TRANSCRIPT: The Fall of Letter Grades & the Rise of Comprehensive Learner Records (feat. Bruce Umpstead from IMS Global Learning Consortium)
2:45PM Sep 29, 2021
It's really kind of exciting to see the shift that we're about to experience in the next three to five years, where our student information systems, which are really our bedrock, record keeping system, are going to be able to record competencies and reflect those in ways that are meaningful to the community, right? The community understands A's, B's, C's, and D's, but they don't really understand the idea of measuring experience and ability because they didn't get it when they were in school. And so we really do need our record keeping systems to be reflecting that. And then higher ed and the workforce need to be consuming those comprehensive learner records those competencies and asking for them. That's what we found when we did a test project here in Michigan. That most employers weren't even asking for the high school transcript. So, we spend 13 years and you build an excellent record, or in my case, maybe a mediocre record, and you give them the transcript, and it didn't mean anything to any of the employers that we talked to.
I'm Nikki Herta and this is BRIGHT: Stories of Hope and Innovation in Michigan Classrooms, a podcast where we celebrate our state's educators and explore the future of learning.
Many leaders in education believe there are better ways to represent a student's journey through their K-12 education than the traditional transcript, which typically depicts achievement to letter grades such as A's, B's, C's, etc. What might a richer representation of a student's learning look like? What would it take for us to get there? In today's episode, I chat with Bruce Umpstead, director of statewide programs for IMS Global Learning Consortium, who explains what comprehensive learner records are, a concept that's gaining traction and state education programs across the nation, and why these digital transcripts might be crucial to building a competency-based future.
Alright, well to kick off, the question that I usually start with is, what is it that drew you to education in the first place? And how did that journey lead you to where you are today?
Yeah. So surprisingly, I've had my entire career in education technology, but formerly being in K-12, started in 2004, when I worked, went to work for Michigan State University, as a project director for math science partnership with the College of Education, College of Natural Science, and so on. So that was my first foray into formal public education in Michigan. That job was excellent. I enjoyed it. Yeah, there's some challenges working between higher education and K-12. The second year, I was there, second full year, I picked up online course at Lansing Community College and actually took Michigan Virtual's online instructor training the certification program. Then, I taught managerial finance, which is my background actually. I'm a recovering cost accountant. But that surprisingly qualified me of when the first and only posting of the Michigan State Education Technology Director position came up with the Michigan Department of Education. So, I was the Dark Horse candidate. I guess it got down to two people, and they were either going to have somebody retire in from Iowa or me, this brash, 36 or 37 year-old. And Mike Flanagan was a superintendent at the time, and he had gotten his first real administrator job at 37. So, he gave me a shot. And so yeah, in 2007, January, I joined the Michigan Department of Education, and that was really my big entry into K-12 public education.
So, what was it that really drew you to education technology? In the sense of like, what do you love about it? What is the promise and the potential that you saw there that you wanted to pursue?
I love education technology because it seems like every day we get up, and we work hard, we actually can change the system. And most of the challenges that we see in public education aren't the people. It's the system that we have to work in.
Very cool. So it's almost like technology is the the tool of choice to transform the system from the top-down.
One concept that I've heard others associate with you is comprehensive learner records. And I was just wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what these are for somebody who might not know and what the big deal is. How does this sort of system benefit K-12 students?
I left the department in 2013 to facilitate my family sabbatical. We had always wanted the kids to go to a school system in San Diego called High Tech High, which we've become very passionate about. What they they do a "deeper learning" approach, but it's a competency-based approach. The founder really explained why they didn't call it "competency" at the time, and why they're really leading the "deeper learning" movement here. It's the idea that you you find the passion of the student and link it to the subject matter, as opposed to trying to stoke the passion of the student for the subject matter.
