Bravely Go Where Few Have Gone Before with Digital Portfolios

Technology is here. It’s in our homes, at our job sites, and in our cars. Even with this abundance of technology in our everyday lives, there are still many people who fear technology. I remember when I first learned that if I wanted to be a teacher I would have to become computer literate. It was 1990. I was a
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Technology is here. It’s in our homes, at our job sites, and in our cars. Even with this abundance of technology in our everyday lives, there are still many people who fear technology. I remember when I first learned that if I wanted to be a teacher I would have to become computer literate. It was 1990. I was a

Technology is here. It’s in our homes, at our job sites, and in our cars. Even with this abundance of technology in our everyday lives, there are still many people who fear technology. I remember when I first learned that if I wanted to be a teacher I would have to become computer literate. It was 1990. I was a junior in college, and I was terrified! I was still using an old portable typewriter. I did not even own a computer! How was I going to become adept with the computer? When I look back on that time in my life, I laugh because now I integrate a great deal of technology into my classroom. Although I am nowhere near proficient, I have overcome the fear and discovered it is easier to use technology than I thought.

How did I get here? I made the transition by immersing myself in everything about the computer. Then I began taking my English classes to the computer lab to use the word processor. Next, I used the Internet to aid the students in completing research projects. Recently, I have been experimenting with the digital portfolio.

It seems fitting that the writing portfolio should step into the twenty-first century. The students are inundated with technology on a daily basis — cell phones, pagers, computers, video games, etc. — why not use their world to enhance and evaluate their writing? Writing does not have to be dull. It can be fun with the use of technology. For some reason, the students I teach believe that writing on the computer is fun; according to some of my students it is not writing at all. It seems that a student’s perception of writing changes when a computer is involved. I have found success in using that which they know best — technology — and using it to teach and access that which they know least — writing. I have succeeded by using digital portfolios to meet my goals and the objectives of the curriculum and the Standards of Learning.

Evolution of the Portfolio

To clearly understand the evolution of portfolios one must first have a basic understanding of writing pedagogy over the last 40 years. In 1966 English teachers from all over the United States met in Dartmouth, New Hampshire, to discuss the state of English education in America. The title of the conference was “The Language of Failure,†and the aim was to define the teaching of English and to brainstorm ways to improve teaching methods (Adams 3). This was the beginning of many such meetings sponsored by the International Federation of Teachers of English. Although the first conference did not bring about immediate change, it did begin the dialogue and provided the foundation for a new age of pedagogy in the teaching of English. Prior to the 1960s, the main emphasis in the teaching of composition was on the final product (Gleason 3). However, in 1965 Gordon Rohman and Albert Wleche introduced the writing process in three stages—pre-writing, drafting, and editing. In 1973, Peter Elbow published Writing Without Teachers in which he emphasized the stage of invention, specifically free-writing, as a means of searching for personal style and growth (“Writing Process†3). Rooted in the 1960s with the support of such leading theorists as James Britton and James Moffett and established in the 1970s with the works of Peter Elbow, the writing process is now widely acknowledged as the best way to teach composition (Gleason 3).

Writing folders became a byproduct of this process. Teachers were encouraged to have their students place their works in folders (Pirie 1). One reason for this was to include the student in the assessment evaluation processes. In some school districts students were asked to select pieces of their writing which they considered their best for evaluation and explain why they selected these pieces (Dyson & Freedman 4). The emphasis remained on single pieces of writing housed in a folder. Unfortunately, these folders often became storehouses for writing that were shoved in a drawer and forgotten.

Primitive portfolios began in the mid 1980s. Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff served as administrators for a writing program that required a written exit exam. Elbow and Belanoff were dissatisfied with the written exit exam and the holistic scoring method used to evaluate the exam because it did not mimic what they taught in the classroom; Elbow and Belanoff experimented with portfolios by having their students submit folders with a variety of genres instead of a single piece of writing (Yancey 4). In the late 1980s and early 1990s other models for portfolios emerged such as the portfolio-based basic writing program at Purdue University, the exemption program at Miami University, the placement program at the University of Michigan, and the rising junior portfolio at Washington State University (Yancey 4).

As the age of accountability dawned, teachers were looking for alternate means of assessing student writing based on the “whole picture.†The trend in assessment moved toward an emphasis on evaluating the student’s writing ability based on many pieces of work and not just on individual ambiguous assignments. In the twenty-first century, writing folders have blossomed into writing portfolios in which the emphasis is on the whole collection of work, not on single pieces of writing.

