Why we are offering digital credentials for learners and using blockchain to do so

Just over five years ago, I was confirmed as a low-risk traveler and hence pre-approved for travel into Canada and the United States. On a typical journey, I no longer have to show a travel document, such as a passport, to a border security officer.

Instead, my NEXUS status is a digital credential that allows me to use automated self-serve kiosks at airports to enter either country, along with a retina or a fingerprint scan. That biometric information and my name, birthplace, birthdate, photograph and other particulars reside in a digital cloud secured by both governments.

Just as a travel document can be digitally credentialed so can a student’s learning. Yet the norm at most universities and colleges is to still use a version of a paper-based transcript.

Generally, such a transcript describes a student’s progression through a successive mishmash of courses, some related and others completely unrelated, with arcane titles, scant descriptions of the curriculum and its intended learning outcomes, and a catalog of grades based on sometimes obscure numeric or letter scales.

When students take different pathways through the academic program, evidence shows us that their educational outcomes and learned competencies can be very different. While they convey progression through a degree program by revealing milestones, transcripts do not disclose the competencies that learners gain.

The problem for new graduates is that employers look for their academic performance and the competencies that they have grained.

With the rapid rise in the volume of applications as a result of web-based portals that have increased graduates’ access to jobs, more and more hiring managers are ceasing to read transcripts and resumes, leaving the task to software in automated applicant tracking systems that scan and filter for industry-specific keywords, relevant degrees or certifications and specific skills.

A Burning Glass and Strada study reports that 43% of all US university graduates are underemployed in their first job. This includes 29% of engineering graduates, where 18% were still underemployed after five years, this despite increasing demand for university engineering programs worldwide.

How can universities relate better to the job market? A graduate’s first job is critical since the Burning Glass-Strada report shows that those who begin their careers underemployed will likely stay that way.

This will require the evolution of the traditional transcript and develop methods for credentialing more than just academic courses.

Along with the academic depth provided by a major, universities must provide evidence that a learner has developed competencies, for instance, by demonstrating creativity, indications of success working in a multidisciplinary team, sensitivity to multiculturalism and diversity, understanding of the business and social value of a solution, and a social consciousness that is coupled with ethical behaviour.

Graduates require credentials that confirm that they are work ready, able to communicate, provide leadership, known to be engaged and resilient, and how they continue lifelong learning even after conferral of their degrees.

While these credentials can still be provided in the form of traditional paper based transcripts, consider however the advantages of digital credentials that are easily shared, readily validated, and more readily scanned by automated applicant tracking systems.

The clear current choice for digital credentialing is OpenBadges, an open standard for digital credentials, which is supported by the IMS Global Learning Consortium. Recipients can place earned OpenBadges in a “Backpack” to organize certificates from different issuers and share these on displayer platforms. They can also display their own badges on their personal sites on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

With OpenBadges, displayers are required to verify the authenticity of a credential, where proof is typically provided by the issuer. An alternative to depending on the issuer for verification is to affix the proof in the method by which the credential is issued.

One solution is to embed proof in a blockchain, like Bitcoin or Ethereum. The use of these platforms is not to deal with or speculate in cryptocurrency, but to use the underlying blockchain method for instantaneous verification of the authenticity of a certificate without involvement by the institution, while also reinforcing the ‘self sovereign identity’ of recipients, who now own all of their own records with no further dependence on an institution.

When credentials can be verified in seconds and the issuer, after issuing a digital credential, removed from the verification process, an automated applicant tracking system can perform faster screening while the administrative burden placed on the issuing institution is simultaneously reduced. Such a rapid and robust response would be impractical using a paper-based transcript system.

At McMaster University, the Faculty of Engineering will begin issuing digital credentials later this month through BlockCerts, an open standard for creating, issuing, viewing, and verifying blockchain-based certificates. The validity of each credential that is issued will be anchored in the Bitcoin blockchain network.

Our first recipients will be students who have successfully completed MacChangers, which is a unique co-curricular community engagement experiential learning program that focuses on solutions for the UN sustainable development goals.

In June, all bachelor’s degree recipients from our Faculty will similarly receive their digital academic degrees.

These students will own and carry their credentials literally on their person through the BlockCerts app that would be downloaded on their smartphones. They will be able to independently share their credentials with an employer without waiting for an intermediary verification response from the university.

And, to be clear, there will be no cryptocurrency transactions between the recipients, blockchain platform and those who seek to verify credentials, such as employers. Blockchain is simply a mechanism that allows recipients to carry their own credentials in keeping with their self sovereign identity.

What are the risks of our approach?

It is possible that the Bitcoin blockchain or the BlockCerts platforms will fail, or that technology will change, making the system we have established to issue credentials obsolete and incapable of providing and verifying credentials. Therefore, to diminish risk, we will continue to record every degree using our conventional methodology, ensuring that although its digital form could disappear, other forms of proof, including the paper copy, will always be available.

To discuss digital credentials and how verification can be conducted, join me for a discussion with experts on April 10 at The Digital Credential Revolution in Higher Education panel discussion, which will be facilitated by an award winning journalist.

We will discuss microcredentials, stackable courses and digital degrees, and how their use could disrupt universities and colleges, thus offering new opportunities for both students and educators.

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