Innovations in pedagogy and technology could revolutionize the records we use to track learning, moving our approach from one of checking off boxes to one connecting the dots. This article highlights promising, cross-cutting technological and pedagogical models that connect the dots toward agile, personalized evidence of learning.
Innovations in online education, competency-based learning, and alternative forms of credentialing have prompted educators to question and reconsider how the value of the education they provide is communicated to internal and external stakeholders. This shift toward personalized learning and agile credentialing requires both technological and pedagogical innovation, much of which is already happening, although often in different divisions on our campuses. In this article we share our current thinking on the challenges of the conventional academic record, provide new frameworks for exploring integrative learning, and highlight promising, cross-cutting technological and pedagogical models that connect the dots toward agile, personalized evidence of learning.
Dot #1: Challenges and Limitations of the Traditional Transcript
"It's just human nature to take time to connect the dots. I know that. But I also know there can be a day of reckoning, when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly."
Among students, it is not uncommon to find a checklist mentality toward choosing classes that fulfill course requirements and offer an easy "A." Systemic institutional conditions can play a significant role in shaping a student approach that can seem more calculated than passionate. To deliver on the promises of personalized learning, it is important to recognize that measurement directs behavior. If course grades and GPAs are our most visible measure of achievement and the key to degree completion, then checking off courses is understandably the behavior we get. Given that an undergraduate education includes more than just a collection of independent, disparate experiences, we need to consider how our institutions support stitching together the individual students' learning. Recent initiatives have advocated for "connecting the dots" through holistic admission practices, integrative learning, and bridging theory to practice.
Traditional academic records have typically focused on the "boxes" of courses, grades, and credit hours that, as part of the curriculum system, are easily observed and formally measured. However, as Randy Bass has identified, the learning that resides in informal environments and the experiential co-curriculum is often more meaningful and memorable to students and alumni — yet their impact is more challenging to document. The limitations of the current academic transcript have been described by Stanford University Registrar Thomas C. Black, who calls it a "record of everything the student has forgotten." This naturally begets the questions "What do students remember?" and "What knowing is meaningful to hold on to?" Is it possible to create an alternate record of learning that calls out the key learning moments, the "dots," that are meaningful to recall and connect over time? See figure 1.
In an effort to advance the conversation beyond just the dots and the lines that connect them, coauthor Lisa Grocott's B'twixt record of meta-learning proposes exploring the interstitial spaces running between the classes, the grade assignments, and the course requirements. If the transcript is a measure of the taught curriculum, what might change if we were to complement that transcript with a record that makes visible the learned curriculum? To support the argument that a liberal arts education is more than the sum of its parts, how might we measure growth differently to increase the visibility of performances that largely go unregistered and give students a new view on their learning journey?
What's intriguing about this approach is the opportunity to examine how we might capture the relationships, the interactions, and the conversations that occur in formal and informal environments, curricular and co-curricular contexts, on campus and off campus, in class and out of class, during an undergraduate education and beyond. In the B'twixt record, annual institutional snapshots, systemic peer feedback, and self-reporting insights are aggregated across courses and over years to surface patterns lost in the granular breakdown of courses
Dot #2: The MESH Model of Integrative Learning
The highest purpose of measurement is to use the data to learn and improve. When we use measurement to verify and report, we undermine the chance for that measurement to facilitate feedback and enhance execution. The transcript, designed as a mechanism for reporting to other institutions, faithfully inventories each and every course during each and every term using measures in the form of grades, credit hours, and units. Missing but needed is a complementary record of learning that supports a purpose-driven approach to higher education, one that is grounded in the potential of learning beyond graduation. The case for higher education favors expansive engagement with ways of participating in the world rather than reductionist approaches focusing domain content knowledge or simple acquisition of vocational skills. Recent research illuminates the correlation between mindset, emotional skills, and habits of perseverance to personal and professional success beyond school and the academy. This research, backed up by economists, is mirrored in the behavior of Fortune 500 companies with their emotional intelligence or quotient (EQ) psychometric tests and Google interviews that privilege demonstrations of how one learns on the fly or practices humility and ownership as a leader.