What is a Writing Portfolio?

The Northwest Evaluation Association defines a portfolio as “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress, and achievements†(Lankes 5). Furthermore, a writing portfolio is a collection of student writing in various stages. The purpose, or model, is largely teacher or student defined. It can be a collection of all the student’s best work, it can be a sampling of the student’s writing that indicates growth, or it can be a compilation of writing that demonstrates the various stages of the writing process. There are four strategies used when compiling a portfolio: collection, selection, reflection, and evaluation. Students collect different writing assignments (in various stages of the process), then begin the selection process (selecting those items that best meet the model chosen by the teacher or student), reflect (students reflect on the individual assignments or the portfolio itself) (see Appendix A), and finally evaluate (students submit their portfolios to their teachers/audiences for assessment).

What Is a Works in Progress (WIP) Folder?

In the Virginia Beach City Public School division, students use Works in Progress (WIP) folders and portfolios. The Works in Progress folder contains all the student writings in various stages and modes. The student selects from the WIP folder any pieces that he or she would like to revise to include in the portfolio. The portfolio is the showcase for student growth in writing. It should demonstrate the student’s progress during a year or during several years. Also, it should demonstrate the variety of types or forms of writing that the student has attempted during a certain period of time.

What Is a Digital Portfolio?

The digital portfolio is very similar to a standard print portfolio in purpose and strategy. The purpose remains to showcase student writing, indicate growth, or demonstrate the writing process in action. The students continue to collect, select, and reflect. The difference lies in the mode of publication. The digital portfolio can be defined in many ways. Again, teacher leadership is key. It can be simplistic or complicated depending on the teacher’s desire and resources. It can be as simple as using a word processing program such as Microsoft Word® (See Appendix B) to create hyperlinks to documents (See Appendix C), or it can be complicated such as using Front Page® to create sophisticated Web designs (See Appendix D or view an example at The possibilities are endless. The digital nature of the digital portfolio offers many advantages over the traditional portfolio.

What Are the Advantages of the Digital Portfolio? There are several benefits. They include advantages for the teacher as well as the student:




Easy management

Ease of reading

Faster revision / editing

Option of alternative assessment

More creativity


Skill acquisition

Integration of state technology standards

Audience concerns

Teacher Benefits


One challenge for teachers connected with the portfolio and WIP folders is storage. This issue arises every year. Schools typically have very little storage space, and writing folders and portfolios are bulky. Digital portfolios solve the storage dilemma because they can be stored in several ways. Students can save their documents on a floppy disk, on a CD, or on a network server. They can also publish their portfolio on the World Wide Web. The digital portfolio negates the storage problem.

Ease of Reading

Digital portfolios are easy to read because all the entries are typed. I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to scream because I could not read a student’s handwriting. The digital portfolio eliminates the need for students to spend tedious hours rewriting their papers as well as the frustration experienced by the teacher when he or she cannot read that paper.

Option of Alternative Assessment

Teachers of writing continue to emphasize the importance of the writing process. The portfolio process affords an excellent opportunity to work with different pieces of writing in various stages. The nature of the portfolios requires students to incorporate writing in all stages of the process so that later they may go back and revise some of these pieces. The emphasis again is on the fact that the writing process is continual and recursive. Consequently, the teacher is able to evaluate the student’s writing as a whole and not just on a single ambiguous piece of writing.


Thanks to the diversity of software available (PowerPoint®, Front Page®, Microsoft Publisher®, Microsoft Word®, etc.) the students are given many possibilities for publication in the digital portfolio. This is a major plus when facing the evaluation of 120 portfolios

Integration of Virginia Technology Standards

The digital portfolio is one way to integrate technology into instruction in order to satisfy the Virginia Technology Standards of Learning. Students begin using computers in elementary school; then in middle school students begin to refine the skills they learned in previous years. By the time they reach high school, most students are quite knowledgeable about computers, so more time can be spent on using the computer to create products rather than concentrating on how to use the computer.

Student Advantages

Easy Management

One great plus for students is that the digital portfolio allows the student to manage his or her portfolio with ease. Hyperlinking (See Appendix C) offers an easy way for students to move from one piece to another with the click of the mouse. This is a great advantage especially for those students who have trouble with organizational skills. It is less likely that they will lose pieces if they only have to be responsible for keeping a disk or a CD.

