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Beyond the Transcript: Digital Portfolios Paint a Complete Picture

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By Jennifer Roland

As digital portfolios become more commonly used for students to showcase their work and projects, more companies are offering their services in this realm. One of the newest onto the scene is CollegeOnTrack, which joins Zinch and College Bound — as well as the tried-and-true personal blog — in the world of online portfolio tools.

Zinch, which is free for students, is designed like a social networking tool. Educational portfolio researcher, author and consultant Helen Barrett believes the lines are blurring between social networking tools and digital portfolios. In fact, she says, social networking sites help prepare students for the technical work involved in creating and maintaining a strong digital portfolio. (Educator Lisa Nielsen goes so far as to recommend using Facebook Timeline to showcase student achievement.)

With the digital portfolio sites, students can compile the list of colleges they want to apply to, upload their work for college admissions officers to see, and apply for scholarships. They can connect with admissions officers at participating schools so their application will be more than just a name and a set of scores when it arrives in the admissions office.

College Bound Designs actually creates digital portfolios for students to submit as part of their application package. They offer a range of packages ranging from $500 to $1800, with a special focus on portfolios for artists and athletes. The packages can be targeted for specific schools.

CollegeOnTrack's service focuses more on the process and less on the finished works than the other two companies, with a journal that allows students to reflect on their learning process in addition to the presentation of finished works that show the breadth of a student's growth as a learner throughout high school. It also allows parents and counselors, when invited by the student, to help students refine their portfolios and track their process in selecting and applying for colleges.


Although not all components of the CollegeOnTrack portfolio will be published for college admissions officers to view, it can help students as they gather required documentation and prepare to write their essays. The tool looks more like a blog than like a social network, with tag clouds, archive listings and other blog-like navigational elements. The team is in the process of adding the ability to apply to colleges directly within the system; if it happens, the digital portfolio would be included in the submitted application. The annual subscription cost is $60, but the company offers volume pricing for counselors and school systems.

Colleges seem to be moving toward a more robust system for assessing students’ ability to succeed and to fit in. Digital portfolios provide students a way to track what they've learned over time, compile their grades and scores and publish their completed projects. And they provide a sense of a student's identity, one behind the transcript, when submitting their applications.

“Traditionally,” says Philip Roybal, vice president of marketing for College On Track, “the way colleges have worked is they have looked at transcripts and standardized tests and tried to figure out who would make a good college citizen.” But test scores don’t convey the whole picture or serve as a bulletproof predictor of college success. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists more than 850 schools that do not require SAT scores for entrance into bachelor’s programs, although some of those include technical institutes and art schools that have a more limited educational focus. These numbers match with what Roybal observed as the company prepared its database of schools. Of the 2,000 colleges included in their database, he says, 950 have started to de-emphasize test scores.


As students progress through their educational careers and prepare for college or work, parents can provide guidance to help students capture relevant information and showcase their best work.

“Parents are the first portfolio keepers,” Barrett says. “That family scrapbook or that digital album of photos is a portfolio.” Once kids go to school, parents keep their portfolio tradition alive by saving artwork, school assignments, and all of the other mementos of their child’s schooling.

Parents can involve their kids, even at a very young age, to help them not only pick their favorite works but also to assess and reflect on their learning. The reflection component, much more than the presentation element of digital portfolios, is where Barrett believes they reach their full power.

As students get older, they may need a more formal digital portfolio tool. Some school systems encourage students to use blogs to post their reflections of what they're studying, drafts of work for feedback, and finished pieces. Barrett has seen students as young as eight years old effectively using digital portfolios, although they are much more common in high schools. For example, in East Haven Schools in Connecticut, some teachers who use iPads for assessments have students send them screenshots of scores they earn on education apps, which they store in students' electronic portfolios, according to a recent article in Education Week.


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