It’s not often the words imagination and innovation are used in the context of transcripts, or anything related to most registrar offices. I was lucky this past month to attend the Registrar Forum at the AACRAO  Technology Conference, and in the closing session, Tom Black, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs and University Registrar at Stanford made me remember how powerful thinking outside the box can be, especially for something I take for granted: a student’s transcript.
Like many Registrars, I came to this profession through a work-study gig. I worked simultaneously in my college IT Help Desk and Registrar’s Office, two offices with different orientations to student computing, but also a lot of overlap. When I was a freshman in the late 1990s, online services under one administrative umbrella were rare, and Wesleyan pioneered electronic portfolios as a wrap-around to most student computing services on campus. While I still think of the e-portfolio as a portal with another name, Tom Black’s presentation made me realize the synergy between the two concepts, and how portfolios can enhance the academic transcript.
What is a transcript? If transcripts are generated from a database, why are registrar offices printing them out and putting them in an envelope, only to be scanned by a prospective employer or student applying for graduate school? How can employers compare transcripts from different institutions with different levels of grade inflation, different ways of counting course units or credits, and one chemistry section taught by a famous researcher, and one taught by a graduate student (note, I’m not saying which section is “better” or taught the student more, just that they might be very different classes) Does anyone read the transcript key? For all the time and effort that goes into curricular renewal, revised distribution requirements, and other educational outcomes for students, how much are those benchmarks or outcomes reflected on the transcript?
Black presented one possible future – a dynamic, hyperlinked PDF transcript that promises a more full depiction of the student academic experience, with course numbers linked to course descriptions already available online in the course bulletin, (the better to articulate transfer credit), faculty names linked to faculty bios, and course titled linked to actual syllabi.
But why stop at linking disparate administrative web pages? If a faculty member returns an exceptionally good paper to the student with comments, why not link that paper, with comments? Suddenly the transcript is starting to look a lot like a portfolio. A portfolio with a full picture of the students’ abilities, complete with digital artifacts and the context to interpret them may be more meaningful to some prospective employers and graduate admissions than a single page of courses and grades with no context. As storage costs decrease, and institutions try to stay connected to alumni, hosting a complete digital portfolio may benefit multiple departments, as well as the students.
Like most ideas thought up by administrators, the true test to moving forward with a dynamic portfolio built around a student’s academic career will be buy-in from students. At Wesleyan, the electronic portfolio became a portal because students did not use it to reflect on their learning, only to register for classes and pay their bills. Integration between the transcript and academic will hinge on the participation of the library, the faculty, and a forward-thinking IT and registrar’s office. However far off the reality of such a richly developed transcript is, it gives me hope that registrars will start thinking imaginatively not just about transcripts, but about all other aspects of our job.
New Haven, Connecticut in the USA
Heather Alderfer is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus  and is an Associate Registrar at Yale Law School.