Interoperability, Not Third-Party Assessors, Is the Answer: A Response to Creating Seamless Credit Transfer

Guest Post by Dr. Cali Morrison, CPC
Associate Dean, Alternative Learning, APUS

It’s always a joy and a challenge for me to read the work of Michael Horn and Richard Price coming out of the Christensen Institute. I revel in the creativity of ideas, the diversity of examples, and the parallels they make to other industries and times in higher education.

And it’s a challenge in the climb-a-mountain-for-a-better-view variety. The document Creating Seamless Credit Transfer: A parallel higher ed system to support America through and beyond the recession did not disappoint in the ideals I hold for these scholars’ thinking. Horn and Price draw a parallel that may not be familiar for many in higher education, outside of those who have worked on building student information systems or data-sharing collaboratives. They introduce readers to the aspirations and pitfalls of electronic health records. In 2009, the potential of these records to put individuals’ health records in their own hands, empowering them to take control of their care, was palpable.

Federal funds were invested, and penetration of use has grown to nearly all doctor’s offices and hospitals. The pitfall is, that is where they remain – behind the walled garden of each individual provider or system of providers. They are not in the hands of users, and they aren’t interoperable as first envisioned because there was no competitive advantage for them to interoperate.

In fact, quite the opposite. If they keep individuals records in proprietary formats, it makes it even harder to move providers than when you had to request a photocopy of your chart that was pulled out of a giant filing cabinet with color-coordinated stickers on it.

All this boils down to the economics of the medical providers, and, in parallel, higher education institutions. If you make it difficult for patients to move providers, they may just stay, increasing the earnings of the provider. Alternately, patients may just drop out of the system and not get the care they need to remain healthy – only visiting for acute situations.

Likewise, if you make it difficult for learners to transfer or refuse to accept transfer credits, learners will have to pay again in order to get to their final goal – a degree. As Price and Horn noted, institutions have no economic incentive to create seamless transfer pathways because if they hold records proprietary perhaps learners will stay, increasing the institution’s revenues (and yes, every higher education institution is concerned about revenue, regardless of tax status). However, as those of us who study higher education know, there are 36 million learners with some college, no degree, so it would appear they chose the other path – dropping out versus taking courses over.

A key point I take from Seamless is that without interoperability, the biggest losers are students. Their records are stuck in a manner that only the home institution can fully interpret. Even massive projects trying to create interoperability in higher education have largely failed to solve the problem because they are all voluntary and therefore based on trust with those within the circle not across the spectrum of post-secondary education.

To me, this whole issue boils down to trust. Institutions, and the faculty that certify learning under their umbrella, don’t trust other institutions. Records are not transparent about the learning outcomes obtained as the result of having completed a course, much less a report of the level of mastery of each of those learning outcomes for each learner. Without solid data such as these, faculty and administrators are hesitant to accept credit from other institutions.

What I see as a solution is different than the solution of third-party learning certifiers proposed by Horn and Price. They suggest “By shifting who verifies the learning from the provider to an independent assessor, issues of credit transfer vanish.”

I argue the counterpoint – we already HAVE these institutions, and my primary example is the American Council on Education (ACE). ACE has been certifying college-level learning that happens in our armed forces and industry since the 1950s. They assign credit equivalences in terms of courses or elective credits.

This is where the trust issues raise their crooked head again – many institutions do not accept these credit recommendations, or if they do, they only count toward general education and elective credit…not major credit. Institutions across the nation fail to accept credit or award again only elective or general education credit for third-party, nationally recognized exams such as Advanced Placement, CLEP, and DANTES exams. No matter who the third-party certifying entity is, until you change the mindset of the faculty and institutions, learners will still pay the price in lost credits and unrecognized outside learning.

What I see as a better solution to create seamless transfer is providing the data to foster the trust that the learning has been evaluated at a mastery level. I propose well-defined learning outcomes or competencies for ALL forms of learning (not just competency-based education) which have aligned, authentic assessments and robust rubrics against which the learning is evaluated. All of this would then be contained within a form of comprehensive learner record, electronically accessible so that artificial intelligence can help parse the equivalences when a student transfers. Rather than transfer being a one-off decision of a faculty advisor, it’s systematically accepted.

I don’t see this certification of learning needing to live without the institution, but rather there needs to be incentive for institutions to implement transparent learning records alongside intentionally designed learning objectives or competencies, assessments, and rubrics. We need to give institutions and faculty a reason to trust each other rather than another ‘adversary’ to mistrust.

I absolutely agree with Price and Horn that the federal system should begin, as the military is doing, to provide funding for the learning and certification for industry credentials in addition to traditional higher education. And I wholeheartedly support the recognition of the college-level learning gained through these avenues being certified by a third party like ACE. I am also a huge proponent of prior learning assessment programs that allow learners to demonstrate through the development of a portfolio how they have mastered the learning outcomes or competencies of courses through experiential learning.

I just hope through the changes that will surely come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education as an industry is able to keep learners and their learning, regardless of where it occurs, at the center of our practice and not get mired in the administrivia.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence