Universities Use Blockchain to Streamline Student Services

Security and transparency make digital ledgers attractive for higher education institutions.

Speculation about the potential uses of blockchains in education has been building for some time, but we’ve now moved squarely into the era of implementation. Blockchains — digital records of individuals’ academic degrees, professional certifications and other official records — are an intriguing concept for institutions that have long relied on transcripts and diplomas to attest to academic achievement. 

The attraction? Blockchains are tamper-proof, easily accessible and convenient for prospective employers, graduate schools and others that need to verify credentials. Proponents argue that blockchains also put the ownership of credentials back into the hands of individuals, rather than institutions. Users can request their official records just once and then share them whenever and with whomever they choose. 

For example, students can download a blockchain app from their college, add the college as a blockchain issuer and use the app to generate public keys, each associated with a specific individual. Then, the college emails each student an attachment containing the digital diplomas, which students import into the app. Institutions may also choose to add additional layers of security, such as login protocols or encryption.

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Colleges Expand Blockchain Beyond Digital Diplomas

Colleges are starting to take advantage of the technology. Some are using Blockcerts, an open standard for digital credentials developed by Learning Machine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Learning Initiative. One advantage of Blockcerts is that they can be created and verified across any blockchain.

MIT began issuing digital certificates to some of its graduates in 2017. It worked with Learning Machine to design a digital diploma that shares the look and feel of MIT’s traditional paper diplomas, which lends authenticity to the credential and maintains consistency with institutional branding.

This past spring, Southern New Hampshire University issued its College for America students their bachelor’s or associate degrees in a digital format based in blockchain, alongside a traditional paper format. 

The first community college to offer digital diplomas, Central New Mexico Community College, started in late 2017. CNM has taken blockchain one step further by accepting cryptocurrency payments based in blockchain.

Expanding this technology beyond digital diplomas is a sign of things to come. In July, IBM and Columbia University announced a new partnership, the Columbia–IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency, which will house research and education that explores even more ways to use this emerging technology. 

Blockchains Support Broader Competency Assessment

Blockchains dovetail with the shift toward a more comprehensive approach to academic credentialing. The idea is to move beyond a limited reliance on formal diplomas to encompass a broader set of experiences and expertise that graduates may possess.

As competency-based education increases, there is a need for a reliable, consistent way to capture a wider range of knowledge-building activities that may be just as valuable as classroom hours. Such experience might include study abroad, internships or on-the-job expertise that professionals acquire before they return to campus to pursue new degrees or certifications. 

To that end, one ed tech startup, N2N Services, is developing a blockchain-based ledger that would let individuals share verified work projects. Expanding the scope of information that institutions and employers use to evaluate candidates would streamline application processes and give both parties a more holistic way to capture and express an individual’s qualifications and expertise.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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Aug 14 2018