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Why We Are Using Blockchain for Digital Credentialing

East Coast Polytechnic Institute is giving students full control over their academic records with blockchain-enabled digital credentials that are sharable and verifiable anywhere in the world.  


It's been just over a year since the East Coast Polytechnic Institute began issuing digital diplomas as an early adopter of blockchain technology and the Blockcerts open standard. During that time, our institution has issued nearly 1,600 digital diplomas and become a leading advocate for the use of blockchain for secure digital credentials.

ECPI is an accredited university that serves students in several southern states and online. Throughout our history, ECPI has taken a pioneering market-based approach to curriculum and works closely with employers and students to create degree programs that meet evolving market needs. One of our core values is "innovation in education," including the use of emerging technologies to enhance students' experience and maximize their success.

Deconstructing Archaic Credentialing Processes

Higher education is steeped in tradition, and one of the most meaningful traditions is the graduation ceremony where diplomas are awarded. That piece of paper symbolizes the successful completion of a degree program and confers all the "rights and privileges pertaining thereto." But a piece of paper isn't easily shared with future employers, graduate programs or other entities that require proof of a degree.

That's why many secondary and postsecondary institutions rely on the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) for the secure and FERPA-compliant transfer of student records. This service has allowed the registrars of participating institutions to effectively outsource the degree verification process. From the institution's perspective, this frees staff from the time-consuming and low-value activity of fulfilling verification requests.

But, employers or other requesters are charged a fee for this service, and it still means that student records are controlled by a third party and not by the students themselves. Furthermore, not all institutions and employers participate in the National Student Clearinghouse, leaving the door open for résumé fraud if a candidate misrepresents his or her education.  

Investigating Blockchain

In our case, ECPI wanted a way to convey digital records that are cryptographically signed by issuers, recipient-owned, tamper proof, vendor independent, shareable and verifiable anywhere in the world. As CIO at ECPI, I realized that the blockchain work being done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had the potential to dramatically change the way graduates interacted with the school and future employers. Instead of relying on paper diplomas or alterable PDF files and lengthy requests for verification, students could present employers with digital credentials that would be immediately and securely verified.

Blockchain is a securely encrypted and widely distributed electronic transaction ledger that contains time-stamped data. Because each block builds on the one before it, the data contained in earlier blocks can't be altered without affecting every subsequent block. Blockchains are stored on peer-to-peer networks, making them decentralized and distributed, and further enhancing their security.

Blockcerts is an open standard for building the applications that are used for creating, issuing, viewing and verifying blockchain-based certificates. Blockcerts was designed to work across multiple blockchains, so users aren't limited to a specific public or private chain. An institution like ECPI creates and issues a blockchain containing the student's earned credential, pulling the critical transcript and course information from our student information system Campus Management CampusNexus Student. The student receives and views that blockchain using the Blockcerts app on their phone. The app allows the student to share the Blockcerts, which can then be verified by the interested party.

Putting Blockchain on the ECPI Map

Adopting an innovative technology requires time, planning and testing. At ECPI, we decided on a pilot program and rolled out digital credentials in phases. The first phase consisted of issuing digital degrees to employees who were also ECPI graduates. At the same time, we let students in the upcoming graduating class know that they would be receiving digital diplomas in addition to their pieces of parchment. We made sure to explain to students how the Blockcerts worked, as well as the benefits of having control over their own academic records.

We also needed to educate faculty, staff and campus leadership on the changes. In a mass hands-on exercise, all attendees at the annual faculty conference were asked to install the Blockcerts app on their mobile devices. At the conclusion of the conference, all attendees were able to access a digital certificate of completion that they could download or share with anyone.

Our pilot class of students received their Blockcerts enthusiastically, and with the appreciation that they now had full control over their own credentials. In general, they found the experience to be positive and straightforward and were excited by the use of this innovative technology. At a time when people are paying bills, making purchases and managing their lives on their phones, having their college diplomas accessible in this fashion seemed natural.

Looking Ahead

At ECPI, we're envisioning a time not too far in the future when many more institutions will adopt blockchain technology, not just for the cost-saving benefits to the school, but for the security and protection of students and employers. We are already working with leading corporate institutions that employ ECPI graduates, such as Texas Instruments, Raytheon and others, to enable degree verification and eliminate résumé fraud. We can provide an immediate, straightforward way for employers to eliminate background fraud and streamline degree verification.

Blockcerts can be used for any academic credential, and we're now moving into our next phase where we'll be adding transcripts, badges and other certifications to our students' digital credentials with the help of CampusNexus Student. With that step, we'll be able to give ECPI graduates a complete record of their academic achievements that's theirs to share and distribute as they see fit via the blockchain URL.  

Ultimately, our use of blockchain greatly enhances the portability of ECPI academic credentials while increasing their veracity. We certainly anticipate that this technology will give ECPI students a leg up in competitive job situations where potential employers can receive instant verification of an applicant's credentials. We also foresee this technology one day moving into the high school realm, where students will be able to easily share academic records with universities – making it a self-service process.

In the end, blockchain has helped create a win-win scenario for our institution's constituents. Our students now retain proof of and control over their achievements indefinitely. And employers benefit from a process that allows them to quickly and easily verify educational histories on a résumé.

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