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Empowering Student Growth: Insights on Digital Portfolios in Education from Instructional Technology Coordinator Daniel Whitt

Bryan Carvalho
February 14, 2020

Daniel Whitt, instructional technology coordinator for Madison City Schools, is on a mission.

Digital portfolios for every student.

Whitt’s school district in Madison, a suburb of Huntsville, Alabama is a “good” district by all the national metrics. They have many academically strong students, great teachers, and score highly on standardized tests.

However, in our achievement-based culture, Madison School students often focus so deeply on their GPA, standardized test scores, and what will look good on a college application, that they, in Whitt’s words, “neglect major portions of who they are.”

We found Mr. Whitt when researching digital portfolios and we quickly came to recognize him as a celebrity of sorts for the portfolio community.

Whitt has been featured at ISTE, been published in EdSurge, and he directed a 38-minute YouTube documentary called “Digital Portfolios - The Whole Child, The Whole Story.” The documentary gives an overview of Madison City Schools’ experience implementing digital portfolios across different subject areas and grade levels while trying to build momentum for portfolios and all they represent.

Daniel Whitt Headshot

It’s a must-watch for teachers and district leaders who are looking to integrate portfolios in a more meaningful way.

For Whitt, discovering the potential of digital portfolios has been a personal and professional journey that started when he was a student and has accompanied him into his teaching career.

“I found being in the jazz band was as beneficial as AP Physics,” he said, reflecting on his own experience.

“Every success I’ve ever had is because I was well rounded. Many kids focus heavily on summative assessments and on things that can be put on a spreadsheet, but the truth is; That’s not really what the market is looking for anymore.”

“Whether we want to be or not, we are in a very changed society,” said Whitt. “And that society honors art, it honors accomplishment, it honors proof that you can do things. Not just that you can answer questions on a test. [Our society] no longer rewards the numbers-obsessed culture of education.”

You can look around at the success stories we see each and every day to see Whitt’s point in action.

From entrepreneurs and researchers to YouTube content creators, the economy of today is more interested in what you can do and what you have done than how you scored on a test.

This is where a digital portfolio, as an educational tool spanning from K-12, comes into play.

“I believe that the future of school has to reflect the future of society. It sounds cliche, but right now, they’re terribly disconnected.”

“I believe that the future of school has to reflect the future of society. It sounds cliche, but right now, they’re terribly disconnected,” said Whitt.

In school, students are chasing a 4.0 GPA, memorizing facts and figures to score as high as possible on tests, and trying to find the right activities that will land them in their top-choice college.

However, once students complete their education and enter the working world, the way we measure success changes.

“The irony here is that ‘games and scores’ stops once you graduate high school,” added Whitt, calling for the need to transfer from an ‘achievement’ culture to an ‘accomplishment’ culture.

Tests, in most of the professional world, take a back-stage to the ability to show your work and do your job.

Even for the most technical professionals, being able to articulate a situation, reflect on your learning, and articulate the outcome, is a common component to a job interview.

Digital portfolios can bridge the gap

Young student on laptop

A digital portfolio in the context of an educational tool is often more about reflection on one’s work than the work itself.

“The process of putting together the portfolio is arguably more important than the product.”

“The process of putting together the portfolio is arguably more important than the product,” says Whitt.

When digital portfolios are used in the classroom, students are challenged to look at their own work more holistically.

“The best parts of our students’ growth cannot be gauged by a test score,” Whitt said. “The baseline for success now includes perpetual reflection, adaptability, and original thinking.” All of which are enabled by the development of a digital portfolio, year after year.

By capturing and reflecting on their work, again and again, they’re creating a living, digital story of how they’ve changed and grown over time. Students can see how they wrote, how they spoke, how they thought the previous year, and recognize how they’ve changed.

Making cross-curricular connections

Not only can students make connections to their past selves, portfolios can help make connections cross-curricularly.

“The traditional model of school keeps learning in compartments. Math is done in math class. There are efforts to create cross-curricular experiences, but those types of designs get really cheesy,” said Whitt. An example would be a scenario where students may have a math problem that cites historic figures relevant in WWII to try to connect math and history curriculum.

“We’re missing the boat when we create these experiences. The experience happens when learning is on display all in one place,” he added.

This is familiar to project-based learning, a burgeoning approach to teaching where students focus on major interdisciplinary projects in school rather than on individual subjects.

In more traditional learning systems, these connections can also be found in graduate profiles, or capstone projects, that task students to bring in learnings from multiple subject areas into one cumulative project.

When students use a “post then reflect” model, they are able to see how their developing knowledge across subjects connects across subjects directly in their digital portfolio.

“You can see the connections between content, that’s really what cross-curricular learning should look like.”

Digital portfolios for graduation

Currently, Madison City Schools does not have portfolios as a graduation requirement. However, in Whitt’s ideal world, every student would need to complete a portfolio as a representation of their K-12 experience.

Digital portfolios, as a movement, Whitt says, is starting to “catch fire, philosophically.” Some districts are offering students the opportunity to complete a capstone portfolio as an alternative to tests, but it’s by no means the norm.

“The biggest challenge we have is making it formal,” he says.

By requiring portfolios for graduation, students would be forced to experience the process of capturing and documenting their work, releasing it to the world, and they’d benefit from the finalized product of a learning portfolio when they transition to life after high school.

With standardized tests cemented into the walls of public education, a generational shift in district administration and policymakers may be required before digital portfolios make their way into education mandates.

There is hope.

We’re seeing states like Pennsylvania building portfolios into their career education requirements, Ohio offering a capstone project including a portfolio to satisfy graduation requirements, and New Jersey collecting portfolios in the appeal process for students who have not met their graduation assessment requirement.

As districts and states continue to explore the role in learning and development that digital portfolios can take, educators like Mr. Whitt will continue to do their best to inspire the movement student by student and teacher by teacher. You can read his implementation tips here in Part 2.

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