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MIT Pilots Digital Diplomas Based on Bitcoin's Blockchain

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has begun offering some students the option to receive digital diplomas through an app, in addition to a traditional paper degree.

Based on Bitcoin's blockchain technology and integrated with the school's identity provider, the new diplomas are the result of a partnership between MIT and Learning Machine, a local software company. The electronic credentials were rolled out over the summer and offered to 111 students as part of a pilot program.

Dubbed Blockcerts Wallet, the app allows students to share a tamper-proof diploma with employers, schools, friends or family.

Blockchain technology records each transaction, or block, in a distributed database. Each block is timestamped and encrypted. To alter a particular block, each subsequent block would also have to be altered and the distributed nature of the information renders such tampering practically impossible.

Bitcoin's blockchain is only one of many, these days, but Chris Jagers, founder and CEO of Learning Machine, said its prioritization of security instead of speed or ease of use or cost makes it the best choice for something like a diploma.

"We believe it's still the right choice for official records that need to last a lifetime and work anywhere in the world," he said in a prepared statement.

One disadvantage to the Bitcoin blockchain is that it requires users to create public and private encryption keys.

"Blockcerts Wallet solves that problem," according to an MIT news release. "After the student downloads the app, it generates the public-private key pair and sends the public key to MIT, where it is written into the digital record. Next, a one-way hash (a string of numbers that can be used for verification later) is added to the blockchain. The diploma information itself doesn't go onto the blockchain, just the timestamped transaction indicating that MIT created the digital record. Finally, MIT emails the digital diploma (a JavaScript Object Notation file, or JSON) with the student's public key inscribed into it. Because the mobile app on the student's phone has their unique private key, the student can prove ownership of the diploma."

Blockcerts is an open-source toolkit Learning Machine built using tools developed by Philipp Schmidt, director of learning innovation at MIT's Media Lab.

Mary Callahan, registrar and senior associate dean at MIT, said that the partnership was a natural choice.

"It was the perfect confluence: technology developed at MIT and a vendor who was aware of MIT's culture as a community that values learning, at a time when a comprehensive record of lifelong learning was an evolving need," Callahan explained in a prepared statement.

Students who participated in the pilot have nearly immediate access to their digital diplomas and can share them with anyone, for free and without involving a third party, such as the registrar's office. Any individual seeking to confirm the legitimacy of a diploma can simply visit a portal and upload a file or paste in a link. The portal then consults the blockchain to ensure nothing has been altered and verifies that the diploma is accurate, if indeed it is.

"The Registrar's Office has expanded the digital diploma pilot to include a cohort of students who graduated in September," according to a news release. "Over the long term, Callahan hopes to explore the possibility of offering digital records for other learning credentials MIT students may obtain from programs such as MIT Professional Education, the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program, and the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program."

"Our goals were to build our own knowledge and confidence, while utilizing student feedback," Callahan said in a prepared statement. "We believe this adds great value to higher education."

About the Author

Joshua Bolkan is contributing editor for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe. He can be reached at [email protected].

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