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Introducing Digital Learning Records to Learners

As more student learning becomes advanced and outside the classroom, institutions can begin to look at digital records as a way to capture and record students’ achievements.

The student experience may change over the decade, but the structure remains the same. Institutions need to establish a strong foundation that allows them to adapt to meet the needs of today’s students while being future-proof. Digital learning records allow institutions to keep their traditional record structure while adapting to the modern environment by going digital. In this interview, Tom Green and Mark McConahay discuss implementing digital learner records, how it improves the student experience, and how it fits into the 60-year curriculum model.  

Tom and Mark will be presenting this topic at the IMS Global Consortium’s Digital Credentials Summit March 1-4th 2021. To register for the summit, click here.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the challenges we face when it comes to implementing, integrating, and introducing digital learning records for our students?

Tom Green (TG): The excitement around the opportunity of digital records is widely shared. When people see what’s now available, as technology has advanced, they see that more and more things become possible. We’re still operating with a lot of our information systems that weren’t designed to assist us with this. And the ways that traditional records have been kept, meaning that an academic transcript records the information about what you took, what you attempted, and then the results of that–it’s bare bones, a chronological record of enrollment. These systems are great at producing that type of record. And I think we’ve worked hard to be able to implement ways that you can move that data from one place to another.

So, that’s a very well-established paradigm for student achievement. As the concept around student achievement advances beyond that, to say that learning happens outside the classroom. When we ask, “Well, how do we want to capture and record that?” the challenge becomes that the systems really weren’t built for it. 

Mark McConahay (MMC): The beauty of standards, or maybe not the beauty, is that you can have so many. And so, what’s happened to us over the last 30 years, and particularly in the last five as the initiative for broader learning outcomes has been driven into higher education, is that we have all these expressions of learning, but they’re all pushing one direction or the other resulting in  divergent standards. And as a result, we can’t create a unified ecosystem. Secondly, for many institutions to achieve that level of digital exchange is a relatively high bar. So how do we lower that bar to a level where all institutions can fairly participate?

Evo: How does it improve the student experience to focus on these changes to digital learning records?

MMC: Well, there are a couple of different expressions of that. If we can create a means by which we can digitally exchange information, not only among ourselves but to those who fulfill and consume these kinds of credentials, it’ll do a couple things for us. One, if in fact we can all attest and use the same digital expression, we can begin to enable the student to bring in credentials from all sorts of sources, not just higher education. Two, we’ve failed to take advantage of the fact  that our digital platforms now that enable us to add fidelity and detail to the overall record. We’ve struggled for years inside higher education with the articulation of courses. We set up secondary systems to accomplish this. Well, if we could carry course detail  within this same digital standard, within the same ecosystem, all of a sudden we could start to build the Rosetta Stone for how this might work, because we have digitized and exchanged information  in an expression we can all understand. So, I think there are all kinds of possibilities here if we can gain access to uniform data. Tom?

TG: One of the things that will really help higher education students is that, if you go back a two generations or so, it was still fairly rare that people went to college. If you had a degree or credential from college, you were in a small population. Today, it’s a fairly common occurrence that people go to college. But the problem is they don’t all finish it. So, as we ask people to evaluate the preparation that they’ve received to advance into a career that might require a baccalaureate, as we have people who have some college, no degree, we have to go beyond the one, zero outcome of credential, no credential. And one of the things that we have done extremely well in higher education is assess learning. What we’ve done very poorly is communicate what is actually learned in college to someone outside the academy, sometimes even to our own students.

These records and the ability to transmit them electronically gives us a much greater platform on which to tell people what skills are learned in college and how to learn them. We just haven’t done that very well. We’ve just assumed if you’ve got a degree, you’re ready for the workforce. We have to do more than that, and this is probably the best opportunity we have to really provide evidence of the value of higher education to people.

MMC: I would add that one of the values that higher education has, even in its current form of credentialing, is the level of trust put into a credential. And by that, I mean, when a student can assert that they have taken these courses, received these grades with the same level of trust as our current transcript  the credentials  would have  a high level of trust in the overall marketplace, in the overall world. What we have to do with the set of records that we’re talking about is maintain that same level of trust, despite the fact that we have given agency to the student to disclose them.

So there’s a distinction here between a resume and something that’s asserted by an institution. One is self-asserted, and the other is asserted by an institution with governance structures, that perceives value in what’s being asserted, and stands behind it. So, bringing those things together–adding fidelity, but maintaining trust–that is just so key. 

Evo: How do you see the value proposition for continuing education, modular and non-degree programming in this new model of assessing knowledge and ability? 

