Reflections on the Professional Portfolio

I’ve spent about 30 hours over the past two weeks reviewing portfolios. The portfolio is the final assignment for Master’s of Education and Master’s of Educational Technology students at MSU. The course, (CEP807/ED870) run by Dr. Matthew Koehler, is built to support the iterative design of a culminating, web-based representation of each student’s accomplishments in the degree program. As an online course, it is extremely well designed and I have loved being a part of the instructional team for a lot of reasons. Along the way, I’ve learned a considerable amount about what makes for an exemplary web-based portfolio — and I’m planning a whole-sale revision of my own portfolio as a result. For starters, though, I’ve crafted a top-five list of things that the most exemplary portfolios seem to get right.

1. Uniform aesthetic:  Although I tend to prefer neutral colour palettes and liberal use of white space, I have found that this matters much less than uniformity in the aesthetic design choices one makes. This is surprisingly difficult to accomplish but the portfolios that do it well stand out from the rest. When designing a web space, it has become clear to me that one must think about the aesthetic properties of every visual element and how well they complement one another. The essentials include background, font, color, images, borders, image size — but the placement of every element also counts. The feng shui — or balance of energy — of the portfolio matters too — and there should be consistency across pages. Every design choice contributes to the overall aesthetic in a portfolio — and when designers get it right, the portfolio feels like a compelling visual space, inviting me to explore every nook, cranny and hyperlink.

2. Voice: The portfolio is an online representation of one’s accomplishments. It exists in the vast wilderness of cyberspace as a beacon — a little light shining among the millions of other lights that says, “I’m here — and this is who I am”. The portfolios that rang most true for me were created by authors who wrote with honesty and conviction about their professional strengths, their ongoing development, and the challenges that they still intend to address. If I finished a portfolio review with a deep appreciation for the unique contributions this colleague has made and will continue to make through his or her work, I felt a sense of awe — and awe is such a good thing to evoke in a reader!

3. Evidence of Excellence: This one is sort of obvious. And yet, the best portfolios actually created an argument for the quality of their work — both in text with description, but also in the careful curation of work samples that, together, provided evidence of the author’s professional skill set.

4. Good Citizenship: The best portfolios are also models of digital literacies — including the literacies associated with fair use. Savvy portfolio designers attributed the source of borrowed multi-media and cited the creative commons licenses for each attributed item.

5. Professional with a dash of personal: This is an idea that I have been thinking about as a portfolio designer myself. Some authors choose to keep their portfolios entirely focused on professional accomplishments — and this is a choice that I most assuredly respect. However, I think there is a certain je ne sais quoi — or a certain indescribable property that emerges from a portfolio that includes just a little something extra. For the teachers whose work I reviewed, I found it in a couple of different places — the About Me page that provided a richer profile of the author’s interests, family, and/or pursuits outside of school. It also emerged on Student Work pages where authors posted multi-media examples of work their students had created. This factor is not unrelated to #2 – Voice – but the trick here was to add only a dash of something personal — not so much that the purpose of the portfolio became unclear, but enough to give insight into their unique story. With a  glimpse into the broader interests, life and work of an author I found myself able to construct a deeper understanding of his or her professional work samples, and also of the student as a powerful model of excellence in his or her teaching context.