How to Connect K-12 and Higher-Ed With Structured Data

How to Connect K-12 and Higher-Ed With Structured Data


Indiana high school seniors will have a significant advantage when they apply for college this year. Nearly every high school in Indiana is now prepared to deliver transcripts as structured data files, not plain old paper, to the majority of the state’s colleges for admissions.

Sound boring? In reality, it’s a big idea. And Indiana is first in the nation.

Sponsored by the Indiana Department of Education and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE), the Indiana Common Transcript Initiative data transcript initiative enables a statewide electronic exchange of standards-compliant data. More than 360 high schools will be participating in the initiative. Twelve of the 14 public universities are participating in some capacity. Accredited non-public universities can opt into the program. Stakeholders, among which were the Department of Education, colleges, Parchment, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) and high schools, worked together to define the common data elements and formats required by colleges and universities. They then coordinated integration with 15 student information systems and set up colleges to be able to receive that structured data. The result: more information, more automation and streamlined admissions.

Because technology adoption in higher education tends to move slowly and instrumentally, Indiana’s achievement is years in the making with a number of milestones along the way. In fact, the first white paper outlining the benefits of electronic transcript was published in 1997. At first, educational organizations moved slowly from paper to digital, preferring to send PDF images of transcripts rather than machine-readable data. Now, in Indiana and elsewhere, the shift to data is accelerating, opening up a number of doors in the process.

Two years ago, Reid Hoffman, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of LinkedIn, laid out a vision for the future of academic credentials. At the heart of that vision was the availability of credentials as machine-readable data, the key to his conception of a “certification platform.” Here, students, educators and employers can connect and share a more robust, updatable record of a learner’s skills and competencies,.

Kevin Carey, higher education analyst and director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, concurs that information technology is poised to transform college degrees. He envisions a system of standardized, verifiable digital credentials issued by any number of organizations, not just traditional academia, that provide more information to employers and postsecondary schools. Cases in point: Mozilla’s Open Badges project and Coursera, a for-profit MOOC platform.

Today, with Indiana’s statewide collaboration, we can begin to imagine the world that Hoffman, Carey and education policymakers like the ICHE’s Ken Sauer have outlined. While the near-term benefits relate to efficiency in admissions, it’s the future implications that make this idea big. With the delivery of structured data, I see two broader implications for the long term, as its adoption becomes a more national phenomenon: enhancing inter-institutional communication and empowering the learner.

First, as high schools and postsecondary institutions nationwide work together to determine common data points, there is potential to spark a discussion about what data is available and what data is needed. This is vital not just to evaluate admissions but to advise students more successfully through their postsecondary degree pathway.

With a paper transcript, often limited to a few pages, one size must fit all. But once we are talking about structured data, the possibilities expand . Take, for example, how freshmen are placed into first-year courses. It’s as if we forgot all the data collected in admissions and we treat students as strangers, requiring them to take a placement exam. , these exams, however, are only one measure.

With data—years of math taken, math level, and math achievement—we know more about the student, all of which can result in better placement. Data also enables high schools to extend their transcripts to report extracurricular and other key activities. These paint a broader picture of a student’s experience, including study abroad, internships and research programs.

In response, colleges can communicate back to high schools on how students performed in college courses, based on the high school courses they took and how they performed in them. So, now high schools will have new intelligence about what courses students need to be successful at a university.

Structured data is all about empowering the learner, providing information in a more effective and useful format. Many consumers take for granted the ability to download their credit card statement as data, or their bank account records. More commonly, we can count on various websites to speak to each other behind the scenes – for example, enabling Mint to draw data from Chase Bank, enabling additional personal finance tools and insights. In a world of apps and Web services, the ability to access portable data is critical.

Similarly, learners in Indiana now can imagine taking greater control of their records and using their academic data to access new apps and Web services. For example, an app might help high school students better understand the relationship between courses taken, achievements in those courses and admissions outcomes at institutions. Or, as Hoffman suggests, to augment a student’s LinkedIn profile.

While we all too often knock education for not embracing technology fast enough, we also have to take stock when we do make progress. The advances in Indiana compel us to work toward a time in the future where every state and every student has the benefit of structured data. Although the timescale of change in academia should not be underestimated, I can hope that if it took us from 1997 to 2015 to get to this point, it will take half the time for other states to begin to follow, bringing these and many other applications to light.

Matt Pittinsky is the CEO of Parchment

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