Traditionally, when students decide to apply for a job or graduate school, or to transfer to another university, they need to contact their college bursar’s office for a copy of their transcript or academic record.
This method is often not just time-consuming and inconvenient, but can also cost money — seeming like a last-ditch effort by universities to scrape a few more dollars from students.
But now, universities across the world are making the leap to digital diplomas backed by blockchain, the same platform used to protect Bitcoin currency.
This jump enables students or recent graduates to control their own records, giving them free access to them at any time.
It also makes transferring to schools, particularly those in foreign countries, much easier.
Any information stored on blockchain is private, cannot be touched by an outside party, and is in the system forever.
Using blockchain benefits both the applicant and the person reviewing a transcript.
Because paper transcripts and diplomas are easily manipulated through editing tools, employers and graduate schools often have to perform background checks.
With the guaranteed security of blockchain, however, background checks can be conducted with the simple click of a button.
What is blockchain?
Blockchain is a growing list of records, individually called blocks, that are secured through cryptography.
Each block is encrypted, timestamped, and added to a virtual timeline.
Once information is added to blockchain, it can’t be hacked or replicated in any way because the technology is hosted by millions of computers. There is no centralized version of blockchain, so a hacker would, essentially, have to disrupt the entire system to alter one piece of information.
Digital diploma debuts at MIT
The use of blockchain to secure electronic diplomas started in 2016 at MIT.
A year later, a group of 111 graduates became the first to have a copy of their diploma secured on an app on their smartphone.
This revolutionary development was the first to give individual people full control over their academic records.
“From the beginning, one of our primary motivations has been to empower students to be the curators of their own credentials,” Mary Callahan, MIT registrar and senior associate dean, said in a statement.
“This pilot makes it possible for them to have ownership of their records and be able to share them in a secure way, with whomever they choose.”
Blockchain could back up credentials even in the event of a disaster, which could cause a university to shut its doors.
“There are all kinds of disasters, whether it’s a disaster of war like in Syria, or a natural disaster like in the Bahamas, or a technical disaster like in Equifax — these kinds of things happen all the time, and they’re inevitable,” Chris Jagers, co-founder and CEO of Learning Machine, said in a statement.
He claims that by linking credentials to blockchain, “we can ensure that we don’t have a single point of failure and that people can actually own their identity documents without any ongoing dependency on the original issuers or any particular vendor.”
The use of blockchain to back up credentials is not unique to the U.S. Many universities around the world are starting to adopt the concept, and it could make transferring across country borders much easier.
The University of Nicosia in Cyprus was the first university in the world to publish academic certificates on blockchain, starting in 2014.
In November 2017, it became the first university to issue all diplomas — bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate’s — on blockchain.
In October 2017, the University of Melbourne became the first university in the Asia-Pacific region to use blockchain to manage student data.
The Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation, based in Moscow, recently recorded all of the diplomas it issued over the past 10 years on blockchain. Starting in September 2018, the university plans to make it possible for any potential employer to view a copy of each graduate’s digital diploma on the university website.
In June 2018, the University of Pisa partnered with the Center of Information on Academic Mobility and Equivalence (CIMEA) to become the first university in Italy to adopt the technology.
“The project was created originally by a desire to speed up the process of registration of international students to our university courses,” said Francesco Marcelloni, vice rector for international cooperation and relations at the University of Pisa.
The university prides itself in its commitment to internationalization and innovation in research and teaching, said Paolo Maria Mancarella, rector of the University of Pisa and professor in the Department of Computer Science.
The Pisa project is a stepping stone to achieving greater diversity within universities.
“Imagine a future world where students can move from one university to another, in different countries, without having to physically exchange documents, with a view to full dematerialization,” said Mancarella.
Altogether, this development makes the entire process of sharing credentials simple and secure.
“The ability to have a digital certificate on blockchain will help students during and after their academic careers, facilitating the work of securities evaluators,” said Luca Lantero, director of CIMEA.
Moving forward, it may be possible to create stackable certificates on blockchain, enabling individuals to combine credentials from multiple institutions.
People could have all of their degrees and certifications combined in one easy spot, ready to show to institutions and employers.
“It’s not just about solving a problem,” Jagers said in a statement. “It really is transformative. And it could be as big as the web, because it affects every sector. It’s not just academic records. It’s being able to passively know that digital things are true. That creates a whole new reality across every sector.”
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.