Effective Technical Writing in the Information Age

Online Portfolios


When an artist is asked about her work, she can dig into an oversized folder and slap down photographs or sketches that she feels best represent her artistic prowess. When a teacher is seeking a job, he can trot out, in paper form, his evaluations from student teaching, his lesson plans, and his written philosophy about education.

By comparison, how can a scientist or engineer, equipped with an armload of skills and bucketfuls of experience, effectively present this background to a potential employer, in a way that is personal, relevant, interesting, and cohesive? Answer: an online portfolio.

Fields such as fine arts and education enjoy a long-standing tradition of portable portfolios as vehicles to showcase a student’s best work. Now, thanks to the lightning-fast information age, where details can be zipped across virtual space and both text and graphics can be rendered in neat, downloadable packages, all students can readily create online portfolios that they feel best represent their work and their lives. Essentially, an online portfolio is a series of linked webpages uploaded and maintained by the student—pages that represent the student both personally and professionally. An online portfolio is your chance to work with cache—a storage buffer in a computer’s CPU—and to create cachet—a personal insignia representing your individuality and quality.

Publishing an online portfolio isn’t just fun and creative—it’s quickly becoming common practice for the best students in a program. Schools are now coaxing students to start creating portfolios as early as their first year of study, and they’re hiring support staff and posting pages to be sure students have the tools they need to publish their work online. As described in most literature on the subject, preparing an online portfolio boils down to a three-step process: Collect, Select, and Reflect. Collection involves amassing your evidence and beginning to launch it into cyberspace; selection means culling the best pieces from your evidence; reflection is your opportunity to ponder and explain the choices you made about your portfolio pieces and even your life choices. And as you publish your portfolio online, following some basic principles of design will help ensure that your work makes an effective splash. The result is an organized virtual space where friends, family, and employers can gaze through a public window to catch intriguing glimpses of your online world.

Collect: Gathering the Parts of Your Portfolio

Think of your college experiences as a living mosaic. You’ve spent years completing diverse tasks or creating "snapshots" of your work: fine-tuning a project design, performing research, writing papers or memos, composing a resume, participating in group work, writing co-op reports, learning graphics packages, and earning grades. All of these experiences make for worthy candidates for your portfolio. You’ve also spent years gathering more personal "snapshots": IM sports participation, photographs of friends and pets, bookmarks of favorite websites, personal accomplishments, inspiring quotations, journal writings, society membership, awards, and hobbies. These are equally worthy candidates for a portfolio. Your collection process begins with you mentally cataloging each piece of the mosaic and deciding how to use it.

Most students begin to collect material for their portfolios by thinking of the work they’ve done as a printed product. With the professional resume being the most common and efficient standard of printable evidence available, almost all portfolios include an updated resume, perhaps downloadable as a pdf file. In fact, you might begin your portfolio simply by uploading your resume just to get you started, since the resume tends to be a critical cornerstone to the whole package. Portfolio writers also typically upload sample essays or reports they’ve written—again these are common standards by which all students are judged. However, more creative students think about additional pieces of "printable" evidence for their portfolios—pieces that stress the student’s skills as a communicator, a consultant, an engineer, a designer. Among the online portfolios I’ve seen, students have presented their Excel-based designs for everything from a coffee mug to a Battlebot; a copy of a Powerpoint presentation or an effective letter they wrote to the campus newspaper editor; the daily construction site logs they kept while completing an internship; scanned copies of handwritten evaluations they received from their co-op supervisor; even a sample family newsletter that they edited. Such pieces of evidence are usually presented essentially as they would look in a hard copy, thus inviting the viewer to print them off or read them right in the browser.

For those willing to think even further outside the box, portfolio contents can reflect such personal attributes as oral communication skills, reliability and aptitude for planning, creativity and innovation, level of community service, willingness to travel, quality of judgment, and even social responsibility. Some students create videos of themselves giving a speech or participating in a debate; others present tables that chart their course selection for each school year as a kind of "planning matrix," listing the competencies they achieved as part of those particular courses. Still others offer pictures of themselves that they think will demonstrate those more personal assets that all employers are interested in, using photograph captions to define how they have developed intercultural awareness ("Here I am in a village in France, chatting with locals about. . ."), or why they believe in volunteerism ("This Habitat for Humanity project helped three families . . ."), or showing they have a sense of humor ("This is me, last Halloween, as Austin Powers.") In one portfolio I found online, the student included the gutsy invitation, "Click here if you dare to experience my singing voice," linked to an mp3 of him crooning away in his dorm room. (He had a pretty good voice, actually.)

