Button with a portfolioIn my daily readings about educational technology and pedagogy, one term and concept has been popping up more and more frequently: Digital Portfolios.

A digital, or electronic, portfolio is a collection of student work in a digital medium. Educational technology experts are touting them as the future context by which students will be judged for college admission, job applications, scholarships, and more.

Some high schools (public and private) have taken up the mantle and begun developing and building a digital portfolio requirement into their curriculum or graduation mandates. I can certainly see the potential usefulness of a catalog of student work stored electronically, but I also want to know: how useful are digital portfolios, really?

Digital Portfolios are becoming trendy

In my research and readings, there is no doubt that Digital Portfolios are currently on the minds of educational technology specialists, administrators, and software developers. Recently, software companies like CollegeOnTrack have announced compatibility with The Common App and other means by which students submit online college applications.

Portfolios have always been an important part of the resume for students pursuing further schooling in art, music, and writing. Therefore, it makes sense that when college application materials are submitted digitally, there needs to be a system that allows for the submission of creative materials as well. However, will this be the new norm for ‘traditional’ students (outside the creative arts) who are applying to four-year institutions?

I decided to investigate whether or not colleges are currently considering digital portfolios from ‘traditional’ applicants or, if they are not, are they looking to do so in the future. At this point, I extend a special thanks to my friend and colleague Randy Mills, our school’s Director of College Counseling, who helped me procure some college admissions information.

Few colleges want to see digital portfolios

It appears that while schools and software companies are gearing up for students to start creating and curating a digital portfolio, the reality is that colleges and their admissions directors are more conservative on the current and future role of this medium. Right now, few colleges and universities will consider additional application materials and do not see this changing in the near future.

Admissions officers currently spend copious amounts of time evaluating transcripts, letters, test scores and personal essays. The addition of a video or a website is not a feasible option for an already overburdened system. Institutions with heavy application loads, in particular, are simply not capable of introducing more material into the mix.

So, does this mean that Digital Portfolios are a waste of time and have been overly hyped in our fetishized technology-driven lives? Not necessarily. In fact, there are many ways that students and teachers can use Digital Portfolios for assessment, perhaps with an eye to college applications (but not reliant on it).

How Digital Portfolios can be useful now

Edutopia recently highlighted some potential values of online portfolios: peer assessment, curating knowledge, increasing engagement, strengthening organizational skills, to name a few. By their nature, Digital Portfolios are an excellent way for students to track their own learning – providing a broader look at one’s educational journey. They can give students a more coherent way to do some valuable self-assessment of their academic and intellectual development and growth.

Likewise, a single or multi-year digital portfolio can help teachers and administration track and evaluate a student’s progress over the course of time. Educators understand that a true assessment of learning is not what you can produce at the end, but how far you have come in the process. A meaningful catalog of student work is an excellent way to judge and evaluate this effectively.

Creating the Digital Portfolio

Electronic portfolios are relatively simple to put together, and the trend toward creating student projects and assignments with digital tools makes it easier than ever for students and/or teachers to put together. Beth Holland’s article at Edudemic, “How to Use Google Drive and Evernote to Create Digital Portfolios” highlights two of the best web tools for creation and describes a process of virtually seamless and easy integration — all for free.

Plan for the future

Even though most universities are not currently asking for Digital Portfolios, they could become more relevant in the future. Many top tier schools, such as MIT, already allow students to include links to their online work. It is conceivable that student demand for broader consideration of their digital products will push institutions of higher learning to adapt to the expanding world of digital media.

For this to become feasible, I foresee two necessities: first, Digital Portfolios will need to be engaging and concise — two-hour film epochs are not going to get a student’s foot in the door. And there will need to be a template or model — some type of uniformity in how this content is presented. Currently, there is none.

While Digital Portfolios have seemingly been over-hyped in the past few years, I do believe that they have a place in education and assessment. Additionally, they appear to have a (as yet undetermined) future in application processes for higher education. Curating one’s work seems to have no downside – resources are free and the archives may be useful in ways we cannot yet predict (MOOCs? Job seeking?). At the same time, it benefits students and educators to approach these projects with realistic goals and expectations and some financial caution.


Byrne, Richard. “Free Technology for Teachers: PortfolioGen – Create Teacher Portfolio Pages.” Free Technology for Teachers: PortfolioGen – Create Teacher Portfolio Pages. N.p., 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Hiles, Heather. “Five Ways to Use Online Portfolios in the Classroom.” Edutopia. Edutopia, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Holland, Beth. “How to Use Google Drive and Evernote to Create Digital Portfolios.” Edudemic. Edudemic, 01 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Kolk, Melinda. “Digital Portfolios.” Creative Educator. Creative Educator, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2013. <http://creativeeducator.tech4learning.com/v05/articles/Digital_Portfolios>.

Peterson, Chris. “Opening the Black Box: Analytics and Admissions.” Chronicle of Higher Ed. Chronicle of Higher Ed, 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Roland, Jennifer. “Beyond the Transcript: Digital Portfolios Paint a Complete Pictures.MindShift/KQED. MindShift/KQED, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Smart, Maya P. “Digital Portfolios Pull Double Duty.” Edutopia. Edutopia, 20 May 2009. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

Treuer, Paul, and Jill D. Jenson. “Electronic Portfolios Need Standards to Thrive.” Educause Quarterly (2003): 34-42. Web.

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