It is a kind of cliche now: "Behave in school, it will go on your permanent record!"
As I teach and think about the MOOC I realize how important a permanent record is.
A permanent record contributes to (creates?) an atmosphere of civility.
In general people are more courteous and civil in a classroom. There are many reasons for this, but the permanent record is a major one. If a student in high school is getting into fights and being rude in class that activity travels with them. An awareness of a permanent record forces students to consider their actions before acting.
The permanent record in an american public school is quite vague. It lists the exceptional moments, both good and bad. The permanent record serves to identify the extremes, but leaves the subtleties of everyday achievements and rudenesses unaccounted for. In this role it supports the exceptional achievers and punishes the exceptional misbehaviors. On both extremes it is providing a great service, but with the data provided in an online classroom this permanent record could reveal much more.
Educational institutions provide employers with information about prospective employees. It is one of the major functions of a college degree. It is an important role, which right now is based largely on reputation. Online schools could provide a permanent record that is based less on reputation and more on the actual achievements and personality of the person.
Employers are becoming more nuanced in their hiring. They are using psychology and personality to determine who is the right kind of person for their jobs. They don't blindly trust a candidate because of a degree from an ivy league school. Instead, they think about the needs of the job and what type of person is necessary to do it best.
In a traditional school the grades from each class are largely what goes on a college's "permanent record." The student's time and participation at a college is reduced down to a single number, the GPA. Then it is the student's responsibility to record any achievement beyond what is represented in the GPA. Negative activities that don't impact the GPA are not permanent and they are never made known to the prospective employers.
Students know that their activities in college are not really permanent. Largely they are not held accountable for their actions at college, beyond their time at college. What atmosphere does this engender? Out of control parties and the reputation of the "college years" as the "party years." Is this necessary? Does this really train us to be respectful and capable members of society?
Honestly, it is quite difficult to have a more detailed permanent record in a traditional school. Teachers would need to record more of the student activities and that information would need to be logged and made searchable. Teachers are burdened enough, as are administrators.
Online colleges could provide employers with the information the employers really need. Online schools are largely communication structures. They provide a framework for a community to communicate within. Permanently track the activities of students and teachers. Make it known that every activity is logged, recorded, and analyzed. For those(both teachers and students) that are honest, caring, and helpful this will be a major plus. It would record cooperation and track involvement. There could be quantifiable incentives for community involvement (a "helpfulness quotient" calculated from "thanks flags" on comments or something like this).
Often people have great success in fields they did not directly study in. What we learn in college goes well beyond the syllabi of the classes we take. We learn to be studious and supportive community members, we learn to respect authority and we learn how to communicate professionally. These skills are often more important then the topics themselves, but these skills are currently not quantified or recorded by the school. That is how online schools, with a permanent record of all communication, can provide a new service to society. Employers know that who you are is more important than what you know, so schools should provide that information. An accurate and detailed permanent record could supply information based less on reputation of the school and more on who the student is.