Portfolios on the Web: A Shared Resource for Personal and Institutional Improvement 

Patrick Dickson, Michigan State University 
for the Special Interest Group on
Portfolios and Reflection in Teaching and Teacher Education 
Presented on April 1, 2002 at 4:55 pm, Sheraton Eighth Floor, 816-828 

Note: Paper best read online in order to see portfolios via links to the Web:


This paper presents examples and arguments for the power of shared electronic portfolios in teacher education. The ideas in the paper have been developed out of experiences integrating the use of electronic portfolios at several levels in teacher education programs, including an introductory level course, senior level course, the capstone course in two master's degree programs, and the formal adoption of the electronic portfolio as the unifying element in a newly created, complete online master's degree in education. The fundamental point is that, used wisely, electronic portfolios on the Web offer a powerful new shared resource that can amplify the benefits of portfolios in education for individuals and teacher education programs. 

Key design decisions determine whether electronic portfolios created by students in teacher education programs have lifespan development benefits for the students and broader and more enduring benefits to the institution. Attention to these design decisions substantially affects the calculus of whether the portfolios are worth the effort. 

Background of Portfolios in Education

The use of portfolios has a long tradition in education. Begun in 1974, the Bay Area Writing Project (http://www-gse.berkeley.edu/outreach/bawp/bawp.html) played a major role in increasing awareness of the value of portfolios in teaching writing in K-12 education. In the past twenty years the portfolio concept has expanded into teacher education as well, with many teacher education programs now having students prepare a "teaching portfolio." (For example: Pennsylvania State University: http://www.psu.edu/celt/portfolio.html.) At the upper end of professional accomplishment, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards has established detailed descriptions for the creation and evaluation of portfolios for teachers wishing to be "board certified" (see: http://www.nbpts.org ). An excellent site with links to many references on the use of portfolios in education can be found at: http://transition.alaska.edu/www/Portfolios/bookmarks.html. For the purpose of this paper, I will only review briefly the evolution of the portfolio concept in conjuction with the evolution of technology.
(For more detail see: http://www.msu.edu/user/pdickson/writing/portfoliosontheweb.htm.) 

Prior to the emergence of the World Wide Web, portfolios--whether by students at the K-12 or college level--were typically compiled in notebooks and shared, at best once or a few times with classmates or displayed once at an exhibition at the end of the year. Thus, however beneficial the work on the portfolios was for the individuals, rarely was any tangible residue of this work preserved by the teacher or school. In addition, the benefits of both presenting and seeing the fruits of often long labor on the portfolios were limited to the small number of students and some parents who might be able to attend such exhibitions. Furthermore, advocates for portfolios in the classroom and in teacher education programs had to acknowledge the major administrative burdens of filing, storing, and transporting them that often accompanied the use of portfolios. 

Gradually, the portfolio concept expanded to include "digital portfolios" which, before the emergence of the Web, usually meant HyperCard or other files saved on disks or later on CDs. (A nice description of benefits and features of "digital portfolios" was developed by the Coalition of Essential Schools (http://www.essentialschools.org/pubs/exhib_schdes/dp/getstart.htm, for example). These "digital" but "non-Web" portfolios have many virtues but again the prospects for cumulation over time, sharing with a wide audience, etc. were not good. 

The emergence of the World Wide Web now offers, at last, a medium of expression through which the many benefits ascribed to creating and revising portfolios that have been thoughtfully articulated by advocates and researchers in the portfolio movement can be realized at a much higher level of return on investment. Because the Web has emerged so recently, however, many faculty and institutions are only beginning to engage in needed discussions of how tocapitalize upon the potential of the Web. In the remainder of this paper, then, I will share some of my experiences and recommend consideration of the benefits of making student work public to the extent possible. 

Design Decisions

Four years ago I began integrating the use of electronic portfolios into my teaching, beginning with two undergraduate courses, one a required course at the introductory level and one an elective course focusing on educational technology. In contrast to some approaches to portfolios in which students' work is submitted to the instructor or compiled in a restricted database or dropbox in Blackboard, students in my courses begin creating their Web-based portfolio as a public, shared "Web presence". (Students are offer the option of restricting access to their websites, but only one student out of 142 has requested to have her work private.) I created a "coursepage" with links to each of the students' emerging websites. By both the visibility of the work and specific assignments students are encouraged to explore each other's pages for ideas and to offer suggestions. 

Portfolios of teachers in masters program in fall 2001.

Portfolios of teachers in capstone course of masters program in summer 2001.

Exploration of examples of doctoral students' portfolios. 

Throughout students are repeatedly reminded that the portfolio is theirs, not the instructors; that they should create it with the awareness that their work can be seen by anyone with Web-access; that they should define their intended audience (which is often described as a potential employer); that they should design their Web portfolio with a view to continuing to revise and add to it after the course is over; and that they are not required to make their portfolio public and that they have the right to remove it from the Web at any time. These guidelines (and others) emphasize repeatedly that the work they are doing should be authentic and have a longer time perspective than the end of the semester. Peer review of the developing websites during the semester has proved valuable to both the person being reviewed and the reviewer. 

