Thoughts on the Transcript of the Future

An academic transcript – the infamous permanent record – looms over the life of every college student. Items recorded there play an outsize role in shaping the student experience. By auditing degree requirements and counting up accumulated credit hours, transcripts guide course selection. By calculating grade point average to the third decimal place, transcripts help make pursuit of grades (with or without learning) an obsessive element of student identity and sense of self-worth.

What we choose to record on an academic transcript matters. So too does what we decide not to record.

The transcript provides the only official, validated representation of each student’s college experience. The transcripts we keep today were designed in the early 20th century, and reflect their origin in industrial bureaucracy.  But the world has changed: we live in an information age, and it is time to rethink the way we represent each student’s college experience.

Official records don’t change often, so it’s really important that we get this right. Recognizing this, University of Michigan Registrar Paul Robinson and his staff recently brought a group of more than a dozen registrars from major public and private research universities for a three day discussion of the transcript of the future, part of the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation Initiative. I had the pleasure of talking with this amazing group, sharing with them my thoughts on the topic. Here’s a summary of what I had to say.

Where we’re coming from

Higher education went through an enormous transformation during the first half of the twentieth century. To use Michigan as an example, enrollment was 1200 in 1871. By 1900 it had tripled, to 3482. By midcentury the student body had increased tenfold, to 43683. This explosive growth was enabled by adopting industrial approaches: standardization of tests, credit hours, degree requirements, and academic majors.

The modern academic record and official transcript are deeply influenced by the tenor of these times, shaped as much by the practical needs of record keeping and correspondence in the 1920’s as they are by a desire to accurate represent the student experience. The essence of the transcript – a single line recording each course taken and grade received, grouped by semester taken – was designed to allow the transcript to fit tidily into an envelope. The reputation of the academic record as inflexible and rule-bound emerges from the bureaucratic ethos of this period.

The transcript of the future is under none of these snail-mail constraints. It should be designed to flexibly meet the needs of all its many audiences.

Higher education in an information age

Over the last two decades, higher education has quietly undergone a dramatic change. Today, much of what happens in college is digitally mediated. Courses are supported by software platforms called learning management systems. Through an LMS, instructors share many of the materials they provide for their students: syllabi, assignments, notes, readings, lecture slides, sometimes even videos of lectures delivered in class. Students too, interact through these tools: turning in papers, taking quizzes, participating in discussion forums, doing homework, practicing for tests, even sharing videos of their own in class presentations.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The University of Michigan hasn’t moved online. Students still gather in classrooms to hear live lectures, participate in seminars, conduct laboratory experiments, and share one another’s work. But all of that activity, which used to be transitory, is now leaving an increasingly rich record.

An example: when I went to Temple University – well back into the last century – I wrote my papers out longhand, tidied them on a noisy physical typewriter, turned them in, and received them back marked up by my instructor. The only record of my paper kept by the University was a grade, carefully entered in the appropriate column of a physical grade book. Today the LMS keeps the prompt provided by the instructor, the student’s paper, often in both draft and revised form, along with comments made by peer evaluators, the author, and the instructor. And, of course, the grade.

All of a sudden, we can form detailed, evolving portraits of every student’s background, interests, goals, and accomplishments. These portraits, the total student record, should be used to create the transcript of the future: a rich, deep representation of the college experience of every student.

Who is the transcript for?

A college transcript has many audiences with various needs, and it’s important that it serve each of these well. The most important, I would argue, is the student. Items recorded on the transcript – the things that count – focus their attention and attract their effort. We need to record what matters, in authentic ways. When we do, the transcript will help to shape the kind of broad, liberal education our students deserve. We have to keep the focus on the student.

There are other audiences with other needs, but these are easily met. Our institutions use transcripts for bureaucratic purposes; to track student progress, account for faculty activity, and award degrees. Other educational institutions – especially graduate and professional programs – use transcripts to select their students. Our accrediting agencies and the government require a modest degree of reporting, and transcripts play an important role in that.

Finally, there are employers. It may come as a surprise, but most care very little about the transcript. Yes, they want to know that a student completed a degree with a certain major, but they’re really not interested in the grade received in a sophomore linear algebra class. To me, this is a relief. The transcript is, mostly, for us. It exists to help higher education understand, improve, and represent itself.

