The current higher education credentialing system is riddled with inefficiencies, slow turnaround times for requests, and lots of administrative overhead. It is a sadly needed but archaic system that is ripe for disruption and improvement.

Have you ever needed to ask for your university for your transcripts? If you have, you know probably know what I mean.  While there have been some improvements, with 21st century technology it should not 90% of colleges to take weeks and cost you $20-$30 to get a sealed paper envelope with your records in it.

Distributed ledger technologies, or blockchain technology is disrupting the financial system and is on its way to disrupting university credentialing systems in the same way.

The first question to ask is who owns your credentials? In the current system, the University you attended owns them outright, giving you access slowly upon request and usually for a fee.

In a blockchain database, the information is decentralized, and ownership is given to the student.   Students could control who has access to their degree with a private key that only they own (cryptographically speaking, the only way to see the information is when a private key meets a public key). In effect, whoever has the private key to the ‘transaction record’ of the credential on a blockchain credential system would be the one who controls access, which is essentially the owner.

However, sharing your credential should not be as simple as sending your private key to anyone who wants to view your information.  In his article on Blockchain-Based Records and Usability, Chris Jagers, CEO of Learning Machine, says that the owners of blockchain credentials would need a way to generate a key that can be used only one time to access the credential, which takes away the possibility of a key being shared and used over and over again. This appears to be the simplest and most effective solution to provide credential access security.

While records on the blockchain are immutable, universities would have the capacity to add a new transaction to the blockchain showing that a degree was later revoked in these rare circumstances.

Blockchain data is permanent once a block is written.  But while records on the blockchain are immutable, universities would have the capacity to add a new transaction to the blockchain showing that a degree was later revoked in these rare circumstances. A University could also generate a private key, as they should be able to, in the event that a student is found guilty of an academic transgression where their degree, after due process, (with hope) is revoked for, say, cheating on final exams.  Likewise, it can also revoke honorary degrees in such a system as several institutions have done after such recipients are convicted of heinous offenses.

The next question to consider is how does a student get their credential when they need it?  The technology of cryptocurrency is near immediate, and could be done in almost the exact same way that a bitcoin wallet is logged in using a private key.

For example, you have your public facing key, which shows an address and within has the encrypted transaction record for your credential on the blockchain. Once you enter your private key, as it aligns with the public key, the credentials are unlocked and access is afforded.  The main difference in this system from cryptocurrencies is that you generate one-time private keys for sharing and accessing the credential, rather than having a permanent private key.

The credential could be accessed from any connected device including phones, tablets, and computers. This is better than having a paper credential which can be lost, damaged or stolen, and meets the demands of a population increasingly in demand for owning their own credentials and anxious, if not outraged, about institutions losing their private information to hackers, all with very low cost and at incredible speeds.

The third question to now consider is how is all this verified?  Can you trust the system?  Normally, the academic institution provides the verification through their reputation and accreditation as a real university that you can trust. The blockchain credential would still rely on the University for verification, but not as heavily.

This system will rely on ‘academic nodes’ much like how Bitcoin relies on ‘bitcoin nodes’ with computers solving equations to verify transactions. According to Jagers, there would be two steps to verification:

  1. The institution signs the credential with a private key, adding it to the blockchain.
  2. A verification process compares the blockchain data to the student’s records, and if they match, the credential is verified.

In this system, professors or graduate students could potentially become ‘academic nodes’ that receive some sort of token reward for verifying these credentialing transactions. They could use those token rewards as academic credits that could be used for functions like verifying their own academic achievements toward promotion (that third, thin leg of the tenure stool called service).

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s predicts that 50% of the nation’s colleges and universities will go bankrupt or will close within 10 years.

A blockchain certification system also addresses the issue of credentials being impossible to obtain when institutions close, as many are predicted to come close in the next 10 years according to Harvard business professor Clayton Christenson.

With this nation-wide, or even world-wide, blockchain credentialing system, students and alum would have far less to be concerned about.  Data is permanently written to the blocks and can be accessed anytime from anywhere using the public and private key, with or without the brick and mortar of the institution.

While this system of blockchain credentialing has the benefits of convenience, self-ownership, and security, there are some issues that will be up for a debate.

One issue that comes to mind concerns student disciplinary actions.  There is a debate that swirls inconsistently in universities right now about whether or not to permanently include disciplinary infractions on a student’s record.

On one side there is the belief that students are going through a significant developmental stage and should not be scarred for life if their policy violation did not inflict harm or injury.  The other side demands accountability from aspiring professionals who must know that their actions have permanent consequences.  As a former dean of students, I recall several conversations with faculty hearing panelists about recovery, redemption, teaching moments, and permanent Scarlet letters. These discussions may need to be heightened for further crystallization with new technology that demands even more transparency.

The benefits of the application of blockchain technology are clear, and there are many ways the technology could be implemented in the real world, and will be accompanied with varied real world implications.

The technology is not a fad, it has been tried and proven.  Distributed ledger technologies will disrupt and substantively force rapid evolution in academic credentialing systems and put ownership, autonomy, and security squarely into the hands of the credentialed – which will yield an entirely new set of concerns. Ben Corpus University of Texas NCAA Ben Corpus NCAA Ben Corpus Baruch College NCAA Ben Corpus NCAA

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