Select: Choosing the Best Evidence

When selecting material to include in your portfolio, the first principle you should consider is privacy and suitability. You should only upload material that you would like to be directly associated with your name, and you must carefully consider whether you want to give out personal information such as a mailing address or phone number (giving out your e-mail address is, of course, pretty standard). Some portfolio writers are even hesitant to put photos of themselves online (though others bravely display their prom pictures, no matter how cheesy the tux or how high the hair-do). If you’re especially concerned about privacy, you could cloak your portfolio contents by keeping the material password protected, and you must always be careful not to give out highly private information that others could use, such as your social security number. A final point about privacy is that it works both ways—you must respect the privacy of others as well. This means that you shouldn’t link to the pages of other individuals you know without their permission, and you also must attribute credit to any sources that you use, especially when borrowing material from someone else’s website or posting copyrighted images.

Secondly, to give your portfolio coherence and continuity, try to think of all the material you select as pieces of unified evidence arguing the case that you’re worth taking an interest in. Essentially, select material that inspires people to read and browse through your work, and choose artifacts that will demonstrate your growth over time (e.g., a paper from an introductory class as well as a senior thesis). Adopt an upbeat, welcoming tone ("In these pages, you’ll discover exactly what makes me tick"), but also maintain enough professionalism to keep an employer’s critical eye locked on your pages. Among the many portfolios I’ve browsed through, I’ve seen students take foolish risks such as publishing potentially embarrassing photographs (here I am, mooning my roommates), letting serious typos slip by ("Bachelor of Sciwence in Engginerring"), or revealing information that is too personal or leaves them open to judgment ("I’ve tried every beer on this list of 50 at least once, and some of them way too many times."). To emphasize the point of suitability, I’ve heard one instructor comment that you should only post something online if you’d be willing to show it to your grandmother. Though most students wouldn’t go this far (and presumably most grandmothers would be pretty forgiving anyway), perhaps a good benchmark is that you only post material that you can be proud of a year from now, especially if you intend to advertise the URL to employers.

Finally, when selecting material, recognize the value of piggybacking. In addition to posting pages such as your home page, your resume, essays and reports, project designs, and photos, keep in mind that you can readily link your pages to those that others have created. Where logical, provide relevant links to your program or course descriptions, personal organizations with which you’re affiliated, or pages that reflect your hobbies and personal interests.

Reflect: Being True to Yourself while Considering How You Come Across to Others

Good reflective writing is about reviewing what you’ve accomplished (or even what you’d like to accomplish someday) and projecting value. Students in technical fields often shy away from the concept of reflective writing, either out of unfamiliarity or because they hesitate to make private reflections public; yet reflective writing is standard and natural to most online portfolios. In fact, smart students realize that the portfolio is the safest place for reflective writing, in that it’s inappropriate to make subjective, personal comments in a technical paper, resume, or cover letter, while it makes perfect sense in a portfolio. In an online portfolio, you have the space and opportunity to share your thoughts on everything from your personal passions to discussing how you performed in a particular course. The rules for such reflection are flexible, but there are some rules nevertheless.

The first rule I recommend is being selective about where the reflection occurs, and how much of it you use. Reflecting about coursework right on your downloadable resume is neither conventional nor efficient, while trying to reflect on every single course you’ve taken as a student would be overwhelming both for you and your reader. However, creating a page that summarizes your experience and reflecting briefly on the value of each experience as you describe it makes perfect sense. ("I valued this job because it taught me how to analyze the network configuration needs of a small business." "This class taught me to use cascading style sheets—something I will apply to my future web designs.")