To meet all of these needs at once, we need to take a step back, build a really rich student record, and then use it to represent the student experience to different audiences in an array of transcripts of the future.

The student record and the transcript of the future

University registrars should be engaging with all of these audiences, exploring what they want to know and how we might best represent these aspects of the student experience. In doing this, they will help universities shape the official, validated student record, selecting from the massive flow of information which digitally mediated education provides features and artifacts which enable us to richly, responsibly represent what happens in college. This is going to be an ongoing process, and it’s hard to imagine what it might include in 20 years. But the next steps are clearer. Here are two examples of things I’d like to see happen soon.

Stop recording all classes the same way

The University of Michigan offers about 9200 courses, varying in size from 1 to 2000, in topic from Abstract Art to Zoology, and in level from introductory to expert. Right now, transcripts record every one of these classes in the same way: subject, course number, abbreviated name, credit hours earned, and letter grade. This is silly. We should recognize that different classes serve different purposes and record what happens in them in appropriate ways.

Foundational courses like Econ 101 are intended to introduce students to some essential ideas of a discipline or topic. In these classes, we want to know what students learned. For these, perhaps we should record what ideas each student encountered and adequately explored.

Distribution courses are meant for exploration. Transcript records of these should encourage breadth, honoring students for taking risks and protecting them from unreasonable comparison to others more experienced in a field.

Core classes in a student’s major are about developing key skills and habits of mind in their field. Records of these courses should focus on representing those competencies and providing clear, appropriate evidence of each student’s progress toward expertise in each.

Capstone courses are meant to emulate real world experience, providing each student with opportunities to really do the work of their discipline. These experiences should be represented in relevant, real-world ways: by displaying the authentic product of student work, whether that’s a paper, research project, or presentation.

The transcript of the future will represent each course in a rich and appropriate way, rather than insisting that we cram our record of each into a single format, fitting on a single line in a table. It will draw on a rich portfolio of information about each course a student takes, including the work they did there.

Summarize multiple aspects of liberal education

Right now, the transcript summarizes each student’s education through two numbers – credits toward degree and grade point average. These numbers focus student attention on meeting requirements rather than exploring opportunities, on receiving high grades rather than learning deeply, and on curricular activities rather than those which occur out of the formal classroom.

But a great liberal education needs more than meeting requirements and performing well. It needs intellectual breadth, disciplinary depth, a range of experience, engagement and effort, and a rich network of human interaction. To encourage students to pursue all of these goals, we should find solid, authentic ways to measure them. Here at Michigan, we’ve begun exploring this.

Network measures of student course co-enrollment provide good measures of intellectual breadth, identifying majors which are more isolated than others, and students within each major who are unusually well connected.

More information about what happens in each class is allowing us to explore each student’s range of experience: do they write a lot of papers, take a lot of timed exams, do a lot of lab research, take large or small classes, complete a lot of group projects, read hundreds of pages of novels or research papers, collaborate with diverse teams?

We’re also starting to explore measures of effort, recognizing that some courses demand little more than attendance while others require four hours out of class for every one in, and that in every class, some student put in three times more effort than others.

The point is clear. If we want to encourage a multidimensional liberal education, we should help everyone in higher education – students, faculty, and staff – better understand the degree to which each student meets these multiple goals. The current transcript, focusing only on requirements and performance, doesn’t do this well. But the transcript of the future, of the near future, will.

What next?

There is little doubt that rich, evolving, carefully curated, valid, and accessible data about students will be at the center of higher education in the 21st century. We will use this data to represent what happens in college for a wide variety of audiences, especially the student, but also educational institutions including our own, our accreditors, the government, and the public, and our student’s potential employers.

Registrars, long the official custodians of the student record, have a unique opportunity to help define what universities will maintain in their official records. We’ve seen how the records we kept in the 20th century helped to define the nature of higher education. These new records, enabled by the information age, will help to define higher education for the 21st century.

Hats off to University of Michigan Registrar Paul Robinson and his staff, especially Associate Registrar Lisa Emery, for jump-starting this conversation with their Transcript of the Future meeting. And many thanks to all the participants, both for giving me the chance to share a few of my ideas and for taking three days out of their busy schedules to get together and join in some unrestrained crazy-talk about possible futures.

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