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Imagining the digital future of academic records

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • First established in 2012, the Groningen Declaration Network is a global group of more than 50 institutions, associations, and other stakeholders
  • The network is concerned with the development of a global system for storing, authenticating, and sharing digitised academic records
  • While its early years have been focused on research, discussion, and testing to help establish best practices in the field, the focus may now be shifting more to the actual development and operation of a global system
  • If it were widely used by students and institutions, we can expect that such a system would be an important level for international student mobility

We live in a world where messages, financial transactions, and digital content of all sorts can circle the globe with a click of a computer mouse or trackpad or touchscreen. But the realm of academic records – transcripts, credentials, and other official documents – remains largely paper-based. Indeed, officially authenticated, and printed, records are still very much the gold standard for many institutions and admissions offices.

But a rapidly growing group of stakeholders have set out to build a global system for authenticating, storing, and sharing digital records. The concept is still on the drawing board but the idea has gathered steam over the last four years since the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) was founded in 2012.

The network now includes more than 50 signatories worldwide, both institutions – such as Stanford University and the University of Málaga – and academic associations, including The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), the European Association for International Education (EAIE), and the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). Twelve new signatories joined the network this year alone, following the GDN’s annual meeting in Cape Town in May.

Canada signed on a year earlier, in may 2015 and through its Association of Registrars of the Universities and Colleges of Canada (ARUCC). “We don’t want Canada to be left behind,” Kathleen Massey, university registrar and executive director of enrolment services at McGill University, said to University Affairs. Ms Massey also chairs the ARUCC Groningen and Student Mobility Task Force, and adds, “It’s about making it easier for Canadians to transmit their credentials within Canada and abroad and to have them fairly recognised in a timely fashion.”

The goal of the network is just that: to make it easier for authenticated student records to travel from institution to institution and country to country, and the vision is for a truly global system. There is an aspect of efficiency in this in that one of the inherent promises of digital is that the process of retrieving and sharing academic records could be made a great deal easier and less expensive. “In my experience, every time you need to send (transcripts) to another organisation, be it another school you are applying to or a granting agency, you need to manually request the transcripts, sometimes pay a fee and they are sent by mail,” says University of Toronto PhD candidate Jessica Robin, echoing the experience of students the world over. “It’s a very slow process and it can be costly.”

The GDN is squarely aimed at making this experience very much easier and more efficient for all concerned, and signatory organisations are currently engaged in targeted pilot projects to test emerging practices and systems and also expand the use of digital records.

Beyond efficiency, another overarching goal of the GDN is to combat credential fraud, especially in the form of falsified transcripts or test scores as well as bogus credentials from so-called diploma mills. With higher education participation rates climbing, and with several million mobile students abroad today, the issue of academic integrity remains a pressing concern for all stakeholders. There are a number of task forces operating within the GDN currently, a number of which are focused on the development of systems and standards to establish and expand the integrity of digital records.

Seen from both vantage points – improving efficiency and combatting fraud – an effective digital records system is arguably one of the next important levers for increasing international student mobility. As the original declaration text sets out, “Digital student data portability and digital student data depositories are becoming increasingly concrete and relevant realities, and in the years to come, they will contribute decisively to the free movement of students and skilled workers on a global scale.”

“The Groningen Declaration is very aspirational,” Margit Schatzman, president of the non-profit Educational Credential Evaluators, a GDN signatory, explained earlier this year to University World News. “The question is, ‘How are we going to do this?’” The impression one gets from the growing roster of GDN signatories, however, as well as the level of activity in network task forces and pilots, is that the focus of the network will increasingly shift to the development and operation of a global system going forward.

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