National Writing Project

Electronic Portfolios as Catalysts for Change in the Summer Institute

By: Karen McComas
Date: 2009

Summary: The Marshall University Writing Project found that electronic portfolios helped document the work of teachers in its summer institute and were a meaningful form of professional development because teachers were placed in the role of learner.


This is my first post to my Writing Institute blog. We were encouraged to post a free write we just completed on the subject of "What puzzles you about your students' learning? What seems most successful about your teaching?" I'm not feeling brave enough to publish this free writing, so instead I'll just post this rambling description of what I was supposed to be doing and why I chose not to actually do that as my first post. I think it still meets the goal of testing out the process for using this Wordpress account.

Thus began Ian's blog. Selected as one of the teachers to participate in the 2007 Summer Institute at the Marshall University Writing Project (MUWP), Ian created his blog at the April orientation meeting. Ian was a substitute teacher at a local middle school, teaching seventh and eighth grade language arts. Though he described himself as a member of the first generation raised on the Internet, his experience with the world of blogging was relatively minimal. By the end of the summer institute, however, Ian and his colleagues would create blog-based electronic portfolios to document their development as teachers and writers.

I think that this is the real power of blogging: real-live readers providing real-live reactions and interactions with the writer.

For the MUWP, the practice of using an electronic portfolio instead of a traditional 3-ring binder portfolio evolved over several years and was informed by a growing body of knowledge published in the literature and by our own experiences. From a brief review of the literature, we knew that teachers who participated in enabling professional development experiences, characterized by ongoing training and support, were more likely to use technology in their teaching (Joyce and Showers, as cited in Fox 2007). The very nature of the core programs of writing project sites (i.e., summer institutes, continuity, and inservice) assure the necessary support.

Additionally, Williams (2004) found that teachers were far more likely to adopt the use of technologies that were consistent with their beliefs and practices already held by teachers. Strudler and Wetzel (2005) demonstrated that portfolios create a natural bridge to electronic portfolios. Because teachers are generally informed about the uses of portfolios, and in many cases are experienced with using them, we anticipated that our teachers would successfully create electronic portfolios within the enabling environment of the summer institute.

Introducing Electronic Portfolios

The site's history with integrating technology informed our use of electronic portfolios. In 1997 the MUWP began a program to increase teachers' capacity to use technology in pedagogically sound ways. Initially, we used a training model that operated under the false assumption that providing teachers with experiences with a wide variety of technologies would translate into pedagogical applications of those same technologies.

Not long after 2000, however, with the support of a grant from the NWP Technology Initiative, the MUWP assembled a team of teacher-consultants to consider what we knew from the literature, the site's history, and the cultures of the local schools, teachers, and students; to increase the number of digitally literate teachers in local schools through professional development; and to build leadership capacity at the local writing project site in order to sustain these efforts.

The result was a plan to focus on fewer technologies while providing teachers with more opportunities to use those technologies in meaningful and authentic ways that would enable them to effectively meet the demands of their students and the state. Our plan included an expanded set of summer programs, school-based professional development series, and integration of a digital literacy focus into the core work at the site.

By 2006, believing the site had sufficient capacity (knowledge, experience, and people), to make a more significant commitment to the role of technology in the summer institute, the team recommended that teachers in the summer institute develop electronic portfolios instead of traditional ones. The leadership team decided to ask teachers in the summer institute to consider publishing their work online, in addition to creating a traditional portfolio. While a handful of teachers did publish some writing online, pressing deadlines caused most of them to abandon their electronic portfolio early and focus on completing their traditional portfolio. We had underestimated the difficulty of the transition.

As a site we learned much from that experience. In particular, we learned that when given a choice to stay in familiar territory or to chart new paths, most of us chose the former. This understanding influenced the thinking for the 2007 summer institute, and long before Ian and his colleagues received their acceptance letters, the leadership team decided that teachers in the 2007 summer institute would create an electronic portfolio to document their development. If they wanted, they could also make a traditional portfolio for themselves.

Using Technology

Electronic portfolios have been used for professional development for good reason. The literature on electronic portfolios enumerates a wide variety of benefits, casting the portfolios as tools, evidence, and professional development. As a tool, e-portfolios are inexpensive (Heath 2002); are easy to update, edit, maintain, customize, and distribute (Heath 2002; Woodward and Nanlohy 2004); and allow for increased audience interaction (Woodward and Nanlohy). This last benefit, concerning audience interaction, did not escape Ian's notice, as evidenced by this observation posted in his blog:

Karen was kind enough to comment on each one of my blog entries. It was good to read the reaction of someone who was reading the same books and thinking about the same issues as I was. I think that this is the real power of blogging: real-live readers providing real-live reactions and interactions with the writer.

