The current way student records and transcripts are managed is insufficient to meet the evolving needs of teachers, students and parents. Only the most basic of information follows students into the classrooms they enter each year.

This article is a summary of Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles, one of the papers in the DLN Smart Series produced by Digital Learning Now! in partnership with ExcelinEd and Getting Smart. The series was created to provide specific guidance regarding adoption of Common Core State Standards and the shift to personal digital learning. Additional papers in the series cover blended learning implementation, funding the shift to digital learning, getting ready for online assessments, school finance reform, competency education and the evolution of the teacher profession.

The current way student records and transcripts are managed is insufficient to meet the evolving needs of teachers, students and parents. Only the most basic of information follows students into the classrooms they enter each year. Teachers have little visibility into the past performance of their students; what other teachers noted; or each learner’s strengths, weaknesses and individual needs. New personalization technologies and the demand for differentiated instruction as a Common Core strategy will only further place strains on the ecosystem of data systems and paper-based records that form the patchwork of our current student records.

What if students came to each course or classroom with a digital backpack of data about their learning levels, preferences, motivations and personal accomplishments? How would this improve each teacher’s ability to tailor learning to meet the needs of individual students? What if parents and students could easily access the student’s records to share information with afterschool providers? How would all of the personalization this affords add up to deeper learning and improved college and career readiness?

Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles asks these questions and reveals some key problems with the current system:

  • The current official transcript does not provide enough information for teachers to personalize learning from the first day of school.
  • Customized learning requires an enhanced and expanded Learner Profile.
  • Parents and teachers should have the ability to protect privacy and empower multiple providers to use and contribute to a Learner Profile.

We offer two recommendations for addressing the inadequacies of today’s student records in order to power personalization from day one, at every step, for every student.

1.  The Data Backpack

The Data Backpack is an expanded common electronic student record: an official transcript that follows students through every transition — grade to grade and school to school.

The Backpack would include traditional transcript data such as demographic information, state testing data and supplementary student supports. However, it also would include additional information in order to represent a more holistic picture of student achievement — such as a gradebook of standards-based performance data and a portfolio of personal bests — and better capture the student’s progression at any moment in time. This enhanced data would provide a context for attendance and behavior patterns, supplementary support services, grades, and other performance information such as proficiency scores and learning gains.

Since this data would follow students to each new learning experience, learning could be tailored to meet their individual needs from the first lesson rather than requiring the extra time teachers must spend diagnosing student needs and abilities.

2.  The Learner Profile

The Learner Profile builds on the “official transcript” of the Data Backpack to provide additional clues to unlock learner needs, preferences and potential. While each student’s Data Backpack would be populated by a set of common elements for all students at a new minimum level, the components of each student’s Learner Profile could be customized based on student needs, platform data requirements and family decisions.

Amazon, iTunes and Netflix have demonstrated the potential of predictive algorithms. Adaptive software is powering high performance blended schools. Learner profiles — powered by achievement and keystroke data — will unlock secrets about the kinds of experiences that inspire persistence and performance for each student.

In addition to standard achievement data, Learner Profiles should contain expanded achievement information, student goal statements, badges and other recognitions, and a college/career readiness tracker. Students would contribute a full portfolio of work, complemented by teacher narratives on student assets and challenges. The Profile also could include non-cognitive variables that impact achievements, as well as an “early warning system,” self-management skills, behavior/character education and a record of community service.

When learning is personalized to meet the needs of individual learners, everyone wins. Taken together, the Data Backpack and the Learner Profile would power personalization and protect privacy.

  • The Data Backpack ensures that personalized learning begins on day one.
  • The Learner Profile powers a personalized pathway toward college and career readiness.

Customized learning, informed by enhanced and expanded student data, will boost motivation and achievement — keeping more students on track for college and career readiness.

The Opportunity

We are at a critical moment in time. With the introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), online assessments in 2014-15 and the shift to digital learning, school systems are on the brink of receiving a flood of unprecedented amounts and variations of student data.

Although no one has yet realized a full-scale solution to unlock the potential of personal digital learning that Digital Learning Now! described in the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning, the full paper offers a rich field of toolsets and “point solutions” that address singular aspects of the overall needs. While much good work is underway, the paper concludes with a call to action and an assertion that the leaders of various efforts need to come together to create a common, integrated and comprehensive system that is universally endorsed and widely implemented. Tackling the range of challenges — from privacy compliance to technical issues — will require collaborative involvement from everyone, ranging from state leaders and policymakers to developers and industry leaders, in addition to representatives from education agencies, advocacy organizations and funders.

Tom Vander Ark is author of Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World and founder of Previously he served as President of the X PRIZE Foundation and was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He received the Distinguished Achievement Medal and graduated from the Colorado School of Mines. Vander Ark received his M.B.A. in Finance from the University of Denver. He continues his education online.
Carri Schneider serves as Director of Policy and Research for She has served as an online educator since 2005 in a fully-online Master’s program in Educational Leadership and has taught graduate courses in School Law and Curriculum. She co-edited the book Building a 21st Century U.S. Education System and has been actively involved in supporting education policy efforts to advance digital and blended learning opportunities. She holds a M.Ed. in Educational Administration and an Ed.D. in Urban Educational Leadership.
John Bailey serves as the Executive Director of Digital Learning Now! Bailey previously served at the White House as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy during the Bush administration, where he coordinated education and labor policy. He also has worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as serving as a top technology and innovation advisor to the Secretary of Commerce. Bailey served as the nation’s second Director of Educational Technology and as a formal or informal advisor to three Presidential campaigns.
Samuel Casey Carter serves as Chief Executive Officer for the Faith in the Future Foundation, providing strategic management and operational oversight for 17 Catholic high schools and four schools of special education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Carter is the author of On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character and No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High Poverty Schools. A graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, Carter also has studied theology at Oxford University and philosophy at The Catholic University of America.