The interwoven nature of this specific kind of learning is characterized in the term MESH — an acronym for Mindsets, Essential Skills, and Habits. The term references a broad suite of dispositions from Dweck's growth mindset to Costa and Kallick's habits of mind. These attributes are more commonly referred to as non-cognitive skills, soft skills, or social and emotional learning (SEL), yet these terms fail to capture the extent to which this knowing is intrinsically embedded within and throughout formal and informal learning.
There are already signals that MESH knowing will become part of higher education in the future. Still, beyond the policy discussions and curricular innovations it clearly will take significant culture change and interdisciplinary research to advance the MESH concept. We do so by focusing on records of learning — calling out the potential of designing "macroscopes" that can surface the learning that happens b'twixt and between traditional "dots" of formal classes, extra- and co-curricular experiences, and prior learning. Designer John Thackara introduced the term macroscope to describe a tool, antithetical to a microscope, that helps us make sense of, and act mindfully in, the big picture. See figure 2.
Acknowledging MESH knowing allows us to move beyond systems designed to simply track or validate to agile systems that offer data in support of mindful learning, decision making, and future action. Agile, responsive systems are everyday ed-tech speak, yet in the context of learning dashboards and records of learning, institutions must not lose sight of the importance of questioning what data is collected in the first place. These responsive systems promise to provide:
- students with quality formative feedback,
- institutions with 30,000 foot snapshots that promote integrated learning, and
- employers with constructive insights into the capacity of potential hires to be learning lifers.
These three qualities of feedback, integration, and future potential are key to helping the learning ecosystem make sense of the contribution of MESH knowing. If we consider how learning happens in a study abroad context, it becomes apparent the extent to which certain types of learning are traditionally valued and measured over others. A student in Rome simultaneously enhances her academic skills through improving her Italian, builds her intercultural competence as one of the learning outcomes of her program, learns the habit of practicing gratitude to tolerate being homesick, and develops an empathic mindset for non-native speakers once back on campus. Her fluency in Italian may be the only skill she gets a grade and feedback on, and yet the overall lived experience has greatly enhanced the MESH knowing she may draw on long after she has forgotten when to use the imperfect tense.
The importance we place on life-long learning and just-in-time learning reflects a world of rapid change where young people need agility to redirect their abilities in order to keep up with evolving industry needs and new careers. This context tips the emphasis away from the obvious — the knowledge acquired — to the capacity to learn, and to learn quickly, in the future. As Facebook Product Design Director Julie Zhuo explained, in interviews she assesses an individual's potential capacity for future learning by evaluating their ability to be self-aware and proactive. Zhuo argues that the combination of knowing yourself and being prepared to seek out what you don't know undergirds the ability to embrace the challenge of learning in a job. To orient learning toward really teaching students, future records of learning need to include MESH understanding in order to expedite and maximize the transferability of all skills acquired.
Dot #3: Promising Technology-Enhanced Learning and Credentialing Models
"From now on, I'll connect the dots my own way."
—Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes)
Given the growing awareness of the challenges and limitations of the academic transcript and surging interest in investing in more holistic learning design grounded in MESH knowing, the dots in this area are primed for connecting and reconnecting in creative ways. Globally, university, college, and K–12 educators are actively exploring, piloting, and implementing innovative, integrative models for designing learning experiences and tracking, assessing, and analyzing learning. The concept of agile pedagogy focuses on allowing learners to connect their own dots, reconfigure knowledge constellations, recast learning in new ways for a range of situations, transfer competencies across contexts, and shift validation of skills as careers and lives shift. In the field of educational technology, active learning spaces, e-portfolios, MOOCs, and digital badges are examples of agile pedagogy that have the potential to inform holistic, integrative, liberal arts learning as well as practical skill development.