Because the students' websites are designed with the authentic purpose of remaining on the web most students' portfolios remain on the Web. These websites then become a resource for students in subsequent semesters because they are able to examine work by other students and gain a better understanding of what constitutes a high quality web-based portfolio. The portfolios are also accessible by faculty individually or as a part of committee discussions of quality and purposes of portfolios in the teacher education programs. Contrast the value of this kind of "institutional memory" with the more typical situation where examples of student work in courses is rarely available for review once a course is complete.

Capstone Courses, Portfolios, and Final Synthesis Papers

During the past year, I have taught the "capstone" course in two different master's programs in education, one in teacher education and the other in educational technology. Both of these master's programs have adopted the portfolio as a key element in the final course and as component of the comprehensive examination process. Although the procedural details differ somewhat between the two programs, both call for students to gather artifacts and papers from their coursework and teaching experiences into a portfolio. A major "synthesis" paper then builds upon the artifacts in their portfolio. In the master's program in educational technology we have moved in the past year to have all of the portfolios created on the Web, which is an example of how rapidly these changes are occuring. In the master's in curriculum and teaching, students had an option of creating a physical portfolio in a notebook or creating a web-based portfolio. Eight out of 27 chose to create electronic portfolios this year and every indication is the proportion will increase next year. 

Again, the benefits from having students able to examine each other's work on the Web, as compared to the less accessible notebook versions of the portfolio were significant. In the case of the physical portfolios, once the three-hour "exhibition" was over, these physical portfolios were no longer accessible to either future students or faculty for teaching or evaluation purposes. We are now in the process of creating an archive of examples drawn from the collection of web-based portfolios as a resource for students entering the master's program or preparing to complete their portfolios in the capstone course. This resource is being designed to showcase not just the "best" but more importantly the varieties of ways in which students cancreate electronic portfolios. Examples of synthesis papers are also being created to illustrate and lend concreteness to the more general guidelines for the portfolio requirements. Through interviews with students we have learned that, given how new the Web is as a medium of expression, students are far more in need of guidance and examples than they would be if the final assignment was in a more commonly rehearsed form such as a "ten pages, double spaced."

Exhibition of Portfolios
A key element of the model is to have students choose some aspect of their portfolio and share it with the other teachers, faculty and friends. The page above summarizes what the teachers chose to exhibit.

Adoption of the Web-based Portfolio in a New Online Master's Degree Program 

During the fall of 2001 a faculty committee deliberated over the many issues involved in a decision whether to undertake the creation of a completely online master's degree in education. With strong encouragement from the university administration, the committee voted unanimously to proceed to create and launch the new master's degree beginning in September 2001. Although many issues were explored, a major concern of the faculty was how to ensure programmatic coherence so that the master's degree was more than the collection of 30 graduate credits. The faculty voted to require students in the program to create a cumulative Web-based portfolio that will include their initial and continuously revised goal statement, resume, and at least one substantial piece of work from each course taken in the online master's program, culminating in a synthesis paper based on the student's entire body of work (http://www.msu.edu/user/pdickson/onlinema/portfolioconcept.htm).  The comprehensive examination requirement of the unviversity will met by an online "exhibition" of the portfolio and faculty evaluation of the portfolio. (http://www.msu.edu/user/pdickson/onlinema/capstone.htm).

Summary and Conclusions

Web-based portfolios are being used increasingly in teacher education programs at the undergraduate, master's and doctoral levels. Critical design decisions made by faculty committees will have major and fundamental impact on the authenticity, validity, lifespan developmental utility, and cost-benefit judgments of students and institutions about the educational value of portfolios. These experiences of teachers will influence their judgments of the potential utility of portfolios in their own teaching.

In this paper I have recommended an approach that emphasizes the long-term benefits to individuals and programs of policies that encourage students to create their Web-based portfolios from the beginning as their own public expression of their accomplishments with aview to their long-term benefits at the practical level of seeking employment and at the more enduring level as a medium of self-expression. Similarly, policies that encourage (but not require) students to share their work publicly benefits the individuals who are sharing by giving them authentic comparative feedback. Students also benefit from each others contribution to the learning community, both concurrently with one's classmates and prospectively as students look at work done by students who are ahead of them in the program.

Finally, the systematic gathering and sharing of authentic work makes visible to faculty, students and outside visitors the kinds of work being done in the institution and thus provides a tool for institutional discussion and improvement. Other approaches at many institutions in which student's teaching portfolios are accessible only within a single course or held in a file or data base accessible only to "authorized" users or faculty evaluators deprive the individual, the larger student community, and the institution of many of the benefits discussed above. Teacher educators should give careful thought to how design decisions of the kind presented here can have substantial effects on the potential benefits of portfolios in their programs. 

See links to electronic references embedded in body of paper.