Faster Revision and Editing

A second advantage for students is that it is easier to revise and edit with digital portfolios. Because the entries are all digital, the revisions are done rather quickly. Not only will editing and revising be quicker, but students will not have to write the whole essay over and over again. They will just make the revisions. Thomas commented, “…I didn’t have to rewrite the material by hand… I type much faster than I write. This allowed me to finish my entire rewrite in about twenty minutes as opposed to a full hour and a half.â€

More Creativity

A third advantage for students is that they have a chance to showcase their creativity. The digital portfolio will allow students to incorporate pictures, graphs, charts, colors, hyperlinks, etc. For many of the students surveyed, the ability to be creative was a big plus. Elizabeth said, “It’s more fun to type! We get to pick our font, colors, background colors, and nifty little pictures!†The students really get a chance to dazzle the teacher, and the teacher is given the opportunity to see another side of the student. Many times I have been amazed at how creative my students really are.

Skill Acquisition

The most obvious benefit for students is that the digital portfolio is a great opportunity to learn new skills. As a teacher, I am always looking for ways to teach my students life skills. The digital portfolio offers the perfect opportunity. Not only do the students have to practice their typing skills, but also they have to learn how to use and create hyperlinks. Some portfolio models teach the students how to use different kinds of software such as Hyperstudio®, Front Page®, and PowerPoint®. Learning these skills will help students later in life when they are in the work place and in college.

Audience Concerns

A final advantage for the students is that the digital portfolio allows for the possibility of a wider audience. If students are using a network server to save their work, other students can access it and offer suggestions which not only encourages peer editing, but also helps to instill a sense of community within the classroom. Furthermore, if the students publish their portfolios on the Web, then an even wider audience is available. Publishing on the Web allows for more feedback, which will lead to better revision.

Getting Started

To begin, the teacher will need to decide on a model. It can be one of many or a combination of several. Some consideration should be given to the experiences of other teachers with digital portfolios and the dictates of the local curriculum. I have found that the best model is one that combines all these possibilities (See Appendix E).

A unique component of the digital portfolio is that one has to consider the resources that are available. Will the data be stored on a floppy disk or on a CD? Who will purchase the disk or the CD? Will the server be the sole place to save the portfolios, or will the server be used as a back up? In my experience, I have discovered that floppy disks are not large enough nor are they reliable. A CD is the best choice; however, will the students have access to CD burners? The server is great to use as a back up, but I would not recommend it be used as the primary place for storage. Many servers are open to everyone. It is very easy for portfolios to disappear. I recommend having the students use floppy disks which they purchase and rely on the server as a back up.

Once a model has been selected, a decision needs to be made on how to present this information to the students and their parents. I recommend sending a letter home to the parents explaining the teacher’s expectations and the portfolio model that has been chosen. This is a good time to enlist the help of the students with the process (See Appendix E).

The Digital Portfolio Process

As mentioned before, the process is unchanged from that used in a traditional portfolio. The students will continue to collect writing in various stages of development. These pieces will be stored on a disk or server instead of in a WIP folder. The students will continue to select pieces to reshape and revise and place in their portfolios. I recommend that the students receive help in making these selections. The teacher, of course, should be the first line of defense, but why not enlist the help of the parents and friends? (See Appendix F)

Reflection plays a key role in the selection process for either a paper portfolio or a digital portfolio. After the student has selected the pieces that will go into the portfolio, the student should reread the pieces and reflect on the changes he or she wishes to make to improve the work or works. It can be very difficult to include process pieces in a digital portfolio unless the students have been taught to insert text boxes or use the spilt screen (See Appendix G).

After reflection, students rework their pieces of writing and submit the portfolio for evaluation, and the teacher will need to decide how to assess it. There are several ways to evaluate the digital portfolio. I recommend the use of a rubric, either holistic or analytical (See Appendix H). I have tried both types of rubrics and have discovered that I prefer the analytical form. It gives the students a clear idea of expectations, and it is easy to convert into a grade.

The Final Product

In the end, the students will have something of which to be proud. The students will not only experience a sense of achievement for having completed the process, but also they will have writing portfolios that can be given to potential colleges, to universities, and to future employers. In addition, they will have proof of the new computer skills they have learned. In addition, the instructor will have the satisfaction of knowing that he or she has helped the students meet their goals. Further, the instructor will have a variety of writing to use to evaluate their writing skills.

