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Universities face profiles challenge

Representatives including principals and registrars from many UK universities attended a special event last week on the subject of transcripts and personal development planning in UK education.

The event was arranged by The Centre For Recording Achievement (CRA), and supported by CETIS, Universities UK, SROC and SCOP. With around one hundred delegates in attendance, the event was substantially over-subscribed according to the organisers, indicating a strong interest in the subject across the UK.

Ivor Crewe, vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, kicked off the event with an introduction to the Progress File. Recommended by Dearing in the National Inquiry into Higher Education, the Progress File incorporates in a "common format" the transcript of a learner's achievement at University together with records of personal development created through a personal development planning (PDP) process.

Progress File benefits students, employers and institutions

The Progress File would provide a more detailed view of the value added by a University to a learner's education, and allow learners to provide a more detailed and authoritative record of their achievements when applying to other institutions or to employers.

The PDP element of the Progress File provides a means to document skills acquired by the learner outside their degree subject, for example in the Students' Union, sports clubs, and other activities. This gives a more rounded, skills-oriented view of the learner more in keeping with the current focus on personal skill development rather than module content.

This expanded approach to recording achievement can be beneficial to non-traditional students, including mature students and those from different backgrounds and has been welcomed by the National Union of Students (NUS).

Crewe admits that there has been some "initial resistance" to the progress file from employers, largely concerning its perceived complexity. However, taken together with traditional CV's and letters of applications, the Progress File "could provide [employers with] a greater balance between objective and subjective candidate information."

Peter Rees Jones of the University of Leeds adds that, "I don't think we'd expect students to give employers a copy of their progress File; rather students use it as a quarry from which they can extract material for letters of application and evidence for interviews; so far as employers are concerned its a means to an end; students who can describe their skills; rather than an end in itself."

For learners, the PDP provides a means to reflect on the learning experiences they have had, and to identify the skills they have learned. For students contemplating leaving a course, it provides a means of evaluating both their and their institution's performance before making an informed choice something that may benefit retention in a time of tremendous financial pressure for learners.

Consultative Document shows way forward on interoperability

The Consultative Document put forward at the event provides a detailed view of the technical and policy implications for the Progress File.

An important element of the document is the mapping of the Progress File information model to the IMS Learner Information Package (LIP) specification, as was explained at the event by Paul Drummond of the University of Newcastle, who also provided an interesting example of how transcripts and PDP may operate.

If implemented, this would provide a means of achieving interoperability of the Progress File, using the existing IMS specification (and XML binding) together with a set of common extensions defined for the UK.

This could save a great deal of time on the technical implementation, as the information models and bindings for LIP are already publicly available. The CRA have already identified the extensions required in the Consultative Document, the first step towards a UK implementation of LIP.

There are some outstanding issues that need to be addressed, however, and the event provided delegates with the opportunity to raise some important questions.

For example, delegates raised the issue of recording failure in a transcript, or incomplete modules, and whether any credit is awarded. While some policy guidelines suggest that the transcript should include non-completion as well as achievement, different regions are developing different strategies.

There is also the question of how learners will be able to link back to evidence of achievement; for example, the description of a module or unit of study is likely to change after the student leaves, so how could this information be made available if requested?

Likewise, if a former student uses a piece of courseware in their evidence, and the University removes or revises it, will this invalidate their profile? This is an issue that was also raised in the IMS working group on Digital Repositories in San Francisco in November.

Dr Jane Tory, Academic Registrar at Sheffield Hallam University, pointed out the "huge variability of practice" in the sector. For this reason the consultative document was intended to be inclusive of diverse practice rather than a prescription for all institutions.

Questions of ownership

One interesting feature of the Progress File is its dual nature. The Transcript is clearly a record by an institution of a learner's performance, and 'owned' by that institution. The PDP, however, is something more specific to the learner's experiences in a variety of environments, and may be largely 'owned' by the learner themselves.

This boundary between what is institutionally owned and what is personally owned is one of the areas open for debate within the profiles community, and was one of the key points in a presentation by Angela Smallwood of the University of Nottingham.

Ownership is particularly important when it comes to disclosure of information: what discretion does the learner have in providing access to their profile?

For example, some of the content of a progress file may be accessibility information to allow universities to adjust modes of assessments or to compensate marking. The consensus is that such information should always be at the discretion of the learner to make public. However, for other types of information in the profile the decision may not be so easy to decide. This is where best-practice guidelines would be beneficial.

The European approach

Stephen Adam of the University of Westminster brought to delegates notice an important development within Europe that may fundamentally change the landscape.

The European Diploma Supplement (EDS) is a Europe-wide certificate intended to provide learner mobility within Europe.

Part of the Bologna Declaration to create a "higher education area" within Europe by 2010, the EDS is one of the tools intended to promote a free market for education.

A number of countries in Europe are implementing EDS, some providing a legal requirement to do so. One of the key questions raised is the attitude of the United Kingdom: according to Adam, the UK Government is proposing to incorporate the Bologna Declaration into law. In this case, will it also become a legal requirement for UK universities to issue EDS's?

Quite understandably, many delegates want to see more information on this development before committing time and budgets to including EDS in the Progress File implementation.

In the meantime, the Consultative Document provides a mapping from the UK Transcript and the IMS LIP specification to the EDS, and identifies a small number of additional fields that would be needed in the progress file to allow EDS documents to be issued.

In many ways the Progress File specification is more advanced than the EDS, which in many of its implementations in Europe is simply a paper document handed to students when they leave an institution. EDS does not support the PDP element of the Progress File, which makes it more of a traditional certification document.

More direction needed

Although the overall tone of the event was very positive, the need was highlighted for a clearer direction to be given for Universities implementing the Progress File. While guidance material is already available (on the QAA website, for example) some delegates were unclear as to whether the Progress File was mandatory, and who was driving the process across the sector.

The initial recommendation for the Transcript component of the Progress File to be adopted by 2003 caused concern in some institutions. This is because they may not be able to generate a complete transcript until a complete 'cohort' has progressed through the institution with a more complete recording process that takes into account grades for individual modules. This could make it impossible for those institutions to generate Transcripts before 2005.

However, a straw poll of institutions found that the majority were recording learner achievement in sufficient detail, and the major factors affecting them were the time and costs associated with upgrading their systems.

Colin Smythe, a consultant with the IMS Global Learning Consortium, was one of the delegates, and posed the final, perhaps pivotal, question of the day: What is the process that takes us to a solution?

There were no clear-cut answers to this question, but this event itself was perhaps a step in the right direction.

To view the consultative document, click here (367k).

For more information, visit the Centre For Recording Achievement website.

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