Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Barker Library (via Pixabay).
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MIT leads coalition putting academic credentials on blockchain

Nine universities from Munich to Toronto are involved in the project to make degrees and certification secure yet easily verifiable

Nine universities including MIT, UC Berkeley, and Harvard are teaming up to put academic credentials on blockchain. The goal of the Digital Credentials project is to create a trusted and shared standard for the issuing, storing, displaying, and verifying of academic credentials, according to a release issued by MIT’s Office of Open Learning.

By using blockchain’s immutable, shared ledger technology, the goal is to create the infrastructure for a standard method of making credentials verifiable yet easily accessible to those who earned them and employers or educational institutions that would need to confirm them. It is intended to be easily managed, secure, and inexpensive, as well as minimizing the risk of tampering and fraud.

“Currently, those who successfully complete a degree from an institution must go back to that institution—sometimes by mail or even in person—each time there is a need to verify the academic credentials earned,” said Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning. “This can be a complicated problem, especially if the learner no longer has access to the university. Such is the case with many refugees, immigrants, and displaced populations.”

It can also be a problem if the person is broke, as universities often charge substantial fees to produce certified copies of credentials, whereas the Digital Credentials would be owned by the recipient. It would also be easier for people to curate and compile all of their credentials in one spot.

The program is built on earlier work by universities, such as MIT’s pilot program that issues graduates a verifiable digital version of their diplomas on a blockchain.

While focused on academia, the standard is not intended to be limited to it. The same technology could be used to store other learning achievements, ranging from internships and bootcamps to professional association credentials and continuing education like the MicroMasters available via MIT’s MITx online learning initiative.

“As teaching and learning offered by our universities has come to encompass digital platforms and as each of our learners have gained the power to shape their own educational trajectory over a lifetime, the question of trusted verification and authentication of learning and credentials poses itself with broad urgency,” said Diana Wu, dean of university extension and new academic ventures at University of California, Berkeley.

Other universities working on this effort include Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, TU Munich and the Hasso Plattner Institute of the University of Potsdam in Germany, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, the University of Toronto in Canada, and the University of California, Irvine.

“Digital credentials are like tokens of social and human capital and hold tremendous value for the individual,” said Philipp Schmidt, director of learning innovation at the MIT Media Lab. “The crucial opportunity we have today is to bring together institutions that share a commitment to the benefit of learners, and who can act as stewards of this infrastructure.”

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Leo Jakobson, Modern Consensus editor-in-chief, is a New York-based journalist who has traveled the world writing about incentive travel. He has also covered consumer and employee engagement, small business, the East Coast side of the Internet boom and bust, and New York City crime, nightlife, and politics. Disclosure: Jakobson has put some 401k money into Grayscale Bitcoin Trust.