The Critics and Beyond

Critics will argue that the paper portfolio offers the same advantages as a digital portfolio without all the work. I would have to disagree and so did my students. After my students completed their first digital portfolios, I surveyed them to gain their insights. I was pleased to discover that many of their responses supported what I thought and hoped that the digital portfolio offers many benefits for teachers and students. One item on the survey was whether or not they would rather create a paper portfolio or a digital portfolio. Seventy-five percent of the students said that they would rather compile the digital portfolio. Also, when asked, many of the students responded that the digital portfolio was more stimulating than the paper portfolio. The digital portfolio is a means by which the minds and fingers of a student are unlocked. The student who hates to write will invariably try to write if a computer is involved. It goes back to the student’s perception of writing discussed earlier in this article. The messiness and tedium of writing and rewriting are eliminated when students use the computer to compose. Moreover, many of the student responses indicated that the technology aspect of the digital portfolio allowed them many ways in which to demonstrate their creativity, and that this was a major reason for their preference for the digital portfolio. Susan responded, “It’s more exciting when we can experiment with colors, buttons, and pictures. It appeals to more of our creative side.†As demonstrated earlier the digital portfolio offers a myriad of advantages for teachers and students, but I believe the best advantage is that it makes writing creative and enjoyable.


Each day, technology is changing and with these changes the unimaginable or impossible is now possible. Are we as educators ready to meet the challenge, or do we want to remain in our comfort zone and miss the opportunities to get to know our students better and help them unlock their potential? The choice is ours; as for myself, I am awaiting the chance to seek out new forms of technology to use in my classroom, hoping to unlock more minds and fingers. Won’t you join me?

Works Cited

Adams, Anthony. "From Dartmouth to New York: 1966-1995" International Digest. Cambridge University, 6 July 2002

Dyson, Anne Haas and Sarah Warshauer Freedman. "On Teaching Writing: A Review of the Literature" National Center for the Study of Writing. 6 July 2002.

Gleason, Barabara. "Teaching at the Crossroads: Choice and Challenges in College Composition" The Writing Instructor. 2001. 7 July 2002.

Lankes, Anna Maria D. "Electronic Portfolios: A New Idea in Assessment" Eric Digest. Dec. 1995.

Pirie, Bruce. Reshaping High School English. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.

"Writing Process" UVM. 7 July 2002.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. "Looking Back as We Look Forward: Historicizing Writing Assessment as a Rhetorical Act" Feb. 1999. NCTE. 7 July 2002


  • All student names mentioned in the article have been changed, and all student work has been used with permission.
  • Much of the information and worksheets seen in this article are a result of my involvement in several portfolio activities in which I, along with others, created tools to use in the portfolio process including the following:
    The Federal Improvement Plan for Secondary Education (FIPSE) project with Tidewater Community College (TCC) and Salem High School and Landstown High School (2000-2001). This project is going into its fifth year. Its aim is to decrease the number of freshmen going into remedial English. Over the last four years, the program has been extremely successful in lowering the number of students entering remedial English. Virginia Beach City Public Schools Cohort 3 Portfolios Assessment Project (2001-2002). This project was designed to help implement the use of portfolios across the city. Members of all the cohorts were trained in the use and assessment of portfolios. The project is in its fourth year.

About Elizabeth H. Beagle
Elizabeth H. Beagle has been teaching for nine years. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Old Dominion University. Her experience ranges from at risk students (Open Campus High School) to the private sector (Ryan Academy). Currently she teaches at Landstown High School. She has been involved in numerous professional activities including curriculum writing, Federal Improvement Plan for Secondary Education (FIPSE) project (Salem and Landstown High Schools), and Summer Professional Development Academy (SPDA) and Applying Practical Principles with the Learning Environment (APPLE) training. She is eager to integrate technology into her classroom and is continuously seeking new ways to do so.

Digital Reflection

1. Which piece do you like the best and why?

2. Which piece did you find the most difficult to write and why?

3. Look back at your opening reflective letter; of the weaknesses you mentioned, have any improved? If so, what is the reason for the improvement?

4. Select one or two of your remaining weaknesses and outline a plan for improvement.

5. Of the pieces you have written thus far, which one best represents your strengths as a writer?

6. What tools of revision, such as peer editing, teacher conferencing, tri-editing, etc. have worked the best for you and why? Do you have any suggestions for editing tools?

7. Explain how the pictures, colors, hyperlinks, etc. have affected your portfolio.

8. What do you like and dislike about the digital portfolio?

Table of Contents

Dear Reader Letter

In this chapter it shows me talking about my strengths and weaknesses. It also shows what I wish to learn about in the future and what I should practice on more in English.

