Putting student work front and centre of their lockdown learning

How digital portfolios can be used to enhance student accountability, celebration and ownership

Associate Senior Leader of Secondary School

One of my favourite things about walking through our school is the feeling of being in a constant exhibition. From classroom displays to corridors adorned with celebration boards, exercise books of student work to framed photographs, and of course the students themselves, schools are living exhibitions of student learning.  And students, staff, parents and visitors provide a constant audience. 

Audience and exhibition are vital for everything we produce – it’s why during lockdown we’ve turned in increasing volume to whatsapp groups, instagram and twitter to share your home-baking, workouts or even just that Sunday spring clean. It gives our work purpose and validation. It raises the stakes and therefore raises the quality of our output. It invites feedback, celebration and accountability. 

So with students siloed at home, the ‘audience’ of their work has suddenly been stripped away. This challenge raises SO many questions:

  • how can students collate and share their work with ease and purpose?
  • how can students really own, and be held to account for, the quality of their work at home? 
  • how can we support each student’s work and their engagement without the student in front of us day-to-day?
  • how can we share work and feedback with parents without parent’s evenings? 
  • how can students exhibit and celebrate the wonderful moments of this year so far, from Ignites speeches, to Real World Learning Placements? 
  • how can students capture their breadth of experiences and successes when formal recognition (e.g. GCSEs) is suddenly stripped away? 

As we grappled with these questions on the announcement of school closures back in March, one answer to all of them seemed to be staring us in the face, in the shape of the reincarnation of a School21 idea: the e-Portfolio.

The purpose of e-portfolios

An ‘e-Portfolio’ at School 21 is simply an individualised website, owned by each student, where their work, reflections, achievements and experiences are captured and curated; literally an electronic portfolio of their beautiful work. Think the old ‘Record of Achievement’ but more live, reflective and personalised. It is an outward-looking opportunity for every child to present their learning in their own way. It is both process and product, and is accountability and celebration in equal measure. It goes beyond school purpose, and is something to be presented to prospective employers or colleges.

For the first 4 or 5 years of School 21, e-Portfolios were a central feature of school life, with each year punctuated by ‘e-Portfolio days’, student-led-conferences, where each child would present from their e-Portfolio to their family, coach and perhaps a school governor, sharing their work and fielding questions. In recent years however, with our rapid expansion and focus in different areas, e-Portfolios have been something we’ve put on hold (although the art team have kept their own version throughout).

The glue of any online provision

But the push of the pandemic brought e-Portfolios suddenly back to the fore. It swept aside the unanswered questions that had made us put the brakes on e-Portfolios in the first place and reminded us of their original role and value. So in the 2 days before closure, this was among the things we prioritised; we got every child set up with a new e-Portfolio. It was a genuinely heroic team effort involving some hastily made how-to videos, a series of workshops, and an indescribable number of emails back and forth with students! 

These e-Portfolios are the glue at the heart of our virtual school curriculum model, putting student work front and centre; it is the space where our students document their daily learning, record their enriching experiences and choose what they want to highlight for celebration. Each week, students have a protocolled 3:1 meeting with their coach, where they present their work and receive feedback and actions. 

Oliwia’s ePortfolio

And students have, of course, taken the brief and run with it. In giving them an audience, a voice and a stake in their own learning and what they value in it, we have seen some incredible craftsmanship. Students are uploading lesson notes, artwork, screen grabs of their maths, reading logs and reflections as well as products of what they have crafted (from  musical compositions, to novels, poems to animated videos and essays). Some students are blogging about their lockdown experiences, speaking openly and bravely about their shifting roles within the family, their fears , hopes and day to day feelings and responses to international events. Others are capturing their hobbies, skills and enriching activities (including a year 9 who has been photographing meals cooked by her family). Each e-Portfolio is their record of the head, the heart and the hand – it goes far beyond exam grades, and nominal school or national assessment. It is a balanced and broad reflection of who they are.

My hope for this? That e-Portfolios are here to stay. We’ve been reminded of their core value and purpose in the past few weeks, and what a curriculum shaped around high-accountability student work and testimony can look like. I’d love them to be an evolving project, flexible to the needs of the student and the school. I’d love each student to reach the end of their time in our secondary with a portfolio brimming with their triumphs, their risks taken, their beautiful work and their honest reflections, and to be actively used by students in unlocking their next steps when they come to leave us.

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