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The higher education community is buzzing with innovative learner records that could replace traditional transcripts. While AACRAO supports these advancements, there’s a crucial element to consider: trust.

There is a good deal of information and momentum in the higher education community related to the new types of learner records that propose to replace the traditional transcript. At AACRAO, we are all in favor of innovations that improve the expression of learning. The badges, CLRs, LERs and all the other variations of the digital expression of credentials are great steps forward, but it’s important to consider: Are they trustworthy? After all, a learning record is most valuable when it is trusted to contain accurate and verifiable information about what it asserts.

Do We Trust Transfer?

Do we trust our institutional information? Do the learning records and information that we produce contain accurate, verifiable and useful information? That lies at the heart of the matter, and evidence seems to indicate using the current records and practices does not. If they did, the transfer of academic credit would be seamless. The seemingly hubristic insistence that each institution knows better than the other stands squarely in the path of progress here. Or does it?

Part of the challenge may be the learner record itself. It’s a problem of information asymmetry. The credential issuer is most likely not transmitting (via the transcript) information that sufficiently meets all three benchmarks for fostering trust: accuracy, verifiability and usefulness.

Creating a Stronger Interinstitutional Trust Framework

So how can we ensure that innovation in credentials to facilitate learner mobility enhances trust? Credit goes to educational innovator Michael Feldstein for surfacing some of these topics in his eLiterate blog. One approach is to explore competency as a bridge to trust. In his book Students First, Paul LeBlanc points to competencies as a potential answer to this conundrum:

“Universities do not trust competencies … When students seek to transfer from one institution to another, they provide their new institution with a transcript. But because learning, teaching, and rigor are so variable; grades so untrustworthy; and perceived institutional quality so uneven, universities are often reluctant to grant full credit for learning the students have done at other institutions. For the 37 percent of students who transfer between colleges at least once, this failure to fully count credit hours adds considerable cost to the completion of a degree, often for those who can ill afford it.”

Thus the case for competency-based learner records is driven by the need for strengthening the “trust framework.” The starting point is to systematically answer the questions LeBlanc poses in Students First. He suggests that competencies are a better framework for establishing a trust framework. He reminds us,

These are the two fundamental questions at the heart of a competency-based education:

  • What claims do you make for your students in terms of what they will know and be able to do upon graduation?
  • How do you know?

If the answers to these questions are rigorously defined, which LeBlanc takes great pains to explain would be no easy task, then learners and institutions would both benefit because transfer credits would become simpler, more objective, and more predictable. If we agree on the competencies and assessments, then a student passing the agreed-upon assessment should receive credit. Little discussion or judgment should be required.

We, here at AACRAO, are big fans of competency-based education. The point isn’t so much about promoting a style of education, but rather documenting learning in ways that better equip learners to understand education’s applicability to their futures and provide receivers (institutions and employers) with trusted information allowing them to make sound and equitable decisions. Information symmetry fosters trust and enables both equity and mobility.

Enabling Mobility Fosters Equity

Perhaps we should broaden our understanding by agreeing that learning mobility (and thus true learner mobility) is really what we’re after.

AACRAO has defined this as a learner-centered innovation, where systems, processes, programs and initiatives must be designed around the needs and best interests of the learner of today and the future at every stage of their journey. Our approach is rooted in equitable outcomes that enable social and economic mobility for people with varying abilities, preparation and skills. The creation of such an ecosystem requires a commitment to technical and semantic interoperability and open standards and will ultimately help higher education regain public trust.

The current momentum toward new, shorter, directed credentials requires an expansion of the trust framework, from which the traditional transcript and degrees can benefit. Transfer of academic credit via the traditional transcript is the current dominant vehicle to accomplish mobility. By creating a stronger interinstitutional trust framework based on more rigorous, more granular competencies that are well assessed and well expressed, institutions (and employers) can more readily accept the demonstrated learning that occurs, regardless of where it happened.

So, while systems and technology are critical to the success of credit mobility, they must be designed to ask and answer questions about the claims and proof of education. A driving force behind our work at AACRAO is trying to address the ecosystem challenges related to making learning count because our members—with registrars documenting learning and issuing its artifacts and admissions operations evaluating said artifacts—stand at the front lines. It’s not a new challenge, but it will require innovative thinking quite different from the norms of today’s academic practice. It will also require serious institutional and professional self-reflection on the transcript and related processes of moving academic information that can be trusted.

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