Fairytale Rough Draft

In this chapter it shows my first fairytale. It’s a story about princesses, a knight, and a prince. This story also includes an evil scheme with a romantic twist. Will it end happily ever after? Read and you’ll find out!

Fairytale Remake

This chapter is another love story. It’s about a young girl who has a spell cast upon her, and when she thinks everything’s over something surprises her.

I’m Really in Love This Time

This is my second entry for the essays. It’s about my crush, bestfriend, and ex-boyfriend.

Portfolio Reflections

This is the conclusion to my project. It talks about my writings skills and certain papers.

The end!

  1. The first step in hyperlinking is to highlight the text you want to link (the title of the piece).
  2. Step 2 in hyperlinking is to click on INSERT on the menu bar at the top of the screen.
  3. Step 3 is to click on HYPERLINK
  4. Step 4 is to click on BROWSE FOR FILE
  5. Step 5 is to select the correct file to be linked(title of the piece) then click OKAY.
  6. Step 6 is to check your hyperlink. Go to your table of contents and see if the title is linked correctly by clicking on the title. If you did it correctly, it should appear in blue font and the link should take you to the correct file(paper).
  7. Step 7 is to repeat steps 1-6 until all your entries have been properly linked. Good Luck!

September, 2002

Dear Parents/Guardians,

This year we will be compiling a digital writing portfolio. The purpose is for the student to select pieces of writing that showcase his or her growth as a writer. The portfolio will be collected several times this year including at mid-term and the final exam. The portfolio will be used to evaluate student writing and to assess his or her improvement. We will be calling on you to help us in this process. I look forward to working with you in an effort to improve your child's writing.

The portfolio will contain the following:

  • Annotated table of contents
  • Opening reflective piece
  • Two pieces of writing completed in this class and a reflection, for each piece
  • Writer's choice
  • Closing reflection letter

The students will be asked to supply 2 floppy disks (3.5 HD). If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact me at 468-3800 (2010) or via e-mail at

Elizabeth H. Beagle

I have read and understand the attached letter about the digital portfolio expectations.

Student: _____________________________________ Parent/Guardian: ________________________________ Comments:

May 20, 2002

Dear parents/friends,

Once again we need your help. We are getting ready to add the finishing touches to our writing portfolio. We need your advice in order to make the final selections. Please review the pieces in the portfolio and select two pieces that you feel reflect the writing strengths of the author. You do not have to grade them; just select two pieces that you feel are good and fill in the bottom of this page. Thanks again for your help!

Elizabeth H. Beagle


Title of piece you like:

Reason(s) you liked it:

Title of piece you like

Reason(s) you liked it:

Signature: ______________________________


Title of piece you like:

Reason(s) you liked it:

Title of piece you like:

Reason(s) you liked it:

Signature: ______________________________

Process Reflection Letter

The purpose of this letter is to elaborate on the process you used in order to write the final draft of your letter. Follow the steps below:

  1. Address your informal letter to "Dear Reader".
  2. Your letter should be thorough covering the following areas: Explain in detail the steps you took in creating the final draft of your essay. "Walk" your reader through each step. Where did you begin (pre-writing)? Comment on your drafts. How many drafts did you make? Did you have any teacher or peer conferencing, etc?. Explain the changes you made from draft to draft. It is important to give examples here because you will not be submitting your drafts with your portfolio. For example, instead of writing, "I included more detail." You should write, "I included more detail in my first paragraph as a result of my trip to the writing center. The original said, 'I felt sad when my grandmother died.' I changed it to read, 'On the day my grandmother died, I experienced the worst kind of pain and sadness imaginable. It felt as if someone had stabbed me with a knife and had taken away my best friend.'" These examples will enable me to better assess your revision.
  3. Lastly, you should comment on any help you received while writing this paper. Did you have a teacher conference? Peer review? Make a trip to the writing center? If so, how did these activities help you complete your final draft? Be specific!
  4. Don't forget to sign your letter.




Above Avg




Below Avg




Shows a mastery of a variety of tasks (4 or more)

Includes an annotated table of contents

Includes hyperlinks


Shows evidence of significant revision

Exhibits evidence of coachability


Used as a means of self reflection

Addresses strengths & weaknesses

Indicates growth in writing

Demonstrates and explains the writing process


Voice is evident

Variety of sentence structures

Shows an awareness of purpose and audience

Texts are relatively free of errors


Effectively used the chosen medium

Includes hyperlinks, graphs, pictures, etc.




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