Personalization at scale

How customizable skills and identity help districts get traction on 21st century learning portfolios.

As the 21st century lurches ever onward, more and more districts are formalizing a core set of cross-grade-level skills to provide a “north star” for assessing student growth and guiding “the adults” in the redesign of the student experience, including the curriculum and assessment systems that support it.  

These skills frameworks typically go beyond the, narrowly, defined outcomes schools have traditionally expected of graduates — academic excellence as measured through grades, transcript credits, and test scores — and extend the definition of success to include evidence of authentic and world-connected learning, social and emotional fitness, and career and life preparedness. Competencies like critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and collaboration find greater purpose in the world at large and students who have not had quality opportunities to learn and reflect on these “in the sandbox” of schooling are more likely to graduate ill-prepared to find health and success in their careers, civic life, families and communities.

What does a 21st century graduate look like?

There are a handful of high quality, practitioner developed, holistic success skills frameworks out there that provide inspiration for districts to build and customize their own graduate profile.   

  • One of our partners, EdLeader21, offers a set of district-customizable rubrics that take the 4 C’s structure (Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity) as the starting point for a community engagement and strategic planning process they call the Portrait of a Graduate. Districts that engage the portrait of a graduate process typically draft their own community-informed variation of the 4Cs.

  • Expeditionary learning (EL) with its 10 building blocks, focuses on mastery of knowledge and skills, character, teamwork, courage, service, and compassion. EL schools may choose to adopt some or all of these assessment categories in practice.

  • The International Baccalaureate (IB) program’s learner profile describes a broad range of human capacities and responsibilities that go beyond academic success. The profile aims to develop learners who are inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced, and reflective.

  • The AVID framework includes a focus on social and emotional (SEL) skill development, aligned with CASEL’s five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

There are, of course, other frameworks beyond those named here and while structure and nuance of mission may differ, they all share a common goal: advancing equity in education, promoting students’ self-efficacy, and re-defining academic success to include those skills that most impact students’ life chances beyond graduation. 

Districts can spend years shaping their graduate profile and years beyond iterating on their plan, including systems redesign for curriculum, professional learning, and student assessment. Once they have a profile in place, however, districts typically find themselves asking “How does our graduate profile directly impact the student experience?”


How do districts execute on the graduate profile strategy?

Many districts’ first desire in operationalizing their graduate profile is to have students curate and reflect on learning artifacts. This can be accomplished through analog or digital portfolios, starting with the tools they know — be it Google Drive, Sites, or paper-based organizational systems — to house student work and create opportunities for students to demonstrate growth along the district’s competencies.  

For some, these DIY approaches work well. For others, a more robust, centralized mode of curation and organization is needed. Some districts turn to their Learning Management System to add a graduate profile framework within the existing LMS structure. Others implement standalone portfolio management systems for students and teachers to collect and reflect on their best work. Often it is a challenge to find platform solutions that offer a custom-fit to meet the district’s approach.

A hybrid, customizable version of the first and last example, Backpack for Google Drive, built with the close guidance of partner school districts, is a portfolio management system built on top of Google Drive and Classroom, utilizing a school/districts’ existing tech. It functions as close as possible to students’ and teachers’ existing workflow to quickly mobilize students and teachers in artifact curation and reflection.

Backpack for Drive lets districts customize their graduate profile system

The competency-based learning policy and advocacy institute KnowledgeWorks has identified “district-level control over system vision, curriculum and instruction, as well as formative assessment and student supports” as a key ingredient to scaling personalized learning. Because every district has a unique approach to their graduate profile, Backpack for Drive was built to support a range of configuration options to ensure the platform fits the locally defined priorities and systems choices.

Identity branding: 

The platform name, landing page, and logo can be customized.  

Example – Custom app name and waffle icon, North Shore Schools, NY

  • NorthShore-showcase

  • northshore-showcase2

Left: Custom landing page logo and platform name “E3 Portfolio”

Right: Platform name in app navigation bar

Customer: North Shore Schools, NY

  • north-shore waffle

  • Student-drive-north-shore

Left: Custom waffle icon and name in Google Workspace app navigation menu

Right: Student Drive root folder takes on the custom app name

Customer: North Shore Schools, NY


The names, icons, colors, and descriptors of competencies are fully customizable. Descriptors can be varied by user group to permit different languages for teachers and students or for students at different age levels.

Above: Skill names, descriptors, colors, and icons are defined and custom configured for each school district.  

Customer: Marion County Public Schools, KY

App URL and navigation experience

For ease of navigation and habituation, the Backpack app URL can be either a subdomain of the district’s primary domain or a domain provided to the district. In addition to the already-highlighted Google Workspace “waffle” icon, the app can also be distributed as a pushed bookmark with branded favicon on Chrome.

  • portfolio-domain

  • Showcase Branding

Left: Example custom subdomain for ease of navigation / discovery

Right: Managed bookmark and branded favicon on Google Workspace Chrome users

Homepage tiles

Tiles with logos, titles, and For student and teacher homepages, redirecting to internal reference material, student performance dashboards, etc. 

Example – Different home page tiles for student and teacher “hot links,” Jefferson County Public Schools, KY


Above: Student home page tiles customized to include a “Student Success Tracker” link to a 3rd party data dashboard.

Customer: Jefferson County Public Schools, KY


Above: Custom home page tiles on the teacher home page. The “Teacher Backpack” tile links to a Google Site created by the district to offer supports to teachers adapting their instruction to create more opportunities for students to demonstrate growth in the district’s success skills. The “Dashboards” tile is a link to a 3rd party student risk tracking platform.

Customer: Jefferson County Public Schools, KY

In app waffle entries

The Backpack app includes its own app navigation waffle that includes most Google Workspace apps by default, but can be extended to include additional quick links.


Above: In app waffle that includes a district-defined link to the “Smart Learning Suite”

Customer: North Shore Schools, NY

As you can see from the districts above, Backpack for Google Drive creates a system that customizes to support a district’s existing branding, technology and data systems footprint, and initiative naming. With its seamless integration to Google Drive and Classroom, the teacher and student training burden is lessened and the road to adoption, shortened. 

We think Backpack for Google Drive is a good fit for any district using Google Workspace for Education, and we invite you to chat with us to see if it’s right for yours.

  • Andrew Stillman photo

    Andrew Stillman

  • About the Author:

    Andrew lives in NYC and is best known for founding the CloudLab at the non-profit New Visions for Public Schools, where he led the technical development of Google-Apps-based data tools that were adopted in over 200 schools through NYC Department of Education school-reform initiatives. Andrew taught a range of STEM subjects for ten years in the public school classrooms of NYC, and was co-founder and assistant principal of NYC’s Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering. Andrew is a Google Certified Innovator and a Google Developer Expert. When Andrew isn’t coding and designing products, he can be found experimenting in the kitchen, riding his bike, and working on maker projects with his kids.