Gebre-Medhin & Chen on “Representation”

Ben Gebre­Medhin[1] & Helen L. Chen [2]
June 15‐17, 2016

This memo reviews the “Representation” strand which focused the future of the academic record in the digital era. The discussion included 21 participants convened by Tom Black, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar, and Helen L. Chen, Director of ePortfolio Initiatives and Research Scientist, both of Stanford University.

The task was to consider current practices for documenting and sharing student learning in higher education in light of possibilities presented by emerging digital technologies. Discussion centered around three broad topics: (1) an overview of the current state of the academic transcript; (2) opportunities for the future; (3) challenges of change relating to ethics and equity; and (4) tangible priorities moving forward.

The transcript in US higher education

The representation track affirmed that the academic transcript remains a valuable and significant record of student learning, scholastic accomplishment, and professional credentialing. Few other single documents, or comprehensive credentials, carry the same social significance in graduate level admissions, labor markets, or the broader social space as the traditional transcript and the degree. There is still a strong demand for these documents and registrars have expanded their methods of sending and receiving transcripts to include EDI/XML, fax, PDF, and other formats[3]. The state of the standardized academic transcript, which took its current form by the turn of the 20th century at the behest of organizing efforts by academics and foundations into the Carnegie Unit, was used to underpin our discussion of its future.

This working group agreed that higher education in America stands out for the diversity of the students it serves, as well as for the diversity of the organizations that serve them. The current transcript is successful in part because it has been able to balance the need for standardization with the need for local variation required to knit the American higher education patchwork together into a unified and reasonably coherent national bureaucratic entity. The transcript was designed as an academic document to rationalize student flows through universities and to standardize learning expectations for degrees. As such, the imagined consumers of student transcripts were primarily other educational institutions. At present, authority over the transcript is shared among a number of stakeholders: faculty, registrars, accreditors, and the state. Within each university, faculty and academic committees have ultimate control over the content of transcripts, their structure, and the policies and procedures which govern them. The power to maintain and implement these policies is vested in the university registrar who plays an important role as the fiduciary of the faculty, and who is charged with ensuring the faithful maintenance and execution of academic policies and procedures.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) serves to provide “professional development, guidelines, and voluntary standards to be used by higher education officials regarding the best practices in records management, admissions, enrollment management, administrative information technology, and student services.”[4] In this capacity, AACRAO exercises professional autonomy in monitoring and informing institutional practices. It is the responsibility of regional higher education accrediting bodies to certify compliance and require the existence of documented policies and procedures, that trained professional personnel are responsible for maintaining and executing. While the Federal Government exercises substantial authority over data security and maintenance practices through the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the social technologies of peer review and accreditation have allowed schools to enjoy a great deal of autonomy from state regulation over the content of transcripts. However, recent developments have demonstrated that such direct intervention in transcript policy is a real possibility. In 2015, New York and Virginia passed legislation requiring state colleges and universities to include notations of suspension or dismissal related to sexual assault on student academic transcripts.[5]


The work of the representation track took place in the context of a discussion about the vibrant experimentation in student record keeping. An array of new platforms has emerged to allow individuals to document and demonstrate learning, experience, proficiency, and achievement within higher education and beyond. The remarkable possibilities presented by new digital technologies offer diverse opportunities for future representations of accomplishment. In particular we see the potential of records to help empower students to become more effective advocates for themselves across domains. This could be accomplished by strengthening the documentation of both the formal and informal learning students acquire in college and throughout the life course. From high­-impact educational practices[6] such as jobs and internship programs to study-abroad experiences, campus-­based student activities, intercollegiate athletics, and other experiential learning opportunities, these educational affordances provide meaningful experience and skills that are not captured by traditional transcripts.

We are aware that institutions, students and other private entities have often addressed these gaps in documentation independently. Many colleges and universities have introduced ePortfolios to encourage reflection, synthesis, and integrative learning across formal and informal learning experiences, inside and outside of the classroom. Many of these systems focus on individual growth and development as well as pedagogical goals in courses and programs, and are not intended to be shared or made public. Such systems can potentially have a positive impact on student self­actualization and development, and we view them as positive indicators of future possibilities, and examples of digital technologies strengthening our pedagogical objectives.

As noted above, transcripts were designed as academic records to be produced and interpreted within academic settings. As such, we identified opportunities to make future representations of student accomplishment more useful to employers by increasing transparency and the trustworthiness of these representation for broader audiences. In particular, employers could benefit from transcripts that they could more easily interpret to informed more nuanced evaluation in hiring decisions.  Traditional transcripts do not allow employers to evaluate the learning achievements underlying letter grades in individual courses. This leaves the burden of narrating achievement to the students, who are expected to accomplish this through the creation of resumes and cover letters. Such documents are vulnerable to ambiguity, misrepresentation, and misinterpretation. In addressing these opportunities it will be important to acknowledge that employers, who are but one external consumer of academic records, are themselves a diverse set of constituencies with individual needs and expectations. Records of the future should be designed with this diversity in mind.

We identified a number ways to pursue these opportunities. One possibility is to focus on transforming the official transcript into a richer document. Such a path would maintain the current structure of authority and control (i.e., faculty governance with the registrar as the fiduciary) while expanding the information contained within this structure. A second pathway might include the creation of additional standardized records in parallel to the traditional transcript. Under such a system, students may have a formal academic record (as currently conceived) as well as additional records of skills, extracurricular activities, and work experience. Such a system raises questions about how these new records would be governed and who would be responsible for validating and maintaining them. A third option is to focus on creating infrastructure to link academic records as they currently exist to external systems which could be populated with richer information generated by learners. Such systems would aim to provide faithful and trustworthy representations of official information generated from the academic transcript (i.e., validated artifacts) that in turn serve as a core component of a larger portfolio to which additional unverified information related to informal learning experiences, professional pursuits, and personal interests could be included at the discretion of learners.