TG: Well, the first point is: how much evidence do you need to provide in order for someone to believe that something occurred? There are going to be varying opinions and levels of ability for institutions technologically to do that. Some people will say, “Look, if I disclose to you this course’s learning outcomes, and the student passed the course, you should believe that the student attained the learning outcome. If I provide you with a copy of the student’s final exam, is that what you need to see in order to believe that it happened? And what would that really mean if we did that?”

You’re going to have different opinions on that, and I’m not going to try and say that one is right or wrong. I think that oftentimes, we know that the receiver of information is the employer of a student who started employment at a new company after graduation. That person probably has a certain common set of desired outcomes that would be very similar, regardless of industry or setting. But then they’re going to have some very idiosyncratic beliefs about what the person should know when they start that job. And we get into a slippery slope in thinking how much to disclose with it. Because if we disclose that the student did X and that you value X, that’s great. But if we disclose that they did X, and you think they should have done Y, well, then you think that the knowledge they received, the educational experience wasn’t a good one. There’s some part of that that we’ll probably always struggle to reconcile, but I do think there are people who really, depending upon the industry and training, have some real need to disclose discrete information. I’ll use nursing as an example.

The other thing I want to add is on microcredentials, and I think there are definitely opportunities here for disaggregating a student’s experience in order to be able to afford them opportunities, to bundle things in a certain way that would be very meaningful in the marketplace. 

MMC: Tom and I have talked about disaggregation and the fact that courses in a traditional academic record can be just as much of a credential as an engagement activity that possesses a set of learning outcomes. The whole issue with standards, whether they be digital or normative, extends to issues of learning outcomes. There are learning outcomes, competencies, and skills that live within the labor market. And just because each one of those has translated into some sort of normative standard, even if you know what critical thinking is as a learning outcome at one institution, translating that to the skillset that lives within a pharmaceutical company may be completely different. But what I will argue is that we can’t create that map, that Rosetta Stone, if at all lives in our individual repositories. We have to be able to expose it, to translate them from one world to another. And the way to do that is to add fidelity to the record and expose them via the kinds of digital standards we’re talking about now.

Evo: Building on the idea of a 60-year curriculum model and students owning their learning records, how would developing this self-sovereign ecosystem improve the barriers that exist around learning data?

TG: One is, of course, immutability, that in order for something to be trusted, you have to believe it is unaltered. Because scanners and digital imaging, it became easier for people to fake an academic record, right? So, we did things like developing script-safe paper, which is tamper-evident. As we came into digital records, we discovered tools like Adobe blue ribbon technology that locked the PDF in a way that was very hard to open and very hard to reseal. That’s going to be a big problem in the field. So, as we think about the student being able to hold her own record, we have to make sure that they can’t open up the seal, change the information and reseal it before they give it to someone else, not that we think most people would try and do that. But the fact is you talk with anybody in any country, and they will tell you that student records fraud is a real issue and it’s not getting easier to prevent it.

We have to ensure that the record is immutable. It also means, though, that we have to develop ways in which that learner can access information or data on an ongoing basis, and that they can be able to repackage things in a way, if they needed to, over many, many years. We would hope that the student doesn’t have to come back to us every single time they need an official copy of that record.

MMC: The four tenets that I always keep in my head are: validity, integrity, identity, and authority, and they have to be encapsulated in the digital expressions of these credentials.

And we’re going to have to find the right atom size for each one of these credentials, to enable them to be asserted without violating the trust that Tom has just explained. So, I think it’s possible. New platforms like blockchain attempting  to  take the middleware out of that trust relationship is possible. Those kinds of things are being explored, but they’re not soup  yet.

Evo: Is there anything that you would like to add on the topic of introducing digital learning records and helping to proliferate them?

TG: We really think that one of the ways that we might be able to future-proof some of this is to think of every learning experience as an atom. And while an atom can contain different amounts of neutrons and protons and electrons, the structure’s going to be essentially the same. If we can come up with ways to describe every learning experience in a similar way, which it hints at the standard of it, what goes into that? You might put three things in, I might put four, I might put two, but we can interpret our structures. It also, then, allows the learner to repackage those atoms into molecules and compounds forever. If we don’t get granular enough with structures, we will wind up with something that we can’t go back and redo or repackage 10 years from now. So, we’re trying to think of that as we go into this, to allow for long-term flexibility. And that the people who come after us will be much smarter and much more creative than we are, that we won’t have locked this up at a level where they can’t go back and unzip it and do something new and creative with it.


This interview was edited for length and clarity

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