Blogzilla Vs. the King of e-portfolios: how and why to best document student learning?

I’m just back from my first #Learning2 conference experience in Warsaw…

…I had a great weekend, met some likeminded educators and had my eyes opened to a number of new apps, strategies and approaches. The Learning2 experience is worthy of a separate post and I will return to give it the attention it deserves but for now, I want to zero in on the focus of my pre-conference workshop – e-portfolios: and how we define, identify and implement them. Used incorrectly, these terms are perceived as digital mega-monsters out to force all learning online but in reality, whilst terminology matters, the most successful documentation of student learning is likely to rely on a hybrid of both.

“We define documentation as the practice of observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing through a variety of media the processes and products of learning in order to deepen and extend learning … These physical traces allow others to revisit, interpret, reinterpret, and even re-create an experience.”

Visible Learners” by Krechevsky, Mardell, Rivard, & Wilson,

The documentation of student learning is a vital part of the learning cycle and yet one that seems to be so easily overlooked. As technology replaces and reimagines established methods of knowledge curation (exercise book/journal/binder/writing tool), teachers are left chasing ways to ensure that the work their students create is stored appropriately. We also need to consider the life cycle of a piece of work because if we don’t encourage students to collect examples of their best practise, to share with teachers, peers and parents, what message are we sending out about the importance and validity of what they create?

Kimberly House, EdTech specialist at the Bavarian International School ran a Learning2 pre-con session entitled DOCUMENTING  LEARNING WITH PORTFOLIOS and in light of the questions above, I was quick to sign up. Here are some the significant questions and possible answers that I took from Kim’s thought provoking session (a padlet overview of some key ideas can be found here):

  1. What’s the difference between a blog and portfolio? Do they have to be mutually exclusive?


noun port·fo·lio \pȯrt-ˈfō-lē-ˌō\ – a selection of a student’s work (as papers and tests) compiled over a period of time and used for assessing performance or progress


noun \ˈblȯg, ˈbläg\ – a website that contains online personal reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks, videos, and photographs provided by the writer; also :  the contents of such a site

I’ve had several experiences recently where discussion of the terms portfolio and blog has antagonised normally mild mannered teachers desperate to defend their students’ right not to blog or share beyond the confines of a tightly walled virtual garden. These terms appear controversial and are certainly interpreted differently according to context and speaker. Personally, I’ve been sceptical of students using blogs as portfolios because, as the Merriam Webster definitions above indicate, they are different beasts. Key terms of distinction leap out in the form of ‘work’ versus ‘reflections’ and the phrase ‘ for assessing performance or progress’. As an English teacher, semantics matters and the devil really is in the detail.

With this in mind, a top takeaway from Kim’s session was the role that categorisation and effective tagging can have in allowing students to differentiate between posts on a blog that are explicit examples of academic best work and those that may be more personal reflective pieces. Making students aware of this process could help to effectively embrace and reflect the complex nature of blogging rather than forcing an oversimplification that undermines its value.

     2. If we expect students to put maximum effort into producing products and                    assessments, shouldn’t we do more to respect and celebrate what they create?

I see connections here to another recent PD experience I’ve had with Dylan Wiliam talking about turning feedback into feedforward. At high school level and certainly in the English classroom, we are encouraging students to recognise that they are on a journey to become better communicators and writers over time.  Encouraging learners to archive written tasks and review them again at key check points could be a meaningful way to engage them more directly in the learning process and to recognise where progress was actually made. Tanmay Vora explores this notion in a post on when does learning really happen? which goes some way towards supporting Wiliam’s concept of helping students to close the gap in their learning by identifying themselves at a point in a fluid process.

     3. Can we do more to ensure that the ‘display’ of student work is an active                        process rather than a passive outcome?

Investing time in involving students in the effective documentation of their learning could positively influence how we report and interact with parents. Apps like ThingLink enable students to make photographs and documents come alive by linking in video and audio files. Tools like this could enable students to ‘step inside’ their work and unpack learning in a way that a standard google drive folder or work on the wall simply can’t. When combined with padlet walls, ThingLink also becomes a hugely powerful tool for students to share work, reflections and assessment tips with their peers. Both situations provide examples of students having to go further to explain their learning and could be used at the centre of dynamic student led conferences. What I don’t agree with is students’ online portals being used for explicit task specific reflection or anything to do with referencing specific academic grades. For me, this is where English teachers can play a role in clarifying the audience and purpose of a blog in order to discourage it from being used as a place to publicly share academic concerns. Working with our Tech expects and considering models like SAMR could help to evaluate the best steps to take.



Our session also explored a world in which e-portfolios replace the need for student reports but I think this requires really careful curation and could only happen in conjunction with a open online grade book.

Ultimately, I think that terminology matters and that we should talk more about effective documentation that we should about blogs and or as portfolios. Selecting platforms and methods suitable for the stage the students are at is also really important and a great reason to encourage more cross divisional collaboration because the platform may change but the language should stay constant.

