10/25/2013 09:59 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Can MOOCs Revolutionize the College Transcript?

This rise of the MOOC has spurred a reexamination of many entrenched higher education practices, such as the typical college course and how it's taught. MOOCs and other forms of nontraditional learning may have an even larger effect on the nature of diplomas and transcripts. People's perceptions about what education is and what kinds of learning experiences matter are changing. The idea that learning occurs in many different environments -- and that out-of-classroom experiences are just as valuable as in-classroom ones -- is becoming more widely accepted. The question now is how to collect these diverse experiences into a meaningful representation of that newly acquired knowledge.

The traditional college transcript is particularly unsuited for this task. It lists the courses completed and how people performed. But it says little about what someone actually learned or what a person knows. For example, young college students are eager to show their skills, signaling what separates them from the rest of the large pool of recent grads, especially in a very challenging job market. But there's nowhere to put all of that additional learning on a traditional transcript. There's no place to put all the online courses taken, the books read, or even other learning experiences like an apprenticeship. The resume won't suffice because, by necessity, it's only one page and serves an entirely different purpose, to show work experience, not what someone knows. The skills and knowledge someone has should not be relegated to a few short lines at the bottom of the page.

George Siemens, who along with Stephen Downes ran the first MOOC in 2008, recently told the Globe and Mail that he thinks we might be moving toward a "portfolio model of learning." In this model, all learning experiences will count, and the result may be a new type of transcript that combines all of them, no matter where they take place. As Siemens said in the article, "A transcript might say that someone is proficient in a certain topic area, but it won't matter whether that has been learned through their personal hobbies, workplace learning, or at school."

Digital portfolios have been around for a while as a way for students to showcase their learning, and they are used often in online courses. Digital badges are also becoming popular as ways to demonstrate proficiency in a single area, but they are highly modularized and don't provide an overall picture of one's learning.

The idea of collecting all of one's knowledge and skills, regardless of where they are acquired, into a single meaningful credential is relatively new. There is currently no consensus yet about what that credential might look like. In the area of MOOCs themselves, there is debate over how someone gets credit as well as how a MOOC itself becomes accredited. What we need is something that takes courses, digital badges, and other forms of modularized learning and puts them into a coherent whole.

Siemens's reimagined transcript is one idea, and one way of implementing it is offered by Degreed, which tracks formal courses, informal learning, and more. Degreed is among several other new startups trying to meet the demand for a new type of diploma with the rise of nontraditional, particularly online, forms of learning. As these new forms of learning becoming more acceptable to both educators and employers, the college transcript will also require transformation.