So my kids really took to that. My oldest daughter who's now graduated and is fully employed. Yay. She really took to this and was getting A's and B's in the program, where in the more traditional classes, she was not an A or B student. Same thing with my youngest, who is now studying art and product design, which is totally what High Tech High did. So, the kids got to go there for a year, and I got to see how it made a difference in the students' lives. It was 45% free and reduced lunch, and my children were definitely deep into the minority with Hispanic and Latino and Asian Pacific students. It was a great experience for all of us, so I came back to Michigan as a consultant. Since I had worked at the state of Michigan, I realized all of our student information systems were standards -based and grades-based. And technically a standard is just part of a competency, right? It's what should be known. It's not the experience or the ability, which a competency actually measures. So when you look at it, our student information systems kind of lock us into this paradigm of grades, and lock us in the paradigm of standards-based because that's what we hold schools accountable for. Our standards are really kind of flat.
So, I started pursuing that, and that led me to IMS Global, where I actually work full-time now. It was called "extended transcripts" at the time, and now it's called "comprehensive learner record." I joined the team full-time as director of statewide programs in 2018with a passion of really promoting competency-based education and then supporting the record systems that we need to reflect those competencies in our grade books. And it's really kind of exciting to see the shift that we're about to experience in the next three to five years, where our student information systems, which are really our bedrock record-keeping systems, are going to be able to record competencies and reflect those in ways that are meaningful to the community, right? The community understands A's, B's, C's and D's. They don't really understand the idea of measuring experience and ability because they didn't get that when they were in school. So, we really do need our record systems to be reflecting that. Then, in higher ed and the workforce need to be consuming those comprehensive learner records those competencies and asking for them. That's what we found when we did a test project here in Michigan, that the the most employers weren't even asking for the high school transcript. So, you spend 13 years and you build an excellent record, or in my case, maybe a mediocre record, and you give them the transcript, and it didn't mean anything to any of the employers that we talked to. So, what we're hoping with a comprehensive learner record is that there can be meaning and in the grades in the competencies in the activities that come across.
So, a comprehensive learning record is a standard, not a software, which does frustrate some people. It's how you publish the learning record, individually for each student. And then if you build the software correctly, using the standard, you can put all sorts of learning records into a comprehensive learner record. We're seeing the most traction in the professional certification of teachers, because, you know, teachers have to maintain their licensure and certification over time. And that has always been what's called a "shoe box exercise." Again, going back to my cost accounting days, you would throw all the receipts of from your PD in a box and then five years from now when you have to go for licensure or certification, you pull those out. Adn when I was at the department, we were trying to clean that up. And more and more, these licensing systems realize that if they had a document style, which is a comprehensive learning record, for all of this PD, then it's much easier to put into a portfolio and show the teacher's progress or maintenance of their certification and licensure. So we're seeing a lot of progress in K-12 for that, and then we're hoping more and more states more and more districts will start using comprehensive learner records for documenting student learning at the classroom level. And then hopefully, at the transcript level.
Yeah, you mentioned High Tech High set it.
I love that name. It sounds the name of a Netflix series. You know, like the superhero kids that went to High Tech High or something.
But the funny thing is High Tech High was low tech.
Oh, well. . .
No, seriously. We went out there and they were one-to-one, but the computers weren't sitting on the desks. The computers came out when they had to do projects. They were using PowerSchool and Google Docs. I mean, it wasn't all the latest technology, but where they had invested was that they had Photoshop, for examples, in one of the engineering classes which taught both science and math at the same time. I love the one class, they had to move away from it, but it was called "calculicious," where the art teacher and the calculus teacher would collaborate, and they'd create these beautiful pictures representing what calculus was. They didn't move too far away from this, but they started producing comic books in the calculus class. And eery student at High Tech High took calculus, which if start thinking about that. . . And then when it showed up on their vanilla transcript, they just said A, B, C, etc. They knew the college was still only going to accept the letter grade, so that the school stepped in for the innovation.
So yeah, any student that did well at High Tech High could go to anywhere they wanted. My oldest daughter would say, "One friend of mine, she's at Stanford now and blah blah blah blah." My kid went to the right school. She went to Central Michigan University. She's got a great job in sales, who knew, but yeah, High Tech High stood behind their student. The universities and colleges accepted that, and they had an incredible acceptance rate and completion rate. And if we could provide that to more of our students and public education, that'd be great. And I might not be working on the front end of that in the classroom, but behind the scenes, I'm hopefully contributing to make it easier to build and track by competency and promote students based on their passion and ability.
