What Will Digital Portfolios Mean for College-Bound Students?

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Sometime during the first few weeks of school at Montgomery Bell Academy, an independent, all-boys college preparatory school in Nashville, Tennessee, college counselor Ginny Maddux gathers all the ninth-graders in the auditorium to talk about college. The freshmen are each given a piece of paper and asked to make a list of every college and university they can think of; once finished, they make it into a paper airplane. Maddux then asks the boys to stand up, count to five and try their best to fly their paper airplanes all the way to the auditorium’s stage.

She tells them to keep in mind that some of the airplanes may not make it on the first try, and will need a little help to get all the way to the stage. In this way, she tells them, flying your paper airplane to the stage is a lot like getting into college: “For some of you, it sailed right down here and it seemed a bit seamless. Some of you needed help on how to make an airplane, some of you needed help getting your plane down here, but you all chipped in and different people helped you make that happen.”

Maddux, who has been in the business of college admissions, either at the university or high school level, for 25 years, said that at Montgomery Bell, that’s about as far as they go with beginning to prepare freshmen for college. She even goes so far as to say they encourage most students [and subsequently, their parents] to purposefully not begin obsessing about college too much until the beginning of the junior year, when they ramp up the process with college visits and forming lists of possible candidates.

But, Maddux points out, this delay comes with an implicit understanding that parents, in sending their child to an exclusive private school, already assume their kids are going to college. In that way, it gives them some room to breathe: They can concentrate on learning what high school is all about, and have a little time to mature and grow before entering what Maddux (and others) call “the arms race” of college admissions.

Not all students have this luxury, however, which in part is what prompted the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success’s new free online application and digital locker. The digital platform, which will be available beginning in April of this year,  allows all high schoolers, even freshmen and sophomores, to begin storing their projects, papers and even video footage for possible inclusion in future college applications through a “digital locker,” or storage, available in the app.



The earlier that kids begin planning their college application, the better, and that’s the reason the digital locker can be used as early as ninth grade, according to University of Chicago Deputy Dean of Admissions Veronica Hauad, speaking for the coalition, which is made up of more than 80 top public and private universities and colleges (including the Ivies and distinguished research universities).

She said that even if nothing from the first couple of years of high school is actually ever used in final college applications, the practice of putting quality work into digital storage “gets them thinking critically” about college.

“I hate to say it, because I know there will be people who disagree, but I think it’s never too early,” she said. “The kids just a few blocks from us [at University of Chicago] have never seen what a college looks like, they don’t know what college means. I’m sorry, I think for underrepresented students, it’s never too early to build college-going culture and have exposure to the process. It actually reduces stress if, little by little, you learn [how to build your college resume], rather than waiting until the last couple of weeks to learn how to do everything. I think it’s a great thing.”

To that end, part of the coalitions’s mission is to “level the playing field” for underserved students who may not have thought they had a shot at a big-name expensive school like the University of Chicago. Hauad hopes the coalition will help to change all that: With the free, easy application, free digital storage and collaboration platform that allows mentors or parents to help with the application, they hope to attract students who, for one reason or another, may have been too intimidated to apply before.

“It’s not the polish — that’s great if you’ve had the privilege to produce something with that level of polish, a paper or a video, you’ve got great test scores,” she said. “But we’re not just looking for polish. We’re looking for really interesting, hard-working kids. And that comes with any level of sophistication. And I think that will be easy to tell, whether it’s through a coalition application or any application platform.”

Students can already create profiles using Google Drive or LinkedIn, but startups are also hoping to help students present their whole self — not just their grades and test scores — to admissions officers digitally. Silicon Valley startup ZeeMee has created a free app that provides a way for students to create a positive online identity to share with colleges, promising to “bring their story to life.” The ZeeMee profile page, which includes details like a student’s interests, passions, family background and a video, can then be added to the Common App or embedded in a university’s application.

Co-founders Adam Metcalf and Juan Jaysingh said ZeeMee is being used in more than 10,000 high schools in 100 countries, and has partnered with more than 200 colleges and universities that will embed ZeeMee into their applications beginning this fall.

“It doesn’t matter where they come from — private school, public school, charter school, underserved communities — we know they [students] all have a story. But more importantly, they have a smartphone,” said Jaysingh.

Photo and video provide a more complete version of a person, and students feel they're "more than a piece of paper." He thinks that ZeeMee will help level the playing field for students by allowing admissions officers to get a more complete understanding of an applicant by seeing her face, and hearing about her likes and dislikes, passions and her goals directly, instead of through an essay or SAT score.

