Telling a 21st Century Learning Story Through Digital Portfolios

Guest post by Mike King

Last time I posted, I discussed Dodge City Middle School’s (DCMS) student-led conference initiative, which places students at the center of their own learning. This post, I will share how we’ve continued this important work and integrated digital portfolios that help students apply their learning experiences to the real world and foster digital citizenship and 21st-century learning skills.

In 2016, four years after DCMS implemented student-led conferencing, our faculty considered ways to expand the program’s original goal of student ownership to include 21st-century learning preparation and digital citizenship, inspired in part by the Kansas Can initiative for Individual Plans of Study and our own school’s data.

In our discussions, we talked about how today’s students are “wired differently.” 21st-century students want to understand why they are learning something and know its real-world application. They take connectivity and social networking for granted. They are natural collaborators and multitaskers. Perhaps, most significantly, today’s students would rather “do to learn” instead of “learn to do.”

So how could we adapt our successful student-led conferences to accomplish these new goals? The solution our faculty determined was to replace the three-ring binder of physical artifacts with a digital portfolio, which would allow students to:

  • Receive digital badge awards to highlight individual accomplishments.
  • Use social media as a self-promotion tool and share accomplishments and goals.
  • Track academic, personal, professional, and volunteer projects.
  • Share experiences in real time with parents and teachers, and invite mentors and family member to view feeds and receive notifications.
  • Reflect on required career assessments, and choose skills to develop to fulfill goals.
  • Understand the importance of maintaining a positive digital footprint, and practice safe and responsible social media and internet use.
  • Acquire “netiquette” literacy skills to become responsible contributors to social media.

The digital format allows students the same opportunities to reflect on their own learning like the three-ring binder did, but it does so in a 21st century format that engages students more and has a greater real-world application. Furthermore, the digital portfolio gives educators a way to foster digital citizenship and to stress the importance of maintaining a positive digital footprint.

The Digital Portfolio as an Individual Plan of Study 

To assist students in creating their digital portfolios, we use our daily 26-minute advocacy period where teachers coach students to update their profiles, post their achievements, and challenge themselves with new learning goals. The digital portfolio is an electronic record of each student’s individual plan of study in these four distinct categories:

1. Academics/Achievement Goal: Students will demonstrate an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and how they have grown as an independent learner.

2. RelationshipsPersonal & Professional Goal: Students will demonstrate an understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and how it affects their relationships with others.

3. CareersAwareness & Real-World Applications Goals: Students will identify their personal skills/interests to help them explore career/life opportunities for the future. Students will demonstrate what they have learned in their classes and how it applies to the real world.

4. Community/School InvolvementService Learning Goal: Students will reflect how they have been a productive and positive citizen within school and our community.

Students use their digital portfolios—like they did with their three-ring binders—to showcase their accomplishments and give evidence of their learning during their student-led conferences every 10 weeks. The 2016–17 school year was the first for the digital portfolios, and it was a big success. Students, teachers, and parents alike raved about the new format. The digital portfolios tell a powerful story of 21st century learning where students have choice in what and how they learn.

How do you promote 21st-century learning skills in your school? Could digital portfolios help your students apply their learning experiences to the real world and foster digital citizenship?

Mike King is principal of Dodge City Middle School in Dodge City, KS. During his 38-year career in education, he was named a 2012 NASSP National Digital Principal of the Year, and his schools have been recognized with numerous awards, including the Medal of Excellence, designation as an Oklahoma National Blue Ribbon School, and various Kansas educational honors. Mike is committed to advancing learning with technology and firmly believes that digital tools can help students unleash their creativity and construct knowledge. 

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