Project-Based Learning and Digital Portfolios

Think back to your own years in school. What academic work do you remember? You probably don’t remember a specific test or the questions at the end of the chapter. More likely, you remember something like a science fair activity, a re-enactment in social studies or a stock market game. What usually comes to mind is some type of project.

Project-Based Learning (PBL) has come a long way; much of the recent activity can be credited to the good work coming from PBLWorks (formerly the Buck Institute). Their “Gold Standard” Project Design and Teaching Practices have helped many schools design effective projects that have a lasting impact on student learning.

When schools are setting up digital badges and portfolios, projects can be very useful. To earn a badge, students usually assemble a portfolio of work. And what should go into that portfolio? Schools find it helpful to have demonstrations of basic (or foundational) skills – AND schools usually want students to show an application of those skills. Projects let students show how they can take their skills and knowledge and apply them in a new situation, or to answer a question stemming from their own curiosity.

Digital portfolios work well with PBL in a couple of ways. First, a portfolio can provide a structure for the project. Usually, projects have multiple steps – identifying a driving question, preparing resources, building the project through research or field work. The portfolio provides a place where students can log each of those steps along the way. In the Richer Picture platform, teachers can see at a glance how far each student has progressed.

Second, portfolios allow students to present their work. Projects always have some kind of deliverable, whether that’s a research paper, a poster, or a slideshow. A digital portfolio provides a record of that work that can be shared. Just as importantly, the portfolio can link the project to a school’s standards. Projects can be fun and interesting – they can also be solid demonstrations of subject area skills and knowledge.

To be useful, projects and tasks need to be “portfolio-worthy.” Such projects are:

  • Aligned with standards
  • Demonstrate a level of mastery
  • Generate useful evidence (something both teachers and students can view)
  • Provide voice and choice

Our recent webinar on project-based learning goes into this in more detail.

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