concern over standards and student achievement in a global economy has provided a steady motivation for educators to explore alternative modes of assessment.

As portfolios have increased in use and popularity, they have taken many shapes and forms ranging from celebrations of student work to collections of work required for graduation. The portfolio concept also has been extended to whole schools and teachers' professional development. I have had the opportunity to work with both student and school portfolio initiatives.

This article contributes to the growing body of publications about this method of representing and communicating evidence of student and school achievement. After briefly describing two portfolio projects, I will outline some of the lessons we have learned about the portfolio process and share a selection of resources for further exploring and implementing digital portfolios.

Several years ago, I was involved in the Exhibitions Project at the Coalition of Essential Schools. With colleagues David Niguidula and Joseph McDonald, I worked with several schools to develop tools for creating digital student portfolios and to understand the educational and technological factors that affected their usefulness. These factors represented a host of issues, including the particulars of school life, the way the software looked and functioned, the processes for getting student work into the portfolio, and the way portfolios were used by teachers and parents. In collaboration with David Green at the New York State Education Department and with the Center for Children & Technology (CCT), we extended the portfolio concept to whole school accountability in an effort to increase the value of that process for school-based improvement. Development of the digital school portfolio became a full-time project for me when I joined the Center for Children and Technology in 1996. picture

The six schools in which we first explored the use of digital student portfolios represented a variety of geographic and demographic characteristics from the Bronx to suburban Kentucky to rural New Hampshire, and from affluent to underprivileged. Participation in the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES) highlighted the shared priorities of these schools for continuous improvement in curriculum and teaching practice, and to explore new possibilities, including the use of new technologies, to make positive changes.


At CES, we customized the digital student portfolio tool for each participating school. Within these variations, we insisted on holding these two guidelines constant: (1) The portfolio structure reflects the goals that each student is expected to achieve, and (2) student work remains central.


The first guideline meant that schools had to agree on the goals for their students and then describe and organize those goals. For example, teachers, students, and community representatives who implemented digital student portfolios at one participating high school decided to structure student achievement along the lines of communication, problem solving, and research. Individual disciplines such as language arts, math, and science were represented within those three areas. In another high school, where paper portfolios were already in place as a requirement for graduation, seven domains described the goals for a student's graduation requirements. In Figure 1, the goals for one school are listed on the left side of the screen. Clicking any goal led to a display of a student's work that demonstrated his or her related work and achievement.

The second guideline of the portfolios we designed was that the work of the students must remain central to the portfolios. In practice, this meant that real student work would be within very few mouse clicks. As Figure 2 shows, assessments, links to standards, and self-reflections were among the supplemental information that appeared alongside student work. In this design, we hoped to encourage the readers of the portfolios to explore the richness of the students' work without relying solely on a numerical assessment (93, 72, etc.) of the student's accomplishment.

In expanding the notion of portfolios to the whole school context, at CCT we applied the same two guidelines. Because the school portfolio was a component of a school review process, we used the process's structure as the structure of the portfolio tool so that the technology supported the work in which the school teams were engaged. The jigsaw puzzle in Figure 3 shows these areas, which provided the lens through which the content of the digital school portfolio could be viewed. The student work was the primary focus, with teaching, learning, and community issues taking their place in the context of the students' work. For each piece of the puzzle, school teams created multimedia "short stories" to describe the activities and achievements of teachers and students. As with the student portfolios, the teams had to become comfortable with the technology and learn how to make meaningful use of images, videos, and sound to represent information.

With both student and school portfolios, the value of creating portfolios oftentimes occurred in the process rather than in the product. Because the goals for students was the point of entry into the portfolio, teachers, administrators, and others involved in the portfolio initiative were compelled to undertake the challenge of agreeing on goals for students. In identifying these goals, they had to think about and talk through what values the school held for the education of its students. For teams that were working with the school portfolio, their conversations addressed a wide range of issues surrounding school culture, from teaching practice to exploring student work to the role of the community in the school. For students, teachers, and staff members, portfolios created a concrete motivation for addressing issues at the core of education, and a venue for becoming personally involved in their education and their school.

Through our work at CES and CCT, we learned a great deal about the potential and challenges of portfolio use at both the student and school level. The benefits of portfolio use have been noted by other researchers and practitioners as well, and various large-scale tools are in development to support both classroom and school-based portfolios for assessment and accountability (see the portfolio initiative references at the end of this article). While we found that such products have great potential to facilitate alternative methods of assessment, we also discovered design and contextual factors that helped shape the usefulness of portfolios at both the student and school levels.

