In commenting on another post on this blog, Abigail Pierson asks an excellent question:
It’s been almost three years now. Are you still using this (portfolio) format? Can you comment on what you have learned since this original post?
Sure! And thanks for helping me dust off the keyboard to do some writing after a long break.
The short answer: no
I am currently not using the student blog and portfolio system for a number of reasons that I will detail in a moment. Before hitting the bad news, however, I would first like to comment on what worked well while using student blogs and assessment portfolios.
+Student blogs express identity
One positive side of using individual student blog sites such as WordPress or Blogger (and perhaps especially Tumblr) for posting daily work was that some students were able to let their personalities shine out in their own online space. The way in which their site was decorated, formatted, and in some cases animated were all pretty unique, at least if the student cared enough about their site to put in the time to make it so. I learned about student interests and passions just from the way they decorated their portfolios and especially their blogs.
+Student blogs and portfolios are a portable record of learning
Another positive was that the online blogs and portfolios provided continuity from year to year as long as the blog and/or portfolio site remained alive on the Internet. Some students reported going off to college and accessing their blogs there as notes for a similar class that they were taking at the next level. Some blog posts became source material for learning in future iterations of a class where I could send students to a particularly well-written student blog post on a difficult topic. Several student artifacts from those years still show up in Google searches for certain course topics. Also, some students were able to link their blogs/portfolios in various scholarship and college applications and I included blog links in several letters of recommendation.
+Student blogs and portfolios reach a wide audience
With our blogs and assessment portfolios being online, students usually understood that somebody “out there” could be reading their work. Granted, this freaked some kids out, but in general it was a positive motivator and contributed to some uptick in quality of writing when I could remind students that I wasn’t the only one watching. We were even able to coordinate a blog exchange or two with other classrooms which lead to the certainty that other people were interested in our work. One of the biggest motivators for students was me reminding them that their portfolio might be used by the local junior college to help determine whether they deserved concurrent college credit or not (which turned out to not be true, but more about that in a bit).
+Student blogs allow students to practice writing
On several occasions in the time period during which I was using student blogs, I was complimented by my administrators for the degree to which I was supporting the mission of the school by having students practice their writing in a class other than Language Arts. Some blog posts could be the equivalent of a short essay, and students were doing at least one or two per week.
Why did I stop using assessment portfolios?
I mentioned that I stopped doing things in this way. What follows is a discussion of the reasons that I stopped using my system of online assessment portfolios and returned to a much more traditional form of grading.
-Blog content was nearly exactly the same from student to student
The individuality and creativity possible with blogs was only skin (theme?) deep. Sure, students decorated their sites to their liking, but the work posted to their blogs was very uniform and almost entirely directed by the instructor. This is, of course, due to the nature of the assignments that I was asking them to post to their blogs, most of which were delivered via Google Doc and involved short explorations, webquests, or lab reports. This led to uniformity across blogs where students were really not using their blog to follow their own interests, but instead were using the blog as a place to turn in their latest Google Doc. Most teachers would agree that Google Classroom and Schoology can manage student assignments much easier than blogs if you are generally giving the same assignment to everyone at once. The whole idea of blogs as a place for students to share their personalized learning journey simply turned out to be not so personalized.
-Easy access to student blogs led to rampant copying of student work
The strength of online blogs is also its weakness: everyone can see your work. The student who publishes first usually has thought about the assignment and “done the work” but what about the kid who wants to just be done and turn it in? It’s all too easy to find the first student’s blog and “borrow” what they need. I even had a few painful conversations with students (and their families) after they plagiarized entire portfolio pages of other students. The combo of having the same assignments across course sections and publicly available blog posts was a real pain to police for plagiarism.
Unsurprisingly, blogs and portfolios take a longer time to write and grade than simply collecting assignments into a gradebook. Students had to produce a piece of work, say a lab report, then they had to link and describe the report on their blog followed by the additional step of linking the resulting blog post on multiple standards-based pages of the portfolio. This eats up a ton of class time, especially when you have to assume that your students have only spotty Internet access at home. On the teacher side of things, evaluating the portfolios added another layer of complexity that went far beyond what a simple online gradebook calculation could do. Powerful perhaps, but time-consuming.
-Lack of buy-in from outside the classroom
I’ve written about this issue before (as have others), but the ultimate demise of this assessment system was its failure to be supported outside of my classroom. I presented this system at a national level (NSTA) to a great crowd and many hundreds of other educators have stumbled across this blog and some of my ramblings on Twitter back when that was a thing. But the two audiences that matter, my administration and the local junior college concurrent credit gurus, never really cared for the portfolio system. It was too complex and too different from their normal way of determining grades. It could be that my particular way of going about it was garbage, but I was never encouraged to pursue the use of portfolios and in some cases I believe I was actively discouraged from doing so. Couple that with the problems of duplicate (often boring) blog content, plagiarism, and the time commitment mentioned above and I was getting a pretty clear message that the benefits did not outweigh the cost of doing assessment differently than others at my school.
It is entirely possible that I may someday pick up where I left off with my experiments with portfolios. I still believe that they are one of the best ways to document and share performances of the science practices. Some of the plagiarism problems might be handled by sending part or all of the portfolio through TurnItIn.com or another plagiarism checker. Maybe I could find ways to help students make the blogs more reflective rather than simply act as a digital locker. I think that there may one day be an initiative by a state entity or school district that might require at least a few student artifacts be turned in for analysis. It’s worth continuing to think about what that kind of assessment portfolio system would look like at a scale much larger than a single classroom.