Metcalf and Jaysingh agree that today’s high schoolers, who have grown up with Instagram and Facebook, are comfortable with making videos of themselves, and are probably much less likely to be camera-shy or not know how to present themselves well. Videos range from well-curated montages of sports and dance concerts put to music to a teen simply talking straight to the camera in his basement.

“There are kids who are very sophisticated or speak really well on camera,” said Jaysingh. “Then there are kids who are literally — one kid was sitting in his basement with a hood on and said, ‘Hey, I’m Joe, I’m here because I need to do my ZeeMee,’ and the admissions people actually liked it, because he was being himself.”  Videos can show students engaging in their favorite activity, highlighting performances in sports or music or theater, or just talking straight to the camera about their lives, interests and goals.

Metcalf and Jaysingh don’t see ZeeMee as contributing to self-curation or “selfie culture,” but as a way for a student to stand out to admissions officers in a crowded field of applicants. They’ve also built a K-12 curriculum for teachers and counselors, a mini-course that shows high schoolers the importance of leaving a positive and real online identity not just for college counselors, but also future employers.

“The people who are in admissions, they do this for a living, and they can read students,” said Jaysingh. “And a kid who is real comes across clearly to them. Is this a perfect solution?  No. But at least it pushes the needle toward leveling the playing field.”


But what if adults need to take a harder look at how online portfolios will be used in order to extract their maximum benefit? MIT education technology researcher Justin Reich said that the way to make the digital locker most useful is to first ask some hard questions. "I think it’s a terrific idea, but I think there are some good questions about ownership and data control that comes up, like, who owns the locker? Who has control over it, how much autonomy will students have? If the system goes bankrupt, who owns the stuff? How do we get it out if we want to put it into other systems?"

Reich also said that in order to truly change college admissions, more work will need to be done by teachers and schools to think in advance about what the goals of the digital locker are, and how to change current work--assignments, curriculum, and grades, for example--to meet the new challenges of an online portfolio. "For an idea like this to really take off, there needs to be some kind of coherent conversation between departments, between grade level teams, academies and schools, to say, how do we as adults help think about what we want? How do we help students create this representation of themselves and their work?" he said. "They would have to be thinking differently about assignments, submissions, thinking differently about grades and how they curate and reflect upon their work. If there’s not some sort of pedagogical and curricular change that’s going along with the technology, it’s pretty unlikely that merely the existence of a startup or a nonprofit, or a new thing in and of itself is going to make a whole lot of difference for student learning outcomes, or college chances."

Carter Maggipinto, a high school senior at public Hillsboro High School in Nashville, started seriously thinking about college during his junior year. Since he knew he wanted to study film production and cinematography, and knew that he wanted to go to the best possible place his family could afford, he applied to four schools: School of Visual Arts, Brooklyn College, Pratt Institute and Middle Tennessee State University. Since three of the four schools required a portfolio for art majors, Maggipinto spent the first part of his senior year scrambling to gather footage of the films he’d made and art projects he’d finished to send along with his application.

A digital locker to store it all at the beginning of high school, he admitted, would have been much easier. “I would love the digital locker,” he said, “because it’s also able to show the progression of your artistic ability over four years.”

Maggipinto admits that he’s not sure how many kids he knows who would have been thinking about their portfolios or college applications at age 14 or 15, but he was. If he’d had a digital locker choice available to him — especially if he had someone to remind him to place his videos and artwork in it from time to time — he would have used it.


Digital portfolios are a great idea, said teacher Jessica Lahey, author of "The Gift of Failure," when they’re used in the right way — to create meaningful work, ideas and creations.

“As with all things educational, the tool is not in and of itself dangerous or valuable,” she said via email. “Teachers who encourage kids to collect and build on ideas over time, because it’s fun to watch books or pictures or film projects or paintings develop and improve with practice, have the potential to boost creativity and learning. Teachers who encourage kids to build a portfolio solely for college admissions risk cultivating myopia and narcissism, as well as a kid who is overly focused on other people’s assessment of his or her self-worth.”

College counselor Ginny Maddux, who has seen thousands of students go to college over her two decades of experience, said she sometimes worries that technologies like the digital locker may raise the stakes for admissions unnecessarily. Some students may feel pressured to contribute flawless finished products at a time when they were still largely exploring who they are.


“If we’re fully formed at 18, then who are we going to be when we’re 26? I appreciate the schools where they care about the kids, and they’re not looking for fully formed human beings at the age of 18. Because none of us are fully formed at the age of 18, no matter where you go.”