A hard-earned diploma is one of the most important things in the world to students who have spent years working for it, and probably losing a lot of time, effort and sleep to it as well – and there is nothing more satisfying than being able to hold it in your hand, knowing it was all worth it. However, there are many downsides to physical credentials that aren’t fully owned by the students that have earned them. They aren’t easily accessible, and students may find themselves having to reacquire their documentation for a sometimes considerable fee when they want to enrol in a new school or change their career path. Moreover, physical credentials aren’t tamper-proof and can be altered, as well as being lost or damaged through no fault of the person that those qualifications belong to.
However, a new solution has recently been introduced. The latest developments in blockchain technology are allowing students to own, access, and manage their diplomas digitally. Universities such as MIT and New Mexico Community College are pioneering this digital credentials system, and are finding the positives to be hugely beneficial to the students who want to know that their diplomas are safe and can be accessed easily through an application on their smartphone. To ensure the security of the documents, the app uses the same blockchain technology as the ever-growing digital currency Bitcoin.
But what is blockchain? It is essentially a database, a digital ledger. This database stores ‘blocks’, which are just records. Each block contains a timestamp and a link to the previous block. These databases use encryption to ensure that only blocks that are owned by a certain user can be altered by that user – meaning that no one can tamper with someone else’s records, as you would have to ‘own’ the block (which is defined through a user having a private key without which they cannot write files). One of the security benefits of blockchain is that there is no one single centre of control, with the database being controlled autonomously, using peer-to-peer network connections. In simple terms, it’s impossible to alter a block on blockchain retrospectively because thousands of other computers all over the world will point out the inconsistency. Therefore, nobody can ‘steal’ this information.
The main attraction of digital diplomas is that students have autonomy over their own records, which has previously been impossible. At MIT, students have an app called Blockcerts Wallet which allows them to easily access a verifiable version of their diploma that they can share with friends, schools and employers. Chris Jagers, co-founder and CEO of Learning Machine has said: “MIT has issued official records in a format that can exist even if the institution goes away, even if we go away as a vendor…”. This is another huge benefit of digital diplomas – students will not have to worry about the loss of their credentials if their alma mater goes extinct, as they will be safe in the blockchain.
It is likely that, as the world becomes more invested in the non-physical, digital diplomas controlled through blockchain will become more and more popular, allowing for more student empowerment and autonomy in the future.