Digital “diplomas” (subsumed in the term “credentials” and used interchangeably with “credentials” throughout the article) are set to be one of the most innovative and disruptive technologies to impact the education sector . As the name implies, digital diplomas are the digital versions of educational records . What sets digital diplomas apart from traditional, paper-issued diplomas, and makes them so innovative and disruptive, is that digital diplomas can be recorded on, and secured by, a blockchain .
In evaluating the potential for digital diplomas, we decided to proceed in a three-step process.
First, we identified the major issues in the retention, transfer and authentication of diplomas (which you have likely faced if you ever had to contact your institution’s “office of the registrar” to obtain or transfer your transcripts).
Second, we highlighted Central New Mexico Community College’s (CNM) blockchain-backed digital diploma program.
Third, we analyzed how CNM’s blockchain-backed digital diploma program solves the major issues with diplomas.
Lastly, a short conclusion.
In general, credentials “often refer to academic or educational qualifications, such as degrees [, transcripts] or diplomas that you have completed or partially-completed” .
Further, credentials may also refer to professional and occupational qualifications such as professional licenses or work experience .^
Issues in Credentialing
The issues that arise in credentialing often stem from:
- the institution acting as an intermediary & central point of failure;
- high-friction credential transfer process ; and
- authenticating credentials .
The Institution Acts as an Intermediary & Central Point of Failure
In general, if a student wants to obtain or transfer their credentials, they have to make a formal request with the institution (often with the office of the registrar or equivalent), pay a fee, and wait a certain number of days for the institution to complete the request .
In this context, the institution acts as an intermediary because students (sender) are required to go through their institution (intermediary) to send their credentials to a third party (recipient) .
Additionally, an institution is a central point of failure because if an institution closes down or suffers from bad record-keeping practices, students often lose all access to their credentials .
For example, when American Career Institute’s Framingham, Massachusetts campus abruptly closed in 2013, Pamela Pinto, a dental assistant student, could not transfer to another institution because the school could not find her credentials .
This has unfortunately been the case for many students who have attended for-profit institutions that have ceased operations because of bad economic conditions  .
High-friction Credential Transfer Process
Transferring credentials from one institution to another is a high-friction process .
The credential transfer process can be summarized as follows:
- Students submit a request to order credentials with their institution, along with paying a fee (varies on delivery method);
- The institution reviews the request for completeness;
- The institution, either itself or through a clearinghouse, creates and certifies an official copy of the student’s credentials;
- The institution or clearinghouse checks for Family Educational Records Privacy Act (FERPA) compliance;
- The institution or clearinghouse delivers or causes to deliver the student’s credentials to the intended recipient (in paper or electronically); and
- The intended recipient receives the student’s credentials .
More often than not, institutions will have to go through a clearinghouse to process student data and deliver credentials to the intended recipient . A clearinghouse, as defined in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, is a “central agency for the collection, classification, and distribution especially of information” . In this instance, most educational institutions will associate with the National Student Clearinghouse to handle the data processing and transfer of student credentials .
This process suffers from high-friction because it can be time-consuming for students and institutions, and requires students, institutions, and clearinghouses to pay more in fees relative to the request .
The traditional system also makes it hard to authenticate student credentials, especially with use of paper-issued credentials .
For example, a receiving employer or institution will have to contact the student’s originating institution’s office of the registrar to authenticate the accuracy of the credentials .
A worse problem arises with fraudsters falsifying credentials, and presenting them to employers or institutions who may presume that the credentials are official simply because of appearance or lack of time to authenticate. The concern over fake credentials has risen in the past decade with more and more sophisticated fake diploma mills popping up which are easily accessible to potential customers over the internet .
It has even reached the national stage when Melissa Howard, a candidate in a Republican primary for Florida’s House of Representatives, falsely claimed to have a degree from Ohio’s Miami University (even going so far as to take a picture with her fake diploma).
This puts recipients in a tough spot because they have to enact their own verification program for credentials . As pointed out by Nick Clark, a recipient should at least implement these four steps to protect itself from fake credentials:
- Determine if the degree-awarding institution exists.
- If the institution exists, check if they offer the degree and program of study.
- Determine if the timeline of the “student’s educational background matches with the credentials being evaluated.”
- “Verify the authenticity of the credential in question” .
Come hither, Age of the Digital Diploma
With blockchain, we can usher in the age of the digital diploma, one that will alleviate the issues described above while giving students control over their credentials .
Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) is the first higher-education institution in the United States to see the benefits of blockchain-backed digital diplomas .
