Southern New Hampshire University graduates might soon have a new way to prove they actually earned a diploma.
The university, which has 60,000 online students, recently announced a pilot program to provide roughly 1,000 alumni with the opportunity to receive blockchain-based digital credentials, an ambitious use of the technology industry’s trendiest innovation.
The digital credentials will not replace paper degrees or traditional transcripts, said Colin Van Ostern, the college’s vice president of workforce initiatives and head of the pilot program, but will serve as an enhanced version of a student’s academic record and as a platform to organize the certifications, competencies and achievements that come with lifelong learning.
“[The blockchain-enabled credentials] are portable, secure, user-owned credentials that contain a representation of the degree itself, as well as a list of the course equivalents that the student completed while enrolled, down to the more granular competencies,” Van Ostern said.
Blockchain technology — which relies on a decentralized digital ledger and uses strong cryptography to resist errors — can offer security and portability for students looking to display their skills beyond a list of course names, Heidi Wilkes, another official leading the pilot, told EdScoop. Prospective employers will also be able to trust the information they see.
The digital credentials will be shareable on LinkedIn and social media, Van Ostern said, much like a PDF or resume for employers to view. While SNHU is choosing to embed mastered competencies in its metadata, Van Ostern says “you could embed anything — portfolios, artifacts, projects, any evidence of learning.”
The students involved in the pilot can list, depending on their field of study, up to 120 specific competencies in the metadata of their digital credential, Wilkes said. She used the example of a student mastering competency in “using charts and graphs to convey information” and relaying that information to a potential employer through the credential — providing instant access to information that would normally be conveyed in an interview.
There will be challenges, at least initially, with getting other institutions and employers on board with this idea, Van Ostern said. SNHU is working with the edtech consortium IMS Global to develop consistent standards, but frankly, he said, “there are a limited number of applications for students who receive the blockchain.”
“It’s an emerging technology — there are some things you use it for and some you can’t, and that’s true with any emerging technology,” he said.
To move past the pilot, SNHU will need to make a significant investment of time and money in IT and systems integration, Wilkes said. Over the next four to six months, she said, SNHU will collect additional information about how students are using the digital credentials, their satisfaction level and potential future use cases to evaluate the market for blockchain technology before moving forward.