Active Learning Spaces
The conversation on and interest in active learning spaces have exploded in educational technology circles during the past several years. At a basic level, when we say "active" spaces, we are actually talking about spaces that can be reconfigured and adapted to meet the learning needs in specific contexts. In the physical context of technology-augmented classrooms, these environments are not simply backdrops for the content being delivered; they are part of the technological and pedagogical toolkit that instructors draw upon when designing their courses. This conversation also recognizes that spaces will need to continually adapt over time to stay relevant — or, in other words, to be agile. This is a literal, functional interpretation of the term, however. Possibly more interesting are the conversations around blending formal and informal learning contexts, where diverse environments can function as academic classrooms as well as spaces to support co-curricular activities and social interactions. This interpretation of agility aligns more with MESH knowing and the pedagogy of integrative thinking — creating opportunities for students to connect their own dots and blur their own lines — which can happen in a digital space (like an e-portfolio) as well as an agile, active physical learning space such as a classroom, multipurpose learning space, or makerspace.
An e-portfolio is a purposeful collection of evidence which, together with reflections, communicates and represents some aspect about learning. The features of e-portfolios have evolved since the early 2000s and, depending on who you speak to, e-portfolios serve multiple functionalities and audiences as a marketing tool, a pedagogical strategy, a personal archive, and/or an assessment method. Through their creation, e-portfolios can facilitate more personalized, adaptive, portable dot-connecting in the learning process. Ashley Kehoe's reconceiving of the "e" in e-portfolio refers not just to the electronic means by which portfolios are delivered but instead proposes a new framing of the "e" around experience, engagement, and evidence. Interest in e-portfolios has not waned due to their unique capacity to engage students as partners in their own assessment by supporting self-reflection and digital storytelling. These curated collections first and foremost benefit the student, but can also address and inform course and program evaluation considerations by providing more authentic evidence and insights into student learning. Kehoe's redefinition has inspired additional instantiations of the "e," leading to applications of the e-portfolio as a means to demonstrate excellence, a tool for exploration, an approach to empower e-portfolio creators to take ownership of their learning and communicate their personal and professional stories, and a platform to promote equity by recognizing diverse educational and professional pathways.
Another innovation worth exploring in the context of agility and personalization are MOOCs. At first, the hype around MOOCs was all about the "M" — creating classrooms as big as some small countries to expand access to learning and maximize the reach of an instructor's knowledge. In more recent conversations, however, that dialogue has begun to change. Now, as noted by Lauren Maggio, Andrew Saltarelli, and Kevin Stranack, the emphasis seems to have shifted to openness and what that does to learning for both instructors and learners. From a learner standpoint, openness and online delivery allow flexible movement between formal and informal learning opportunities. In theory, a learner can access learning opportunities through MOOCs without the barriers associated with higher education — acceptance, tuition, geography, etc. What we know about MOOC learners demographically provides further evidence that MOOCs might facilitate agile learning more than access. HarvardX has found that over 67 percent of MOOC learners have already achieved a bachelor's degree or higher. Some see this figure as a failure of MOOCs to keep good on their promise to expand access to learning globally, but it could also indicate the potential for MOOCs to foster lifelong learning and build community in open spaces. In this sense, MOOCs meet a demand for more self-directed learning opportunities that can bridge gaps left by formal learning experiences.
Digital badges represent another pedagogical and technological strategy that can facilitate personalized, agile learning design. Unlike conventional academic credits — typically associated with hours spent in class and grades assigned by an instructor — badges are evidence-based and learner-centered. In an ideal digital badge design, a learner has the option to choose which skills, knowledge, or experience he or she would like to earn, and badges can only be earned when linked to concrete evidence that meets specific criteria. As Professor Daniel Hickey of Indiana University noted, this evidence can go beyond just the work completed to also include peer endorsements and comments that reflect its value in the context of the project or course. In this sense, the learning truly is agile and adaptive to authentic student interest. Whereas a traditional college degree is static, a badge is both learner-owned and portable. It can be built upon or applied to new contexts as a learner advances academically, professionally, or even personally. In theory, the metadata associated with a badge could allow for progressive accumulation of evidence to accommodate newly acquired skills and demonstrate a learner's pathway toward mastery.