Central New Mexico Community College’s (CNM) Digital Diploma Program
CNM began offering its blockchain-backed digital diploma and transcripts program in the Fall 2017 semester, and initially only offered the option to students graduating from CNM Ingenuity, “ the enterprise arm of CNM that offers accelerated programs in high-demand fields” . Specifically, 21 students graduating from CNM Ingenuity’s Deep Dive Coding bootcamps were the first to receive blockchain-backed, digital diplomas including “their diplomas and transcripts of the coding languages they learned,” .
CNM opened its blockchain-backed digital diploma program to ~300 students in early 2018, before choosing to offer blockchain-backed digital diplomas to all students later in the year .
CNM’s innovation has not gone unnoticed, with other universities choosing to step into the age of digital diplomas .
For example, ECPI University, a for-profit college based in Virgina, is following in the footsteps of CNM by implenting its own blockchain-backed digital diploma and transcripts program for its students .
How CNM solves issues in the credentialing system
CNM’s digital credentials program solves many of the issues present in the current credentialing system .
First, CNM’s blockchain-backed diploma program disintermediates the credentialing system because students are no longer required to contact their institutions for credential transfers . Rather, students receive a digital version accessible through the blockchain, which is tamper-proof and immutable, which they always have access to ,and the authority to provide access to third party recipients . With this system, students do not need to worry about their institutions shutting down and losing their records because their credentials are permanently stored on the blockchain .
Second, CNM’s blockchain-backed diploma program streamlines the transfer request process . Processing transfer requests with blockchain-backed diplomas is nearly instantaneous and friction-less because student credentials are already verified, institutions do not need to associate with clearinghouses, and no fee is required .
Third, CNM’s blockchain-backed diploma program provides instant authentication of student credentials because of the blockchain’s tamper-proof and immutable nature . Receiving parties will save time and money spent on authenticating a sender’s credentials because the institution has already authenticated the credentials by storing them on it’s blockchain .
Furthermore, there is less background information that a receiving party needs to verify beyond whether the institution exists, and offers accredited programs. Moreover, a receiving party can easily fend off fraudsters because fraudsters cannot rely on fake diplomas from diploma mills because their diplomas will not be stored on the institution’s blockchain .
Even beyond combating the three major issues, blockchain-backed digital diplomas provide additional benefits . Digital diplomas allow students to have lifelong access to their credentials, the possibility of adding substantive descriptions of skills learned and courses completed, and possibly providing updateable credentials for future skills and achievements a student earns after graduation .
For institutions, an additional benefit provided is the possibility of offering a blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) implementation for other institutions who want to offer their students the option of a digital diploma .
Blockchain-backed digital diplomas are set to transform our current system of retaining, transferring, and authenticating credentials .
Students need to have access to their credentials to verify their skills, awards, and educational experience with potential employers and other institutions . However, students are at the mercy of the current credentialing system because their institutions store their credentials, and they must request their credentials for a fee to transfer them to a third party .
Even for institutions, the current credentialing system also puts them at a disadvantage because they have to retain current and former student credentials, comply with FERPA for each request, and associate with clearinghouses to process transfer requests .
For recipients, the credentialing system puts them at a disadvantage because they have to authenticate the sender’s credentials and implement authentication procedures thereto .
To combat these issues, there is a need for digital credentials, backed by a blockchain . Blockchain-backed digital credentials will alleviate issues for students, institutions and recipients because the blockchain provides a tamper proof and immutable ledger of student credentials .
For students, blockchain-backed digital credentials will provide sorely needed autonomy over the retention and transfer of credentials, even if their institution closes down .
For institutions, blockchain-backed digital credentials will eliminate retention issues, and the high-friction process of transferring student credentials to recipients .
For recipients, blockchain-backed digital credentials will reduce the amount of costs, time and effort spent on authenticating sender credentials .
The age of digital diplomas is set to arrive as more and more institutions recognize its advantages and how to implement blockchain-backed systems .
CNM, as the first institution to implement a blockchain-backed digital diploma program, is setting an example for others to follow in developing their own blockchain-backed digital diploma programs .
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^ = We decided to use the term credentials throughout the article instead of diploma because 1) diplomas are considered a credential; and 2) credential has a broader definition of diploma .
^^= Send us a message or leave a reply if you believe a correction is warranted.
^^^ = Use of “CNM” logo is solely for normative use and is in no way shape or form an endorsement by CNM of the views expressed herein or of Greyscail Blockchain Review in general. CNM and Greyscail Blockchain Review have no relationship nor should one be implied from the contents of this article.
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Originally published on 2019-01-03 (edited on 2019-01-13.) on Medium.