E-portfolios also serve as evidence, or documentation, of the work of teachers. Ian used his blog to showcase, utilize, and develop new technology skills (Heath 2002). By publishing his teaching demonstration on his blog, Ian demonstrated his growing competence as a teacher (Kilbane and Milman 2003) and his developing content knowledge (Woodward and Nanlohy 2004). Instead of his expertise and knowledge being limited to a local audience, Ian's published teaching demonstration is available to anyone with access to the Internet.

The value of publishing our work online became apparent to Ian as he searched for resources related to multigenre writing, the focus of his teaching demonstration. Ian located an online resource authored and published by the technology liaison of the Northern California Writing Project, Peter Kittle (now site director). Like Ian, Peter was also learning to author and publish his work online to aid the teaching community.

Finally, creating an electronic portfolio is a meaningful and significant form of professional development as teachers are placed in the role of learner (Kilbane and Milman 2003). In doing this work, teachers demonstrate increased insight into learning (Woodward and Nanlohy 2004); increased self-confidence and self-esteem (Kilbane and Milman 2003; Woodward and Nanlohy 2004); the development of effective teaching practices (Woodward and Nanlohy 2004); and critical reflection (Stansberry and Kymes 2007). For example, Ian shared the following insight about teaching practice on his blog after participating in a colleague's teaching demonstration titled "Using Reading and Writing Strategies With Film." 

What I think is so great about [this] demo is that it gives you the structure to interact with films as their own specific texts with their own specific techniques and traditions. You can get beyond just reacting to plot and talk about the structure of a film as a document crafted in a specific way to have a specific effect through the use of the camera, acting, writing, and editing. The possibilities for the use of this in the classroom excite me. I think it's a very critical means of thinking.

In another instance, Ian critically reflected on his emerging identity as a teacher. In his blog he wrote,

My largest area of growth during Summer Institute was as a colleague and professional. I am a new teacher. This past school year was my first year with a full time classroom. I am still forging my identity as a professional educator, and I think that Writing Project was the perfect experience for me at this time in my life. I loved getting the opportunity to spend time with other professionals who are dedicated to effective and meaningful teaching. My experience with Summer Institute caused me to view myself as part of a community of educators and consider my role in that fellowship.

And finally, do you remember Ian's first post at the beginning of this article? Do you remember how Ian admitted that he wasn't feeling very brave? Comparing that post with the excerpt of a post from later in the summer institute allows readers to see Ian's developing confidence with technology as a teaching and learning tool.

I felt the whole experience was revelatory. The whole time we've been experimenting with our blogs, I've been daydreaming about ways I can apply this to the classroom.

Ian has since blossomed as a teacher, savvy about using technology effectively in the classroom. He has participated in two continuity events: a Saturday technology workshop in October 2007 and a three-hour graduate course (Electronic Writing Project) sponsored by the MUWP in the spring of 2008. During the summer of 2008, just a year after he completed the summer institute, Ian came back to provide technological support. In October of 2008, he cofacilitated a Saturday technology workshop and attended his first NWP Annual Meeting (San Antonio, Texas).



Fox, C. 2007. "From Technophobes to Tech Believers." T.H.E Journal 34 (7): 36–37.

Heath, M. 2002. "Electronic Portfolios for Reflective Self-Assessment." Teacher Librarian 30 (1): 19–23.

Kilbane, C. R., and N.B. Milman. 2003. The Digital Teaching Portfolio Handbook: A How-To Guide for Educators. New York: Pearson Education.

Stansberry, S. L., and A.D. Kymes. 2007. "Transformative Learnign Through `Teaching with Technology' Electronic Portfolios." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (6): 488–496.

Strudler, N., and K.Wetzel. 2005. "The Diffusion of Electronic Portfolios in Teacher Education: Issues of Initiation and Implementation." Journal of Research on Technology in Education 37 (4): 411–433.

Williams, J. 2004. "A 5-Step Process for Tech Adoption and Utilization." Media and Methods 41 (3): 22.

Woodward, H., and P. Nanlohy. 2004. "Digital Portfolios: Fact or Fashion?" Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 29 (2): 227–238.

About the Author Karen McComas is a co-director with the Marshall University Writing Project, West Virginia.

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