I really liked the way you describe it. Err, well, it sounds like High Tech High describes this as "deeper learning," and you kept comparing that to the concept of "flatness," right? A flat standard. . .
Yeah, flat standard. So there's three balls in a competency: Knowledge, activity, and experience, right? The ability and experience, at High Tech High, really, you could map all of those. We took a group out there to do that, and we had this person come in and they start talking. I wasn't paying attention at the beginning, and I had to stop him and ask, "What class you're teaching?" Because they kept talking about urban farming, which you would think is science or biology, right? But it was for English language arts, but all of their projects involved hands-on urban farming. But they had figured that out because that was the teacher's passion, and they got the kids involved in that passion. Then, they had the kids write about their passion. When it shows up on that flat transcript, it says "ELA," you know, in their grades. But the chances are that grades will be higher because the students are engaged. Then, because it's High Tech High, and they send the transcript to the college or university, the university knows what they're getting. They favor that student and because they're delivering equity. There's nothing wrong with that, right? Every every kid gets a shot. So, you can tell I'm obviously still very passionate about it. And I do think every day that I'm working on that, just from behind the scenes.
Well, it's nice to have that example of what to envision. It's cool that your daughter got to experience it. Actually, I can't remember if you said "daughter" or "children."
Daughters. Two., Yeah,
Two, okay. So it's like two dimensional on the paper, right? Versus how do you represent this three-dimensional, like really rich educational experience? Yes. super neat, so that's great.
And she's dealing with that everyday right now. Her top metric is how many calls she made or how many meetings she scheduled. But she's like, you know, I'm she's average, great on that. But she decided to tie it to how many dollars it makes the company. This is a 22-year-old. So you're like, wow, you know how to represent your contribution to the organization in meaningful ways. Those are some of the things I think she picked up from that one year in San Diego.
So what would be an example of this? If I were a 12th-grade student, what might my transcript look like? Just a completely hypothetical example.
Well, if you lived in North Dakota, you would actually have a comprehensive learner record transcript. So they're pulling all the data out of Powerschool, which is a very prominent student information system, and they're putting it into a comprehensive learner record, and that would probably come across as your transcript. But let's say that you went to CTE as well, and you studied business or you studied food services or something like that. If you lived in Idaho, they would issue a badge for completing that CTE credit. Well, that badge can be put into a comprehensive learner record. And then, in North Dakota, you're given a digital wallet that you have on your phone that has all of these records. So here's your transcript. In the future, the dream would be each of your courses would be its own little record, but you'd have your transcript, and then you'd have all your CTE credits. But oh, you also worked for the bakery, and they gave you a record of your service of your work record that can be turned into a comprehensive learner record given to your wallet. Then, when your employer or college asks for specific details on your lifelong learning, you can edit that kind of like your resume, and put it into a format, and send it to that employer or to that college.
That's really neat. I've heard it described before as kind of like a LinkedIn profile for students or a resume. But yeah, it makes a whole lot of sense. It really does. And I can see how that would provide more qualitative data, rather than just getting an A, B, C, or D.
I can tell you that in the next five years, this will be a major thrust for many of the learning platforms that we use right now: To document the learning for each individual student. So that's the core of comprehensive learner record: You document the learning for each individual student. You can still have your state reports, you can still have your district level reports, and you can look in the aggregate at trends and things like that. But this is a way to support each individual learner as they move through the system.
I'm Nikki Herta and you're listening to BRIGHT, a podcast that's made possible by Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit organization that's leading and collaborating to build learning environments for tomorrow. Today, I'm chatting with Bruce Umpstead, director of statewide programs for IMS Global Learning Consortium. Up next, we chat about digital badging, the future of learning analytics, and what advice Bruce has for teachers interested in learning more about how to apply these concepts in their classrooms.
