​The college transcript of the future — and the processes holding it back


Pshhhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkakingtshchchchchchchchcch … The grinding chirp of a fax machine — it’s a sound that should be on the endangered sound list as quickly as possible. It is also a sound heard at too many colleges each day as transcripts are passed back and forth to each other or on to an employer.

Transcripts, much like fax machines, are relics that are overdue for a more modern approach.

If you want your “official transcript,” well that may cost you a few dollars. You hope you can pay online, but there’s a chance you may have to mail a check, at which point it has to be processed and recorded; then they can print out your transcript on special paper, stuff it in an envelope and ship it off.

It’s a costly bureaucratic process that is supposed to verify your credentials and communicate and confirm that you in fact possess those skills and knowledge.

The reality, however, is far different. Though it does a reasonably good job of validating credentials, the traditional transcript offers little useful data about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses or the true depth of their know-how.

The academic transcript could be so much more than just a superficial overview of educational milestones.

The road ahead

At its most useful, the transcript would provide a multidimensional learning history, a deep record of knowledge acquired and applied, skills mastered and demonstrated, and projects completed. It would be configurable, allowing students, institutions, and employers to tailor the information provided to align with specific training program requirements or job descriptions.

It would also be continuous, replacing the static snapshot of students’ time at one institution with a dynamic, ever-growing record of achievements across all learning experiences, both formal and informal, classroom-based and experiential.

This ideal of a modernized transcript is already within reach. Technological innovation, coupled with institutional efforts to drive student success, have spurred an important conversation about how to reinvent and modernize the transcript. These technologies would support secure, verifiable credentials that reflect more comprehensive data on student learning, and a number of initiatives to apply this vision are already underway.

For example, The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and the Association of Student Affairs Professionals (NASPA), with support from the Lumina Foundation, are piloting the “Comprehensive Student Record” project with 12 higher education institutions. The CSR initiative is a response, in part, to interest in competency-based education models, in which students master discrete skills and knowledge areas on their way to a credential.

A traditional transcript, designed to collect information at the course level, cannot capture this richer, more detailed picture of student learning. The institutions participating in the CSR effort are developing processes and tools to do just that.

Other initiatives are experimenting with blockchain technology to meet the demand for a more flexible and meaningful transcript. MIT and Carnegie Mellon University, in collaboration with a number of educational technology companies, have created a technical standard called Blockcerts that is available to educational institutions and other credentialing bodies free of charge. Blockchain provides a secure, scalable data record that is highly portable, allowing lifelong learners to carry a verifiable, richly-detailed academic transcript from one educational experience to another.

Better tools for learners

These are just two examples in a burgeoning area of research and product development that have great potential to spur further innovation in aligning the needs of employers, educational providers, and learners.

With a more detailed, multifaceted, and customizable transcript, employers would be able to assess job applicants more directly and accurately, evaluating them on demonstrated skills rather than inferring imprecisely from vague course descriptions, grades of uncertain meaning, and institutional reputation. In addition, they would use this information to fine tune and increase the impact of their professional development offerings, using scarce training dollars more effectively.

Educational institutions would similarly use the modernized transcript to personalize the pathway for returning students, minimizing costly redundancies and speeding time to completion.

Most importantly, the transcript would become a powerful learning tool for students, rather than merely an administrative one.

Armed with a more detailed and cohesive history of learning experiences, skills learned, and projects completed, learners would become better informed stewards of their own educational path. For students who have attended multiple institutions, completed internships, or received credit for prior learning, a modernized transcript would bring those diverse experiences into a single place, lending coherence and clarity to their academic history.

When they enter the workforce, students would have a more nuanced and comprehensive picture of their skills and accomplishments to share with employers, bridging the often difficult gap between the classroom and the workplace.

Benefits of a Democratized Credentialing System

1. No more fax machines …

2. Extreme portability, control and ownership for the learner. Share what you want, how you want and when you want.

3. Capability to be additive to a competency. Over time as additional formal and informal learning occurs as well as workforce experience, assessments or performance reviews can repeatedly validate and provide examples.

4. Quickly analyze which college programs can accept the majority of your transfer credits to reduce cost.

5. Quickly analyze which college programs can deliver the appropriate competencies you require to move ahead based on a gap analysis of where you are and need to go.

These are just a few things that can be done with this data bundled in a standard singular package. These applications and many more can be built to do some pretty amazing things.

Critical infrastructure

There is real momentum in education right now to develop impactful, student-centric approaches at scale to enhance the relevance, quality, and accessibility of lifelong learning opportunities. Institutional efforts and investment in competency-based education, personalized learning models and tools, skills bootcamps, MOOCs, alternative credentials, and so on, point to the range of exciting efforts to give learners more choices and better return on their educational investments.

This momentum, however, is likely to be stifled without a better way to track, communicate, and authenticate the depth and diversity of these experiences in a reliable and coherent way. A reinvention of the academic transcript is necessary, and is already underway, providing the first steps toward a more supportive credentialing and transcripting infrastructure that reflects each learner’s unique path.

Time to evolve

A few days ago I was learning about “Neural Lace” which connects the brain to artificial intelligence to potentially do some amazing things. I can talk to devices and have them play music or control my house. My iPhone can predict what I want to type. The technology around us is accelerating rapidly yet we are stuck in the past with data points that inform so little and can infer far too much. We are still faxing around transcripts based on a letter grading system that is well beyond its shelf life for usefulness.

It is time for education and workforce to start using the same currency to ensure a well prepared workforce for the future, which is now.

Brian Peddle is founder and CEO of Motivis Learning, a student-centered learning platform that unifies content, communication and data to drive student success. Prior to that, he served as the chief technology officer at College for America @ SNHU, where he and his team launched a competency-based learning management system and student information system built from the ground up on the Salesforce platform. Contact him at brian@motivislearning.com or on Twitter @brianpeddle.