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{HeadLines} October 2014, Vol. 1 
Prototyping Portfolios

By Sarah Stewart


Students have often relied on personal portfolios to track their progress. Portfolios provide a space where they can reflect on their work, chart their growth and showcase their achievements in different subjects. Personal portfolios also allow students to individualize and identify with their path of learning, making it more meaningful. 

Digital portfolios have taken that process to a new level, and are proving to be a powerful tool for teachers. Online, students can submit assignments and receive ongoing feedback on their work. They can keep multiple types of projects in one place. They can directly link to research and sources of inspiration and use images, video, and audio in their presentations or projects. 

Last year, Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC, launched the use of digital portfolios with its fifth graders. In the coming years, it plans to expand the use of digital portfolios to grades 3 through 12. The initiative is a way for students to track their progress and personalize their learning, and also gives Ravenscroft a space to further develop and reinforce its leadership and digital citizenship curriculum.

The decision to add digital portfolios was prompted by Ravenscroft’s work with the Center for Creative Leadership. Ravenscroft is co-creating a leadership curriculum for students with CCL as part of a $50,000 matching grant from The Edward E. Ford Foundation. Ravenscroft planned to incorporate aspects of its leadership program, called Lead From Here, into the portfolios. The program hinges on three tenets: leading self, leading others, and changing the world. 

Payton Hobbs, Head of Lower School at Ravenscroft, spearheaded the project. She said a number of people at the school had been discussing adding digital portfolios for years, but were unsure how to make it a reality. At the recommendation of Christopher Gergen from CCL, they brought in Bryan Setser from 2Revolutions to assist with the change. 2Revolutions is an education design lab that helps schools imagine and implement technology and design solutions. Setser has served at every level of K-12 education as an award-winning teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent. He is the architect of America's "digerati" movement in public education, and revitalized and transformed the North Carolina Virtual School into a national model for e-learning, serving over 50,000 students annually. 

Ravenscroft is a Google Apps for Education school, so they knew they would go with a Google product. However choosing the tool was not the issue, Hobbs says, it was the design and process of implementing that they were struggling with. What would the portfolios look like, what would be included, who would teach the students, and most importantly, how could the portfolios be scaled across grades. They needed a plan. Setser recommended short-cycle prototyping, a process where the group would brainstorm a plan and roll it out with a small group in a nimble way that allowed for adjustments. 

Along with Hobbs, other key players included Cindy Fordham, Ravenscroft’s Instructional Technology Specialist, Dr. Rhonda Zayas-Palmer, the lower school librarian, and the fifth grade teachers. 

The roll out of the portfolios was executed in three phases. The first phase was the design aspect. The group had identified their goals for the portfolios. They wanted an internal digital space that students could take from grade to grade, and even keep after they graduated. They wanted space for academics, service projects, goal setting and reflections, leadership initiatives, a purpose statement, and an “about me” section. The sites would also be branded with the Ravenscroft logo. Students could load all types of content onto their portfolios including text, images, videos, or audio. 

The second phase involved training the technology and media specialists, and the fifth grade teachers. Plus the teachers chose eight students, two from each homeroom class, to learn about the digital portfolios and act as peer teachers to their classmates. Between August and December 2013, the group began to experiment building pages on Google sites. 

Due to the unchartered nature of the project, the process was somewhat unnerving. “Teachers so often want to know what a new program is going to look like in the end, and we didn’t know. The only way they could master it was to dive in and start creating their own digital portfolios,” said Hobbs. “The teachers were truly positioned as learners alongside their students.”

Despite the learning curve, the process was also exciting. Barbara Paul, fifth grade teacher, called it the ultimate project-based learning. “Once it got going the kids were able to do a lot of it themselves and it dove-tailed with our leadership program,” she said. “It also became a wonderful place to archive things they had done and gave them an official place to reflect.”

Between January and May 2014, they implemented the third phase, opening up the digital portfolios to all the students. The students were initially led by Fordham and Zayas-Palmer, who met with them once or twice a week. The two also incorporated discussions about digital citizenship into the lessons. “We talked a lot about responsibilities, and that we would be acting as website publishers, managers, and editors and what was appropriate use of those resources.”

Fordham also believes the digital portfolios teach valuable project management skills to both students and teachers. Both are required to work across multiple platforms, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and organize their work accordingly. Even the process of titling and grouping folders so they can be searched is a great lesson for students, she said. 

Paul said the students were fast learners, and quickly took ownership of their portfolios. “The kids never batted an eye, they were so excited and it was not mundane to them.” she said. “It really breathed fresh life into some of the projects we had been working on. And with the kids teaching other kids, they were very self-motivated and collaborative. It was a great learning experience all the way around.”

Paul said the new tool is also inspiring and rejuvenating for her teaching, an outcome she didn’t initially expect. “It encouraged me to look at some topics differently and go deeper. I’m really excited about what avenues it will open in the coming year, as we all grow more accustomed to including the portfolios in our work.”

From an administrator’s perspective, Hobbs was pleased with the way the project was implemented and said the process of short-term prototyping is something they will use in the future. “It was a pure example of that gradual release of responsibility starting with the consultant, then released to me, to the tech specialist, to the teachers, and to the students,” Hobbs said. “It went very smoothly.”

She also said all the staff should be well-trained and supported, especially the technology and media specialists, who are key players in the process. Fordham agreed. “The biggest thing in rolling it out is the support of your administrator and then having the consultant to lead us and give us all the right tools.” 

At the close of the 2013-2014 school year, Hobbs knew the portfolios were a success. “By the end of the year, the kids had their own site and they had captured a lot of learning, whether it was different presentations, or papers, or also reflections,” she said. “The kids were proud of their work and they know it’s something they can carry with them.” 

Payton Hobbs from Ravenscroft, and Bryan Setser from 2Revolutions will be presenting on the process of prototyping at the SAIS Annual Conference Sunday, October 19, from 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM. Participants can expect a highly applicable session where they learn how personalized, short-cycle prototyping can support the process of designing for change to help solve the many complex problems schools are facing. Check out the conference schedule and register at To continue this conversation on Twitter: @SAISnews, #saisac.

In addition, the Center for Creative Leadership will facilitate the next SAIS Heads Leadership Retreat April 19-20 in Nashville, TN. The retreat is designed especially for heads of schools, to help them develop personally as leaders, and learn to identify and develop leaders in their administrative teams. 

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