Moving from digital portfolios to a domain of one’s own

Digital portfolios are personalized, active, and multimodal. These can take the form of a personalized, web-based collection of work and reflections used to demonstrate key skills and accomplishments for a variety of contexts and time periods.

In an earlier post, I detailed the elements of a digital portfolio, and described the benefits for students and educators. This post will dig a bit deeper into the research and theory to identify possibilities for identity development and supporting literacy practices in the construction of digital portfolios. Specifically, we’ll look at student agency, developing identity, and moving to a domain of one’s own.

Documenting student agency

The idea of having students showcase their learning is not new. For decades, portfolios have been a staple of teachers’ writing instruction. In 1986, composition scholars, Elbow and Belanoff, detailed how they implemented writing portfolios in their college writing program. While they intended for portfolios to provide an authentic assessment of students’ learning, they also found that a portfolio system had many benefits. These included having teachers act as collaborative colleagues, rather than isolated dispensers of student grades. Furthermore, the collaboration occurring between teachers and students allowed students to take more ownership of their writing and develop a sense of agency about their writing.

Educators began to see portfolios as an opportunity for students to identify and map out the processes involved in cognition, in order to build up their self-regulated learning. The ultimate goal being for students to have control of their own learning, and improve learning through enhanced metacognition. This led to an interest in the intersections of authentic assessments, identity, and motivation. In the earlier citation, Clark et al., (2001) argued that portfolios are “sites of learning” in that students are engaged in the acts of “constructing, negotiating, compiling, documenting, sharing, revising, reflecting on, and assessing one’s own work in a portfolio” (p. 212). Students participate in the construction of knowledge and are active participants in the assessment of their learning. This provides opportunities for students to engage in activities in school that will help shape and determine their constructed identities.

Developing student identity using digital tools

For some theorists, learning itself is seen as the construction of identities as individuals take up and take on different social practices in different contexts with different social communities at different times. This means that to engage in learning is to engage in the project of constructing and reconstructing identity. Arguably the work of compiling a portfolio yields the possibility for students to begin constructing a sense of their identity.

With the advent of new technologies in classrooms, many teachers use digital tools to expand the use and functionality of portfolios in the literacy classroom. Apps, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and Evernote, provide ease in allowing students to store, collect and access their writing. Increasingly, the term digital portfolio or e-portfolio is also used when these materials are used for a collection of electronic evidence maintained by the learner. While digital tools may have provided a solution for storing and accessing students’ portfolios, in today’s classroom digital tools don’t serve as merely a platform to host students’ portfolios.

The use of technology and digital media in the writing classroom are changing current views of writing and what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Image, sound, video are now included to create compositions that are multimodal, interactive, and nonlinear. In English language arts classrooms, students are not only writing the traditional literary analysis, but also blogs, infographics, and public service announcements. In addition, students are engaged in media production, constructing websites and showcasing digital evidence of their learning. Curating and showcasing students’ digital literacy artifacts is not solely a collection of their knowledge and abilities to produce using 21st century skills, they are an amalgamation of students’ digital identities as learners.

Developing a domain of one’s own

In the development of digital portfolios, I see opportunities for students to engage with digital tools in online spaces across their academic careers. I believe there is a need for students to develop and maintain a domain of one’s own, one canonical address online that students build up from Pre-K through higher ed that archives and documents learning over time. This space can be used to read, write, and participate, as learners build, edit, revise, and iterate as if it were a digital portfolio. As we move from digital portfolios to providing students with a domain of their own we help them connect their literacy practices with the identity development skills they’ll need now and in the future.

The Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) initiative was first imagined at a hackathon at the MIT Media Lab that considered the possibilities of educating individuals about their data and digital identities. The thinking was considered as a contemporary version of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay titled A Room of One’s Own in which she demanded a personal place to write. This early work became a pilot program that started at the University of Mary Washington and then has traveled across numerous other institutions of higher education and beyond. For more information on “a domain of one’s own” please visit this post from Lee Skallerup Bessette shares a collection of resources and articles on DoOO as well as a list of schools currently experimenting with DoOO. This research informed their earlier post on a brief history of DoOO and an infographic.

We live in a connected world where anyone with access to the Internet is exposed to unprecedented learning opportunities. Information is plentiful, and experts are, literally, at our fingertips. Research over the last two decades has shown that reading and writing in digital spaces may require a more complex application of literacy skills than print-based reading and writing. Yet most formal institutions of education still cling to traditional definitions of literacy and pedagogical approaches, focusing on print-based literacy and teacher-centered pedagogy. In these institutions, children are often not empowered to learn, nor are they connected to the world outside their classroom walls. I believe this direction is necessary as it builds aspects of ownership, agency, and empowerment of learners in online and hybrid spaces. If we truly want students to be digitally literate, they need to have a personalized learning space online that provides more than just a snapshot of their participation in one class or one school year.


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Originally published at W. Ian O’Byrne.