School Culture
For portfolios to be useful catalysts for improvements in teaching and learning, they must not be perceived as "just one more thing to do"; they must reflect a shared interest of at least a majority of teachers and administrators in the school. This shared interest can come about through time and through the interest of a particular person in the school. Eventually, however, the portfolio must become a part of the culture of the school, a component of a larger view of what it means to educate a student and engage students in their own learning. Demonstrations of portfolios created at other schools or by individuals within the school are often useful to help teachers visualize the potential of digital portfolios for their own classrooms or schools.

Shared Educational Goals
Digital portfolios are bringing teachers and administrators together to work on and meet goals for students, which frequently exist somewhere in a school's official records yet rarely figure in day-to-day thinking and priorities for teaching and learning. In the project conducted at CES, we found that in those schools where we spent as long as a year working closely with school staff, students, and parents to formulate the structure and articulate the goals of the assessment model, the initiative was significantly more likely to become part of the school culture. On the other hand, when the process of identifying goals and fostering a schoolwide understanding of them did not take place, the digital portfolio initiative failed to become an integrated component of the school's assessment process. In these cases, the technology was not a sufficient catalyst for the use of portfolio assessment in the school. Similar observations emerged in the digital school portfolio initiative, where one of the key challenges of the project implementation was articulating the concrete relationship between the organizing structure of the portfolio and the ways in which school practitioners thought about their practice and schools.

The goals that are identified when the digital portfolio is first implemented are continuously revisited as new challenges and changing factors arise.

Realistic Goals
Digital portfolios take time to be implemented! Expectations based on two-month, and sometimes two-year, time frames are setups for disappointment. Being realistic about the demands of the school-year calendar and remembering the value of the process rather than the product will help sustain the time and energy required to put such a challenging task into practice.

Human Infrastructure
One of the most important ingredients for successful digital portfolio implementation lies in having a cadre of people within the school who can help teachers work through assessment issues, coordinate the overall initiative, and provide technical assistance. When possible, involving partners from research or educational organizations also can bring a fresh perspective to the project. Possible partners include educators or students from nearby universities, educational research organizations, and special interest groups dedicated to technical support.

Technology Infrastructure
Creating digital portfolios requires a robust school technology infrastructure that students and teachers can access on a regular basis. Technology infrastructure includes the speed and storage capacity of the individual computers and devices such as digital cameras, scanners, and microphones for capturing content in different media forms. Internal wiring is also a component of technology infrastructure and allows information to be shared among different computers within the school. Wiring to the Internet also can help make students' portfolios accessible to a wider audience beyond the school.

Authoring Tools
The simplest way to get started with digital portfolios is to use existing authoring tools, such as HyperStudio and PowerPoint. Another option is to create Web pages, which even Microsoft Word is capable of doing. (Remember to create a Web page, not a normal Word document, from the start; it may be difficult to convert it later.) In either environment, students can start from scratch or work from templates. While templates are useful for maintaining a sense of consistency across portfolios in a school, many students we worked with were eager to customize their own portfolios with colors, images, and creative typefaces.

Media Literacy
Because the content of digital portfolios is represented through text, images, audio, and video, students and teachers must learn how to use these media in meaningful ways. Even simple features such as transitions from page to page or screen to screen should be used in a way that supports the content, not simply to create a spectacle of every possible technological bell and whistle. Many resources geared to educators can help with this challenging and interesting aspect of working with multiple media.

Through our experience of these projects, we saw that digital portfolios can enrich our understanding of both student and school accomplishment. The need for inventive assessment models such as digital portfolios persists in our current context of ongoing concern about student achievement and the mandate of federal and state standards. With a substantial body of lessons learned, together with a wide variety of resources to use, the possibilities for refining and deepening models of assessment through the use of technology are at once promising and exciting. Digital portfolios, and in particular the related implementation process, continue to respond to this need by engaging school communities around what it means to educate young people.

Originally published in techLEARNING


Barrett, Helen. Using Technology to Support Alternative Assessment and Electronic Portfolios.

Georgi, David & Judith Crowe. Digital Portfolios: A Confluence of Portfolio Assessment and Technology. Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter 1998.

Niguidula, David. A Richer Picture of Student Performance.

Webster University. Electronic Professional Portfolio for Teachers.

Media Literacy

Educational Video Center

Media Education Research Project (no longer active but nonetheless a good resource).

Media Workshop New York

Brunner, Cornelia, and William Tally. (1999). The New Media Literacy Handbook: An Educator's Guide to Bringing New Media into the Classroom. New York: Anchor Books Doubleday.

National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture

Tech Support Geared to Schools

Universal Service Administrative Co. (the E Rate)

The E-Rate and Beyond. T.H.E. Journal.

Tech Corps


Michelle Riconscente