How should I choose portfolio authoring systems?

There are so many choices and alternatives available to you that sometimes this freedom can be daunting. Understand this, however: There is no right or wrong portfolio platform and no right or wrong way to make a portfolio. Each person will choose what works for them.

Even if you already know what software you plan to use, it is still important to think about issues raised by new, free, online web publishing tools.

Specific advice for specific tools

The folks over at Mashable have some specific advice about each of the major authoring platforms. Don’t discount Wix and Weebly just because they are near the end of the list, and keep in mind that this article is a few years old, which is even longer in Internet years. Read their thoughts here.

General Advice – Consider these factors in your decision

Time to learn—How long does it take you to learn a new technology? Time to learn, of course, varies enormously, but do a realistic assessment of your own learning style and time capacity. Consider Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” It is very easy to underestimate how long something will take and equally easy to overestimate the amount of time you have left.

Consider your context—Are you likely to be teaching others to make webpages in the future? There’s a possibility that, with your experiences in an online master’s program, you will quickly find yourself as an expert in your school. School districts are often unlikely to have money to purchase access to expensive services. Even if you personally prefer the greater control and sophistication of these services, it could be important for you to model the use of free, easy-to-learn equivalents that other teachers have readily available.

Time for substance—Similarly, weigh carefully the amount of time you can devote to creating the substance for your portfolios. That should be balanced against how much time you have available for learning new technologies and perfecting design. This is certainly not to suggest that design is not important. On the contrary, both substance and an appealing design are critical to showcasing your accomplishments as an educator and your professional aspirations for the future. Time, however, is finite. Time you spend learning software and tweaking features is time not spent adding substantive breadth and depth to your portfolio.

Hosting—A decision about which service you are going to use necessarily entails a decision about where you will host your portfolio. As the greatest objective of this course is that you create an online portfolio that will continue to be useful to you in your future professional life, think carefully about how long you will like to be wedded to a particular host (whether it’s Weebly, Wix, WordPress, etc.). Remember, it’s not hard to forward your domain name so that your website can be “http://yourname.com” – see instructions here.

Services like Wix, Weebly, and WordPress all offer free hosting along with website design. Of course, there is no guarantee how long these services will remain free or how long they will stay in business (each has been around several years so far, though).

Wherever you decide to host your site, be sure that you understand how you will be able to maintain access to your data over time. This includes making sure that graduation won’t be an obstacle—you may want to avoid signing up for hosting using an MSU account or using anything (e.g., Google Apps) hosted by MSU.

Privacy—Particularly for educators in the K-12 environment, privacy is an important consideration. Even in an age when it seems to have become the norm to share even the most mundane aspects of one’s every waking moment on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, you will want to carefully consider how publicly accessible you wish your site to be. This is especially true when it contains, as we hope it will, examples of your students’ work. In one sense, you want your professional “open for business” sign to be seen as widely as possible. But you want to also demonstrate that you respect your students’ privacy. In deciding what software to use, consider what options are available to restrict access to your site or to particular portions of your site.

Consider the past—Consider what students in recent semesters felt was most suitable for them when they faced this decision a short while ago. You can also see that all of the choices “worked” in the sense that they created fine portfolios with all the tools listed. In that sense, you will likely do fine with any of the services that others used recently.

This is an example of the importance of listening to one’s students and paying attention to data to inform decision making. We, as teachers, run the risk of recommending what worked for us, which may be outdated due to rapid changes in technology. Similarly, there is a risk of speaking with great confidence about our opinions without looking at data that could shed light on an issue. In the business world—and increasingly in education—the concept of ‘data-driven decision making’ is gaining influence. In the spirit of this little pedagogical note, consider the data below as perhaps worth more than your professor’s opinions.

Here’s the tabulation of software used by the students in the Fall 2017 Capstone Course (33 total portfolios):

  • Weebly: 15 (45%)
  • Wix: 13 (39%)
  • WordPress: 2 (6%)
  • Google Sites: 2 (6%)
  • Other: 1 (3%)

What do you already know how to use?—If you have already developed your skills in using any of the publishing choices we discussed previously, it is probably a good choice.

What are your sources of support?—Research on professional development and learning to use computers has shown convincingly that the most important determinant of most people’s learning is the broader context in which they work and their social support for learning to use technology. By social support, we mean a spouse, a colleague in the next room, etc. Do you have a colleague, partner, or friend who is currently using a specific tool and who would be willing to spend an hour or two helping you get started? If you are working in a school building or school district that supports and is making use of Weebly or another service, then you may want to consider learning to use that technology. On the other hand, if you have a friend or colleague who is using another service, then you already have a personal support network.

We know some services better than others—While you’re adding up your various support networks, know that we can (somewhat) support and help you with WordPress, Weebly, and Google Sites. We don’t know a lot about Wix or some of the other platforms mentioned.

What are your future goals?—People who learn to publish their ideas and work easily and confidently on the Web have advantages, such as having an online presence available to others (such as potential employers) and being able to model and share with others how to do the same, from parents and colleagues to friends and students.

However, we are all busy, and people have very different predispositions to spending time working on their websites. So take a moment and think about how you’re envisioning the longer term horizon for your Web publishing skills and your portfolio. Your views may change after you’ve done some of this Web publishing. As teachers, we need to use every tool and influence we have to encourage students to do educationally valuable work outside of the time we have them in class… after school, nights, weekends, and summer. If you teach your students that they can use free Web publishing tools and then become their family’s or neighborhood’s “webmaster,” you will have taught them a valuable lesson or lessons about productive work and lifelong learning. If you share with your students your own use of a free Web-based application like Google Sites, you will have shown them the power of self-publishing. If you aspire to be a media consultant or create a website for your business instead of being a teacher, then your choice is not influenced by what the school may have access to. In that case, you may want to consider using a platform that is more powerful and is more widely used in the world of business. However, these platforms may have a steeper learning curve and cost a fair bit of money, so ask yourself if you have the extra time to work with it.

Other vendors for educators—As teachers, you may also have access to educational prices through your school district, ISD, or other sources. If you know of other sources with better prices or service you’ve found excellent, please email the class with your recommendation. The world of software sales changes constantly. We are aware that deciding on software is not easy. The good news is that any of these choices will give you powerful tools for publishing creative webpages. By the end of the semester, you will be a confident user of whatever service you choose.

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