A second rule for good reflective writing is that it has a purpose both for you and your audience. Both you and your audience should be interested in commentary about why you chose your particular major, relationships (or the lack of them) that you see between your coursework and experience, and what sets you apart from others in terms of both training and life choices. In giving examples, especially related to your education, offer those that will demonstrate learning, change, empowerment, self-development, problem-solving, and results. Good examples are concrete, providing names, lists, scenarios, dates, definitions, etc. In the portfolios that I’ve reviewed, one student wrote an essay reflecting on how her intercultural understanding had been shaped by a year abroad, while another student wrote a few short poems defining his interest in engineering, and even created a sketch to accompany each poem. Still another student took an even bolder stroke—writing about lessons she’d learned about teamwork after being reprimanded by a co-op supervisor for working too independently. What these students are doing in the process of reflection is not only taking stock of their personal assessment of their growth, they’re also preparing themselves for the toughest of interview questions. ("Tell me about the greatest challenge you’ve faced in life." "Argue to me how your education prepared you to work at our company.") Ultimately, effective reflection online is about learning to speak well in the company of others.

Finally, look for opportunities to write reflective comments on any major portion of your portfolio, including the resume, papers and projects, photography, etc. The bottom line: If it’s worth a menu-based category in your e-portfolio, it’s probably worth reflective commentary.

Principles of Portfolio Design

Although the design of online portfolios can vary greatly, especially depending on the computer skills of the creator, I’ve found that the best portfolios share three traits: unity, navigability, and simplicity.

The more unified the pages of your portfolio are, the more likely we are to dwell there. Come up with a basic design and background for each page that is repeated on other pages, and keep associated items parallel with each other from one page to the next. Use headings for short blocks of text, and when you do need to use long blocks of text such as in a complete essay, provide a ready means for us to return to the root pages of your portfolio. If you’re handy with Dreamweaver or Frontpage, you can set up your portfolio so that when we exit to visit outside pages that you’ve linked to, these pages will open in a separate new window—thus when we click them closed we automatically return to your portfolio.

With these principles in mind, a unified design for one set of pages might go something like this: The page is entitled "My Design Projects," and it describes four projects you were involved in as part of your classwork and work experience. Each project has a short heading, written in boldfaced red text, followed by a short project description (just 3-4 lines long, in black text), and at the end of each description is the clickable line, "Click here to visit the project page." Between each description is a solid black line to enhance separation, and the background is white so that all text readily stands out. Also, at the left of each of these descriptions is a small screenshot (also clickable) of the page we’d visit to find out more about the associated project. Once we click to go into a specific project page, we see a "Click here to return to My Design Projects page" and a "Click here to return to my homepage" link at the top of the page. This basic form is repeated on other associated pages, and thus we have a strong sense of unity to your portfolio no matter what pages we are visiting.

Assuming a unified portfolio, one of the best ways to aid users in navigation is also the simplest—use icons and menus. We’re used to thinking of icons as clickable, and we intuitively use menus—whether they appear at the top of the page or on the left side—to help us quickly drive through cyberspace. Many portfolio writers make sure the same clickable menu appears at the top of each portfolio page, with typical menu contents including simple, rapidly identifiable terms such as "Home," "Resume," "Major," "Projects," "Coursework," Computer Skills," "Work Experience," "Interests."

Beyond a menu or icon-driven strategy, you make your pages easier to navigate by creating a clear visual hierarchy on each page, by avoiding root pages that require a large amount of scrolling, and making sure that we have clickable links readily available on every page. Most portfolio designers also avoid using frames, in that they create multiple scrollbars on the same page, and you run the risk of having your viewer miss one of the scrollbars or becoming confused about how the frames are related. Also, if your portfolio is optimized for a particular version of Netscape, Explorer, or Firefox, you should make your reader aware of that fact right on your homepage, and perhaps even provide a clickable link where the appropriate software can be downloaded.

Finally, you’ve probably come across Thoreau’s edict to "simplify, simplify," and we’re all familiar with the KISS principle. Many portfolio creators violate that basic principle to "keep it simple, stupid." Too many are tempted by the trappings of the web, filling their pages with cute but tiresome animations, too many different blaring colors (called an "angry fruit salad" by web designers), and slow-loading, distracting backgrounds. Such tactics merely increase the odds that we’ll turn away from your pages. Ultimately, the best portfolios are those most artfully simple in design, welcoming us at a glance to sit back, relax, click, and spend some virtual time with you.


In creating and designing an online portfolio, you are never alone. Visit these websites for design ideas and samples:

Resources for creating e-portfolios from Penn State