Thursday, August 24, 2023

Transcripts for the 21st Century

When I start a new academic job, I need to prove that I actually have a PhD. I have to log in my MIT alumni page, pay my $10 and they email my graduate transcript to whomever, all to verify that one bit of information. Why don't I just have a digitally signed certificate I can just hand over?

Our CS department spends an inordinate amount of time looking through transcripts of accepted Masters students to determine if they the right prerequisites for various classes. Great if could automate this process but the transcript come in PDF or JPEG and don't have a standardized format, especially from foreign countries. Also a course name does not give enough information to know what it covers. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education did a forum on The Transcript of the Future, and maybe some solutions to these problems on the horizon. Here are three potential future trends and an elephant in the room.


Since I went to school, transcripts have moved from paper to PDF. PDFs work for humans to look at, but don't work well to feed into computers to allow for better analysis. Transcripts should move to a structure format, perhaps JSON, to make them readable to machines. It's easy to go from JSON to PDF but less easy in the other direction. 

To make this work you need a standards so each university's transcript doesn't use a different format. Some standards are in the works but this doesn't seem quite settled yet, as best I can figure out from Internet searching.


Once you go digital you can add much more information. You can add a syllabus, the topics a course covers, not just its title. You can add competencies, credentials, certificates, projects and skills achieved. You can add student's activities such as internships, athletics, clubs, leadership roles. You can give grad schools and companies a much fuller picture of a student beyond the grades.

The more stuff we stick into a transcript, the more standards you need to make sense of it. 


Who owns the transcript? Right now it is the university, that's why I have to pay $10 for MIT to send it out. But why not in some common database, or on a blockchain, or a file owned by an individual with all the proper technology so it can't be forged. There are privacy and security issues that we would need to figure out. You don't want a student to lose access to a transcript because they lost a password, the way many have lost cryptocurrency. 

Artificial Intelligence

If we do have access to standardized digital transcripts, there will be the temptation to outsource to AI decision making related to them, such as job interviews (already happening) and grad admissions. We can use AI responsibly to help in the process but we need to remember that all these students are individuals and we need people to judge the people behind them.

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