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Building a Three-Dimensional Record of Student Learning

Forward-looking universities are expanding the traditional student transcript into a more complete digital representation of learning inside and outside the classroom.

Former Stanford University (CA) registrar Tom Black once described the traditional college transcript as "the record of everything the student has forgotten."

According to Helen Chen, director of e-portfolio initiatives in Stanford's Office of the University Registrar, that dissatisfaction with the limitations of the basic transcript has spurred the university to launch several projects to explore new representations of the student record that might do a better job of conveying a student's learning as well as co-curricular activities.

One prototype sought to organize the student record not chronologically, but according to learning outcomes. "Our general education courses define learning outcomes," Chen said. "What if you could organize the student record according to those outcomes rather than an emphasis on courses and grades?"

Another effort called "Edusalsa" wondered what would happen if students could color-code their transcripts based on interests, strengths and weaknesses, to facilitate internal advising conversations. 

Stanford is one of a dozen colleges and universities that received grant funding in 2015-2016 as part of the Comprehensive Student Record Project to explore new digital representations of student learning and co-curricular activity, including using e-portfolios and badges to complement transcripts. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and NASPA: Association of Student Affairs Professionals led the project, with a grant from the Lumina Foundation.

Tom Green, AACRAO's associate executive director of consulting and strategic enrollment management, notes that if you open up a ledger book of a 200-year-old Ivy League transcript, you see the student's name and you learn that the person took Rhetoric and earned an A. "If you look at the transcript today," he said, "it is essentially a mildly changed version of something we have had around for hundreds of years. It has just been made electronic."

The transcript is not transmitting content about what is being learned and studied in these courses. "We are giving employers 30-character course titles, credits and a grade and asking them to just believe us that this person is educated," Green said. "We know we can present a lot more information about learning outcomes and competencies."

Green also said that new technological developments are allowing universities to do much more with a record. "If you think of a transcript being a two-dimensional document, we now have the capability to make the record three-dimensional. If you have an interest in understanding what a student actually studied in a philosophy course as a sophomore, you could drill down and see the syllabus, the learning outcomes, a faculty bio and learning samples, which gets to your e-portfolio," he explained.

Green envisions employers such as Amazon searching for particular skills or learning outcomes in student records. "Is Amazon going to read 50,000 e-portfolios before they hire someone? Probably not," he said. "We have to have these in machine-readable format, so employers can search on keyword topics. Can we align learning outcomes of a student's background with the needs and skills that employers are demanding? We think the answer is yes. By and large, the skills employers say they can't find in students are exactly the kinds of things that are in the learning outcomes in a course syllabus."

Through its work with the Comprehensive Student Record Project, Stanford began trying to create a closer connection between the official record and e-portfolios as evidence, Chen said. One of its projects, Notation in Science Communication, allows students to create a portfolio of evidence that demonstrates their competency in science communication. It could include essays, podcasts, Powerpoint presentations and other multimedia. Once the student's work is assessed as meeting faculty standards, the content is exported out of that portfolio platform and imported into the Stanford library's digital repository, and a permanent URL is generated. "Once we have that permanent URL, we can link it to the record," Chen said, "and it becomes part of the transcript, similar to a Ph.D. thesis. The concept of connecting the record with evidence is something we are very interested in."

Chen said that as universities are encouraged to think about official records of learning outcomes, one challenge is figuring out where that data is gathered and stored. Is it in the student information system, the learning management system or some other repository?

"We also have to think about how to document and assess co-curricular experiences," she added. "How do those become part of the student record? What the Comprehensive Student Record Project has done is recognize the breadth of the kinds of experiences that differentiate our institutions and make them unique but are not part of the transcript. One can question whether it should all be included in the transcript or whether there should be different kinds of records for different kinds of purposes."

To create a record of co-curricular activities, one of the project participants, Brandman University (CA), created a three-tiered record, Green explained. "It said, here are the things the student took as courses, and we validate these. Here are the things the student did outside of courses that we have validated and we are putting our stamp on that. Finally, here are other activities that the student has listed but that we have not validated."

Another participant in the project, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, has been developing a certification of different types of learning to be included with the transcript. IUPUI uses the acronym RISE, which stands for Research, International, Service and Experiential learning. "We have established processes, mostly through credit-bearing courses, that certify the learning that is happening in those areas to allow it to be included in a transcript," said Cathy Buyarski, associate dean for student affairs, University College, and executive director of student success initiatives in the Division of Undergraduate Education.

If a student is in an undergraduate course that has been designated a research-intensive course, a notation of that fact automatically rolls into his or her record of experiential and applied learning. "If you do research on your own with a faculty member or are helping them with a grant," Buyarski explained, "then you would submit a description and a written reflection on your experence, and the Center for Research and Learning would review it and certify it as being able to go on the student's record."

Buyarski said there are as many as 45 different e-portfolio projects taking place on the IUPUI campus, many outside of traditional coursework and using a variety of e-portfolio technology platforms. There have been conversations about how they can be deployed as evidence of learning and reflection. "But if they are not part of a course, and a student is doing this on their own, who is certifying that? If it is part of the university record, somebody has to certify it," she said. "We have this other process where students are turning in a reflection on their learning experience. We have to scale that up before we start looking at e-portfolios as a way to attach that evidence to a transcript."

Are students thinking more about connecting a portfolio of their work to their transcripts? Stanford's Chen teaches a course for graduate students called "Portfolio to Professional." She said there is definitely a greater awareness of digital identity today. "If I Google you, what rises to the top? There is more awareness about that," she said. But she noted that students pick up their transcript on their way out of the institution. "Is there something we can do to help make [transcripts] more valuable as [students] are going through the institution, particularly helping with conversations around advising? We are focused less on what employers want than on how can we empower our students with tools, credentials and records that help them be equipped to communicate the story of their education."

Using E-Portfolios to Document Curriculum

As many universities explore how to use e-portfolios to develop a more complete record of student experience, one college found a creative way to use e-portfolio software to assess its curriculum.

Maggie Miller, an integration technology specialist, arrived at Finger Lakes Community College (NY) a few years ago right after the college had chosen Chalk & Wire as its e-portfolio platform. "We didn't have the personnel resources to have somebody start building up the usage of it," she recalled, "but as I was building demo portfolios for student work, I noticed that all our faculty course and program modification proposal processes were completely done on paper and in in-person meetings. I realized that we could do all of this in a portfolio and get the faculty familiar with the e-portfolio before we asked them to have their students use it."

Faculty members were receptive to the idea, because it would replace the process of typing up Word documents, printing them out, signing them and physically taking them to another department, Miller said. "They immediately saw the benefit of having everything in a workspace where everyone who needed to provide input on program changes could do it electronically without having to physically get together in a room," she explained. "It was also a perfect way for them to get familiar with the functionality of the platform before we used it with the students."

Finger Lakes is now building on the e-portfolio use by creating a database that includes all the data on courses and programs gathered in Chalk & Wire as well as data on the local economy and employment trends. "We want to do a full robust assessment of how we are doing," Miller said, "and where our students are getting jobs."

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