Dot #4: Recommendations and Models to Consider
"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future."
Each of these innovations is representative of the growing constellation of flexible pathways generating new forms of evidence of learning. There are numerous challenges navigating these multiple pathways in an increasingly diversified educational marketplace, assuring both completion and quality, and creating transparency or common standards that cut across different modes of learning. However, the value and the need for agility in educational providers as well as alternative credentials that are valid and credible in the workplace are critical. More so than ever, the individual learner must maintain ownership of this evidence because no singular program or institution possesses an accurate and complete record of these diverse experiences.
Many of our institutions are tackling these challenges by implementing variations of the technology-enhanced pedagogy models shared here. Some especially compelling models combine and reconfigure them to create a multisystem approach to agile, integrative, personalized learning, such as Dartmouth's Introduction to Italian Opera course on the edX platform, which used badging to promote social learning in a MOOC environment. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design's exploration of the future of undergraduate education, Stanford 2025, featured the "provocation" of flipping the university to one where skills and competencies became the organizing foundation, rather than knowledge domains. The transcript reflected this paradigm shift by transitioning into a skill-print, a representation resembling a heat map proposed as a "unique, living artifact of competencies" that visually communicates to employer stakeholders a student's ability to learn and adapt.
While the prototype of the skill-print might be aspirational, the focus on evolving conventional approaches to documenting learning is currently being pursued by 12 diverse two-year and four-year institutions who are developing innovative models of a more holistic and comprehensive student record in an initiative led by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) and NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education with support from the Lumina Foundation. Instead of creating independent and context-free record silos, these student records will incorporate in the record itself learning outcomes, competencies, and co-curricular and extra-curricular experiences.
Across higher education, time, people, and resources are devoted to foster innovations in teaching and learning, such as high-impact practices and other initiatives aimed at designing educational experiences that equip all college graduates with the intellectual and practical knowledge and capacities necessary to succeed and thrive in today's global society. Our institutional records should reflect these significant investments and communicate to external and internal stakeholders — policymakers, accrediting bodies, parents, and the graduates themselves — the value and worth of their degree and their education. While more innovation is needed in both how we assess and document learning, advances in data visualization and graphical representations suggest that future representations of the academic record need not be limited to dots, lines, text, grades, and credit hours.
Helen L. Chen is the director of ePortfolio Initiatives in the Office of the Registrar and a research scientist in the Designing Education Lab in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. She is a co-founder of EPAC, an e-portfolio community of practice, and serves as the co-director for Research and board member for the Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL). Her current research interests and scholarship focus on engineering and entrepreneurship education; the pedagogy of portfolios and reflective practice in higher education; and reimagining and redesigning traditional academic records.
Lisa H. Grocott is a professor of Design at Monash University, Australia, and director of THRVNG, a co-design research lab. Before recently returning to Melbourne, Grocott spent the past 12 years at Parsons School of Design in New York. She collaborates with learning scientists from psychology, neuroscience, and education to design research experiments that have social impact in the classroom and partners with universities on speculative design projects that explore the future(s) of higher education. She regularly publishes on design research and is currently a co-chief investigator on a federally funded research grant into teacher change and innovative learning through the University of Melbourne.
Ashley L. Kehoe leads the Experiential Learning Initiative at Dartmouth College and co-chairs a cross-functional committee exploring the development and implementation of holistic learning records. Prior to joining the teaching and learning team at Dartmouth, Kehoe served as the e-portfolio program manager at Loyola University Chicago and participated in the design of Loyola’s four-year plan for student transformation. She holds a master's degree in Higher Education from Loyola University Chicago and was recently accepted to Antioch University's PhD in Leadership and Change. She will begin her studies as a doctoral student this summer. For more information, visit her professional portfolio.
© 2016 Helen L. Chen, Lisa H. Grocott, and Ashley L. Kehoe. This EDUCAUSE Review article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International.