Ethics and equity

Our group acknowledged that each of the potential pathways to improving the representation of student accomplishment raises serious issues of ethics and equity. As the field of higher education proceeds with experiments in this area we hope that the benefits for individual students are balanced against the risks associated with these endeavors.

Altering the transcript — a central social technology in the national system of higher education — has the potential to influence expectations, professional responsibilities, and power relations throughout the entire educational sector. We also acknowledge that change will come to pass even if those in the current academic community do nothing. Moving forward, we must ensure meaningful reflection and analysis in order to mitigate the undesirable effects of changes in the representation of accomplishment.

Colleges and universities bear a great deal of ethical responsibility on behalf of students. At the heart of this responsibility is the maintenance of safe and positive learning environments that facilitate a multiplicity of objectives (intellectual, artistic, vocational, civic, personal). Changes to student records should be sensitive to inadvertently designing toward any one of those objectives at the expense of others. Furthermore we should work to avoid using our ability to capture increasingly minute metrics, which may have the unintended consequence of the dis-incentivizing risk- taking and constructive failure which are fundamental to effective pedagogy and learning.

The current sovereignty of faculty oversight raises additional questions for the future. The current transcript records the outcomes of faculty authority over curricular objectives and the evaluation of student performance. Yet, new proposals to improve the student record have the potential to alter this authority. For example, the addition of non­academic information (such as internships, student activities, athletics) to transcripts may pose a significant reconfiguration of faculty authority relative to other academic professionals. Creating additional records to supplement or parallel the official transcript begs questions of oversight and evaluation beyond simple verification of participation to actual validation of learning, skills, and competencies.

In facing an increasingly digital future, another set of more technical concerns arise related to the ownership/control of individual student records and datasets that connect with or subsume those records. Currently, federal protections require colleges and universities to maintain student records safely and securely. Once a student publishes digital versions of these records online or in professional social networks, that same data enters new jurisdictional domains. If schools are to enable such practices for students, a number of concerns emerge.

For example, financial speculation over the value of individual student data, and information which can be derived from the analysis of aggregated student data at scale, is common. While many of the companies that engage in these activities have detailed terms-of-service provisions, there is wide variation in the rights afforded to individuals and schools. As custodians of official academic records, colleges and universities should work to ensure transparency and promote best practices for the use of student record data should students opt to incorporate it into other platforms. In particular, policies ensuring low “switching costs” across platforms at the discretion of users, thereby allowing multiple simultaneous experiments, are important. Furthermore, clear guidelines limiting or forbidding “scraping” of student data within such systems should also be considered. While blockchain technologies offer some positive elements that have been well documented by security researchers, they are not without drawbacks of their own.

Going forward

To advance the conversation about future representations of student accomplishment, our group considered pursuing a number of possible strategies going forward. These included focusing on ethical standards to guide future experimentation; cataloging or assessing ongoing activities in this domain; or engaging in our own initiatives. Broadly, our group remains committed to investigating the continued utility and value of the student transcript, and seeks to focus our efforts on exploring the possibilities and implications of offering portals into transcript data that might be accessed and controlled by students and integrated into other platforms.

We shared broad support for a data-access protocol which would enable students to control the dynamic integration of other learning and skill certifications. We imagine our work to be informed by the Lumina Foundation’s “Connecting Credentials” effort and the Comprehensive Student Record Project led by AACRAO and NASPA – Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education. We are encouraged by the efforts of the National Student Clearinghouse to work toward this objective. An ongoing project of the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council (PESC) to facilitate the interoperability of university record systems to ease the burden of credit accounting for transfer students also warrants further attention. We also look forward to the anticipated release of a student-facing portal for the aggregation of student records across multiple institutions.

We also considered the potential of the blockchain — the technology underlying Bitcoin and other decentralized networks of trust-based exchange. A blockchain system could accommodate elements which are verified by trusted entities such as universities and others which are nominated by individuals yet unverified, thereby maintaining the integrity of the academic record. Such systems may also facilitate the documentation of the individual component learning elements which are aggregated into courses. While these technologies are promising, further exploration is needed to assess potential risks, including: record permanence and limitations to corrections/edits; the ongoing burden of record curation and control by universities; and other more generalized privacy concerns reviewed elsewhere.

A number of other possibilities surfaced but were deemed to be beyond the scope or capacity of our group. In particular, the potential to link the academic record to widely available online course descriptions (i.e. the Open Syllabus Project) seemed a relatively accessible technical challenge for other colleagues to address. Expanding data available for research to include learning objectives would be more of a challenge due to the critical requirement for faculty buy­in, but was identified as a noble goal.

In the year ahead, we aim to work towards developing a landscape review that can be used to guide and inspire institutional innovation in academic records. This work will include a principles document that will serve as the foundation for future advocacy and experimentation. During our review process we hope to identify use cases and capture institutional successes and challenges around how new learning representations are being designed and implemented. Finally, we hope to engage in these ideas, questions, and experiments with a wider audience in order to broaden our perspective and thinking about these critical issues. Some of these audiences include the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Association for Authentic, Experiential, Evidence­Based Learning, AACRAO, NASPA, PESC, and the open badges community.


[1] Department of Sociology, UC Berkeley,
[2] Office of the University Registrar, Student and Academic Services & Department of Mechanical Engineering, Stanford University,
[3]­content/uploads/aacrao­transcript­practice­and­costs­report­june­2014­final. pdf
[5]­requiring­colleges­note­sexual­assault­responsibili ty­student­transcripts