I'm interested in the concept of digital credentials.. So, I'm wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about that, and what role they play in this kind of vision you're describing with the comprehensive learner records?
The vision to tie it back to digital credentials is that you can build it into a competenc. You issue a badge that the student information system can track, right. And for the student that gives them an additional reward. It really is like the Boy Scout's or Girl Scout's badge. It's recognition for that achievement, a discrete element of knowledge that they developed that "English 101A" doesn't necessarily say. But, you know, maybe. . .
"I can write a thesis statement." etc.
Are the badges designed to be visual?
Yeah, it's usually a little icon. Just like something you'd see on a Girl Scout vest, but it's digital.
That's very fascinating concept. Thank you. Now, we may have covered it, but is there anything else that you'd want to say about "learning analytics" more broadly? You mentioned it's a passion area of yours. Is there any anything else to this story in terms of learning analytics that we're missing? What role do they play?
The good news is analytics have just een gotten better over time. Where I work IMS Global, we have an "in-app," meaning when the students using the applications, event capture program called "caliper," which all the leading learning management systems have. So basically, you can find out what the student watched content, when they stopped watching it, how far they got down on a page, all of this stuff, and it can come back in the form of learning analytics. And when you aggregate those little activities, it's just like Farmville or anything else in gaming. You can actually see where the student gets stuck and provide the resources to help them get unstuck. Our systems are coming up to speed on that, and we just have to help our educators understand that the power of analytics are there, and they need to start asking for it. They'll be very, very surprised and pleased on the level of support they can provide their students by looking at this next generation of learning analytics.
That makes sense. That's kind of what I was wondering. . . So, the comprehensive learner record at the end of the line shows you what students have accomplished. But this other set of analytics that you're referring to about engagement helps the teacher address the student needs throughout the learning experience.
I don't know. I mean, I think this is happening in higher ed, but you can use comprehensive learner record to wrap any type of individual record. So the challenge with these learning analytics is really that it's big data. Meaning which video did the student watch? How much did they watch it for? Bringing that back and then corresponding it with hard data like: How did they do on the benchmark assessment or summative or formative assessment? Then, you have to kind of push those things together, but in the future, this is I think what the Broward County Project wants to do, is be able to push all that data into a single comprehensive learner record for that student for the year. So when they pass it over to the teacher, the teacher can look at the face of the CLR, for let's say math, and they can understand where the student is at. So they don't have to start over every year, right? Or assume that everybody's at the same level. They can start providing support for the student the next year at the level where the student is at. And as our systems get more sophisticated, hopefully they'll read those CLRs that will also have these learning analytics. Because, right now they're just all dumped into what's called a "data lake." And then, the district's look at the data lake and try to make some decisions. But if you capture the individual student record in that CLR, then that could be quite quite powerful for personalized learning. So that I think that might be 10 years out, but I'm pretty excited about about the future learning analytics aiding educators and parents.
So a lot of this right is long-term vision stuff, which is understandable, but I was wondering if there was a teacher listening that was just really geeked about this and maybe wanted to learn more about comprehensive learner records, learning analytics, or digital credentials, where would you advise that they start? Is there anything out there that somebody could implement tomorrow that isn't 10 years out?
I've got a meeting this week with Mastery Transcript, which is probably more at the high-school level, but you can use it just in a single class. I know I live in DeWitt, Michigan. And I know that DeWitt High School uses it to document some of their softer skill classes and electives. So Master Transcript Consortium has a platform for offering competency-based learning, and we're going to talk because they've got a partnership with six universities to use their trasncript. And it sounds like transcript but really, you just want to document a competency-based achievement for a student, you can use their platform as a single teacher, and there's several tool like that around, and they're they're becoming more and more common. But that is one that you can use. Another popular one in our in our midst is called Badgr, though typically the organization has to deploy Badgr. I know that Michigan Virtual looked at that, but that's an open-source platform for issuing credentials and badges. Yeah, so I mean, I probably could come up with a list, but you can always go out our product directory at IMS global to see all of the different products that are issuing badges or comprehensive learner records. So yeah, I don't think teachers are in short supply of applications, it's just finding the ones that actually issue a credential that's of value or worth. More and more folks are starting to offer that for sure.
