Digital credentials: The next step on your digital transformation journey

Digital transformation is a difficult process for any higher ed organization. Knowing what to prioritize and how to tackle each project can be daunting.

In this conversation with Chris Jagers – founder of Learning Machine and Blockcerts.org, and now a Hyland employee – we discuss how modernizing the way schools approach distributing credentials can have far-reaching benefits on digital transformation efforts at colleges and universities.

Challenges

Q: How do most schools currently issue and distribute credentials and what are some of the challenges?

Jagers: While this varies around the world, most infrastructures have been built around the fact that paper and PDFs, the main formats used for academic credentials today, are easy to tamper with.

So, processes have been put into place to have academic records transmitted between institutions, with students somehow initiating a request each time they need to use their academic credentials.

Routing credentials by going around students creates challenges for schools, students and receiving institutions. Schools are burdened with the time and money expense of having to service document requests in an ongoing way, whether through their own office staff or by paying a vendor. Facilitating ongoing requests from each student creates tremendous overhead.

Also, students often have to spend money to use their own official records and wait long periods of time before knowing whether their credentials have been successfully transmitted and verified. Finally, the receiving institutions must map these credentials to each applicant, provide updates that the credential was received and then struggle to verify the record and extract the data from the PDF – which isn’t fully machine readable.

Overall, the current world of credential exchange still mimics a paper-based world, along with all of its inefficiencies and expenses.

Q: Why do you think most higher-ed institutions still rely on paper-based processes, despite the challenges and costs associated with them?

Jagers: Change is difficult. Most schools rely on legacy systems and must interact within an ecosystem of schools and vendors that have been structured to work this way for a very long time. Making any significant change creates a “chicken or egg” problem of deciding which can happen first: individual innovation or wholesale network change.

This is a common challenge in the world of technology and never an easy one to solve. Ultimately, though, the early movers have greater influence over the direction in which academic credentialing will move, because they can create the early effects that inspire others to join them.

Moving beyond paper

Q: What is the best tool for moving beyond the drawbacks of paper- or PDF-based credentials?

Jagers: Ultimately, academic credentials need to be digitized into a format that is human readable and machine readable. They also need to be secure enough to be trusted and portable enough to give students the same control over their official records they currently have with paper.

The technical standard for transmitting data online is mostly JSON, a structured data format which can also produce a visual layer. In 2016, MIT and Learning Machine (now a part of Hyland), pioneered how to issue credentials in this format, with the critical component of using a blockchain for security.

Basically, when a credential is conferred to a student, that transaction is time-stamped on a global network, which is later used to verify the integrity and authenticity of the credential. This open source project was released at Blockcerts.org and it continues to evolve with the W3C’s emerging standard for verifiable credentials. Anyone can use these code libraries for free.

What digital credentialing solutions do is create an online tool that makes it easy to design and issue to students. The result is a digital credential that students can hold on their mobile phone and use directly when needed, like applying for a job or subsequent education.

The credential is simply a file they can upload or share a link to if it is hosted. And, the receiver of these credentials can easily view and automatically verify them as well as extract data from them using an open-source tool (Blockcerts).

Most importantly, digital credentials provide the independence of paper, but with added benefits: they can be stored, shared and verified without any ongoing dependency on a software vendor. There’s no need to join someone else’s blockchain network or pay fees to access and verify your own records.

That’s the power of open standards.

Q: How receptive are schools to this type of digital technology and new way to issue credentials?

Jagers: There is a lot of interest in empowering students with ownership of their own records. Almost every conference and academic standards body is talking about this as part of a larger goal for more interoperable learning records.

We are also seeing a growing number of requests for proposals from schools and states that explicitly use the language of student ownership of their records.

Of course, change doesn’t happen overnight. Even when steamboats were invented, people kept using sails for a while. The same is true today with digital credentials. As schools make strategic plans for credentialing, they generally want to keep legacy methods in place even as they transition to the models of the future.

Nevertheless, the schools adopting this new technology today are the visionaries and early adopters who are helping to shape future approaches.

Benefits

Q: How does digital credentialing improve the student/alumni experience?

Jagers: Digital credentials improve the recipient experience in several ways. Beyond always having them on hand for easy reference, you can share credentials like awards or diplomas online to both celebrate and verify achievements. Think about how online profiles today don’t have any way to verify whether the claims are true.

With digital credentials, you can now have verified resumes that anyone can instantly check.

Further, as students receive education from various schools using different software systems, they can easily assemble all their records in a single place, forming a comprehensive portfolio of achievement. When they need to use a credential, they don’t have to pay money or wait for someone else to send it where it needs to go.

They simply click a button to share it.

And, of course, they don’t need to request new copies each time a record needs to be verified because the copy they have is a re-usable “master copy.”

For students who have grown up with the internet, this is the experience they expect. Many don’t understand why they can’t take a photo of their online gradebook and text it to someone. That wasn’t possible before, because you could easily tamper with credentials.

But now, with Blockcerts, that peer-to-peer sharing experience is possible.

Q: What benefits do digital credentials provide to the issuing institution?

Jagers: Beyond empowered students, institutions that issue digital credentials gain four kinds of benefits. The first is security and fraud prevention, since you can’t easily forge these credentials.

The second is ownership of their own records and signing keys. Blockcerts are cryptographically “co-owned” by the issuer and the recipient, giving the issuer the ability to bring all of their credentialing in-house, rather than outsourcing it to third parties.

The third is enhanced brand visibility and reputation, since these credentials can be shared online and are instantly verifiable. Since graduates love these capabilities, this benefit also translates into a positive alumni-relations strategy.

The fourth is the potential for long-term savings on the time and labor of verifying already-issued credentials, since you can issue digital credentials once and then students can reuse them whenever they need to.

Q: Fraudulent degrees and credentials are a known issue in higher ed. How does a digital credentialing solution help combat this challenge?

Jagers: It’s true, anyone can buy a fake diploma or simply make a false claim on their resume.

By contrast, digital credentials are digitally signed by the issuing institution, not a software vendor, which provides cryptographic proof of the credential’s origin. After all, it doesn’t matter how a credential looks if it didn’t come from a known and reputable institution.

Blockcerts also verify that a real credential hasn’t been tampered with. The temptation to edit the name or grades on a transcript, for example, is a major reason why credential exchange has typically bypassed the student. That is no longer necessary.

First steps

Q: How can digital credentialing solutions tie into the digital transformation efforts schools are already pursuing?

Jagers: Verifiable digital credentials are an essential part of digital transformation because they create an ecosystem of interoperable data exchange and seamless verification of claims. This resolves two major pain points facing institutions today.

Unlike PDFs, digital credentials are essentially software which you can imbue with meaning, dynamically integrate into workflows, and instantly verify. PDFs are just electronic and static versions of paper; but digital credentials replace paper with the unlimited potential of a natively digital canvas.

Q: What you do recommend as the first step for schools interested in exploring digital credentials?

Jagers: Make sure to circulate your interest internally with other stakeholders, the Registrar in particular.

If digital credentials line up with your larger strategic plans, I’d recommend reaching out to a provider for a discussion and demo so you can see how the solution works.

In the meantime, take a look at how digital credential solutions can help your institution take the next step on its digital transformation journey.

Sheryl Altschuler

Sheryl Altschuler

Sheryl Altschuler is Hyland’s solution marketing manager for the government and higher education industries. In her role, Sheryl’s responsibilities include go-to-market planning, positioning, content development and market research and intelligence.... read more about: Sheryl Altschuler

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