Thanks to Kim & Co. at Learning2 for an awesome session and the chance to really drill down into a an issue that could and should be relevant to us all. Online tools offer great potential to document the narrative of student learning but it does depend on which story you want to tell…




5 thoughts on “Blogzilla Vs. the King of e-portfolios: how and why to best document student learning?

Add yours

  1. Insightful and well written post, Tim! You bring up a lot of good points–more thoughtful use of the categories and tags is one area where we may clear up the blog/portfolio conundrum.

    You talk of semantics and I would add that audience/ownership go hand in hand in that discussion. We struggle with that a bit in lower primary–but for different reasons–who is the portfolio for, who owns it? (For very young students, it is much more teacher driven. When parents or others comment or provide feedback, they are not sure who their audience…the child or the teacher. It gets sticky.)

    You mention honouring student work with feedback, and or deeper learning via regular re-visitations of earlier work. Again, I think audience is a key factor here. When I know my colleagues are reading, I step up my game. Same goes for students. We have a bit of an issue in upper primary where students are struggling to simply share their portfolios, due to the blogs being “private.” Some of their teachers can’t even provide feedback, let alone their peers, where that feedback might arguably be more meaningful.
    (Last year, many of my four/five year olds FREAKED OUT when I read High Schoolers comments on photographs they took.)

    I think overall our school is on the right path, but there are definitely some improvements needed, things to reconsider (platform choice; private vs public blog…)

    Finally–for the guy who didn’t show up for his own ‘what if there were no school’ unconference, I do find the last part of the following statement to be rather conservative: “Our session also explored a world in which e-portfolios replace the need for student reports but I think this requires really careful curation and could only happen in conjunction with a open online grade book.”

    What if there were no grades at all?


    1. Thanks for your comments Holly. You’re right not to let me off the hook with the portfolio versus reports point. I guess I was just imagining how that kind of open to learning conversation might go with leadership and thinking that any significant systemic change requires that careful balance between instinct and evidence. Even those of us who are convinced of the benefits of digitally documenting student work aren’t 100% clear about the best model and surely we need to agree on that before we can sell it as an alternative to those in charge…? And as for no grades? Sign me up!

      Really interested to hear about the experience of your early primary students when they heard older students were commenting on their work. I’ve often wondered if setting up a clearer ‘mentoring’ system for students to ‘sponsor’ each others blogs might be a positive idea but your comments make me think twice. Do you have a vision for how this kind of peer2peer communicating could be handled more successfully?


  2. Yes–you are right–there would need to be lots of discussion and significant change in vision from leadership before real systemic change happens (no grades) –but I have seen it happen with younger students. In the Early Years there has been quite a pedagogical shift that began about 5/6 years ago. Students are not “marked/graded”, their reports are anecdotal, highly individualised and are based on the PYP framework, or Transdisciplinary skills: i.e., “the child as a researcher/communicator/thinker.” The labeling on our portfolios in Seesaw reflect these headings, and many teachers use them as a guide for later report writing & parent conferences. Some even are asking if we can do away with student files (not sure how you use student files in HS) altogether, now that teachers have access to archived portfolios.

    My students responded to a blogging prompt/invitation to collaborate from Tricia’s class last year

    The prompt we chose was about photography and this inspired our own inquiry and eventual invitation to others to collaborate:
    (Comments from HS are at end–here’s a direct quote/response to a compliment from a 4 year old: “Thanks for saying that. I want to play with you one day. I want you to come in my home.” ) Doesn’t take much…

    I do wish we could have continued the collaboration, but it was already pretty time consuming and the platform we used (blogger) didn’t allow voice comments, so I had to read all the comments and then scribe for the students…not ideal, but I was motivated to make it work, and so we made the time. An easier to manage collaboration was with grade 3 “blogging buddies”–and the students actually met in person to share their respective blogs. (We used a combination of verbal feedback and comments written/scribed by grade 3.) My students definitely felt pride at knowing their work and ideas were being seen beyond the classroom/limited audience of mom and dad. I believe this also motivated them to continue to make posts (without me having to prompt them all the time.)

    I am not sure of the best approach for peer2peer communicating–definitely having an easy to use platform and/or relatively open permission settings help. Occasional in-person meet ups help younger students, (but are not necessary). Having a goal or specific outcome for the communication can help–(examining photography together) but it’s nice to be flexible and see how things evolve, too (blogging session that morphs into a Makey Makey exploration.) Ultimately, the most important aspect that leads to a successful peer 2 peer communication is a strong commitment from all stakeholders and a belief that there is value in it.


  3. Hi Tim – Thanks for sharing this. It helped me to get my thoughts in order. i am currently attempting to create a visual for this session. It is a lot harder than it originally sounded. I think on the whole I agree with your ideas here – which is great for our PLC. I would like to see blogs grow and develop as a place to share ideas and and “bigger picture” reflections. If we do go down the blog as portfolio road then it is essential that the pupils categories well and they learn to make well considered decisions on what needs sharing.

    A big take out for me was the idea of a common language for reflection. If we could develop a language we use and develop from Primary to Secondary then I think we will help to support good reflection that have real meaning. We can also engage with conversations with pupils based on a common set of definitions. Food for the PLC meeting!


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