Yeah, I imagine it'd be a lot for an individual teacher to take this on without having the system in place.
They do it every day. They do it every day. Actually, we didn't issue a digital credential, but my sister, Erin, is a English teacher at a high school, and she took her capstone class, and I'm not sure she'll ever do this again because the students just wanted to sit in class and write. But we made them do podcasts and interview people in their community. And we trained them how to do podcasts, and we kind of built all of this around telling the hero's journey of someone they cared about deeply. It was a profound experience. I wish we could have issued a digital credential, but it was much easier to use, like Soundtrap, which is the tool that we used or Audacity. We could have installed that, but they would have had to have weekend access to the computer lab. But having the ability to produce next-generation media and share it with friends and family, and, you know, really produce good work, it was quite amazing experience. The next step would just have been to find a version of Badgr somewhere on the web, and get that credential issued. And that's something I think that Mastery Transcript or some of these other services teachers can do to kind. It's creating additional meaning for the for the achievement.
So a teacher, your sister in that case, could have gotten involved with one of these platforms, created an account, and issued a credential for students and said, "Here you go. You're certified in podcast creation," or whatever it might be.
Or maybe in the hero's journey.
Very cool. Very cool.
I think that's where most organizations are at. What we need is the other side of the market to to start valuing these, right? So when we talk about LinkedIn, it's very valuable that they do that. I know that Salesforce and other very large organizations are starting to issue these kind of badges. What is really fascinating is a couple years ago, I learned that Facebook, Google, and many of these large organizations are starting to badge their employees. So when they go to build the next-generation team, they just have to search by badge. They don't have to actually get into resumes and other things like that.
I imagine another thing a teacher could try if they were really interested would be getting some kind of micro-credential or digital certification themselves, right? I imagine if you experience it for yourself. . .
Yeah, Digital Promise is a is a popular platform. I know that Michigan Virtual is looking into that. Actually, I'm recruiting Canada Present at our digital credential conference with another leading credentialing group expert. So it's coming. It is coming. You know, another group that's doing a lot digital credentials, and Michigan Virtual is a partner with them, is the Michigan Elementary and Secondary Principals Association (MEMSPA). That group has been doing a lot of work with competency and digital credentials, so I've got to give it to Paul over there.
All right, a little bit of a shift here. Can you tell me about a teacher who had an impact in your life?
I had a business professor. So I got my MBA, and I walked into a class was called "Finance for Non-Finance Majors." And I was on time, but I kept getting bumped on the way in the door by all the non-finance majors leaving the room. So it was named for non-finance majors, but only finance majors stuck it out because we started at the very basic level of: Should this bank give this auto repair shop a loan? Can they pay it back? All the way up to -- and I'm going to date myself here, but -- what type of financial instrument should the cable industry use to lay all the cable? I mean, this was like MTV kind of stuff, right? And that was actually on a CD-ROM, so that would have been "ed tech" at the time. But he was just the best professor I ever had. It was the first time he taught the class. I went back and visit him a couple of times, and students didn't appreciate the class as much as I did. But I went out paid for an MBA from Michigan State University, and that one class made it all worthwhile because it tied everything back. He even used Steve Jobs, to say why does Steve Jobs want to dominate an industry? Why do you want to get to 70% market share? And and Steve Jobs, this is back in the 80's was trying to calculate the value of having like 68% market share versus 65, and how much should he be willing to spend on marketing and other things to get to that level? And when you have that understanding that that a lot of our decisions can come down to dollars and cents, it is eye opening. I think his name was Naveen Khanna, Dr. Naveen Khanna. He probably is retired now, but I appreciated him for sure.
It sounds like he did a really nice job of making the content applicable and practical, is that accurate?
Yeah, everything was all project-based.
Cool, thanks for sharing that. This is one of my favorite questions, but it is a big one. Can you tell me about your vision for student learning? T make it more concrete: If it were up to you, what would you just really want to see for every single student in our state?
Well, we really tried a couple of times back when we had federal funding for Ed Tech, we put money into demonstrated models of proficiency. That's a very funny way to say competency. But if I were to do that again, I would focus on just a couple of core programs, as opposed to putting money into the field with 10. But we really did start several programs that were competency-based, and that's kind of how I found out that our gradebook doesn't really support competency-based education. Like I was saying, in the next five years, I think that's going to be a major change. So, I would definitely make it competency-based. And I wouldn't use I wouldn't use a very popular definition in K-12 for "competency." Because, you know, you look at Common Core ELA and math and let me tell you, I'm a big supporter of those. Both my kids did much better in school because of those standards programs. But at the end of the day, the competencies they talked about in our standards are really flat. They're really knowledge standards. We really do need to have standards for applying our knowledge and standards for the experience students have. So those are the three things, and when you look at these leading programs, like High Tech High and there's several others around the country, they get that the problem is that they still want to send their kids to college. And colleges still want the letter grade. So, the entire system kind of has to change to start appreciating these robust, deeper learning competencies. It probably needs to start on the outside, it can't start at the core. So let's leave our ELA, programs alone. Probably government. Probably U.S. history, and, you know, focus from the edges. That's how innovation happens. Find ways like Mastery Transcripts and others to document that on a meaningful transcript, get our systems issuing comprehensive learner records, and slowly move the system towards, you know, a deeper, competency-based, personalized learning approach that doesn't leave at-risk students behind
Any words of advice or encouragement you'd like to share with fellow educators out there right now?
I think we have to have a picture of something bigger than what we're working on right now. I've read this, there's a psychology or sociology principle behind this, that when we have a bigger goal in the future, the here and now, the grind is worth it. When we get caught up in the grind, it's not worth it. How we're treating educators, specifically teachers, the grind is real, right? So we have to kind of give people that big picture vision. We need to enable that as much as possible. I believe educational technology, hopefully will start to help. There's a big fear about educational technology encouraging us to focus on: How do I get that specific question, right? That answer right? But hopefully, Ed Tech will help people with a bigger picture, a bigger view of where their students are going and lock in on really delivering the future by having these well-rounded citizens going out into the world equipped to pursue their passion. I think that's important.
And the second thing is to have a hobby. I've been hiking and backpacking and camping a lot. That's been helpful to get through COVID, but I've also been doing a little stand up comedy. It makes me a better presenter. It makes me more confident. And, you know, just takes some of the pressure off, and I can laugh at myself. And so when things get you down, having a hobby, especially something that makes you laugh, is a key to making this whole thing work.
There are some really innovative schools out there — such as High Tech High in San Diego — who are modelling what the future of student learning could look like.
With letter grades so deeply embedded in our educational institutions — not to mention in our society at large — it’s difficult to imagine how we might represent these rich and personalized learning experiences in a way that doesn’t fall “flat” on paper… especially when you start thinking about how to aggregate this data across classrooms, schools, and states.
But comprehensive learner records and digital badging present one promising pathway forward, and there are plenty of companies, like IMS Global Learning Consortium, out there working behind the scenes to get everyone on the same page.
Without a doubt, it’s challenging to improve the records that follow our K-12 students into their careers after high school graduation. But with leaders like Bruce forging our path forward, if there’s one thing we’re certain of: it’s that the future is BRIGHT.
Thank you for joining us for this episode of BRIGHT: Stories of Hope & Innovation in Michigan Classrooms. This podcast is produced by Herbie Gaylord, is hosted by me, Nikki Herta, and is shaped by many of our passionate and talented colleagues. Big thanks to Christa Green, Anne Perez, Anne Craft, and Brandon Bautista for their contributions to this episode.
The BRIGHT podcast is made possible by Michigan Virtual, a nonprofit organization that’s leading and collaborating to build learning environments for tomorrow. Education IS changing faster than ever. Discover new models and resources to move learning forward at your school at michiganvirtual.org.