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Digital diplomas

Blockchain technology gives grads control over their academic credentials.

In addition to traditional leather-bound certificates, over the past year 619 MIT graduates were given the option of receiving a digital version of their diploma through a pilot program to make academic credentials secure and portable.

The MIT Media Lab and the MIT Registrar’s Office partnered with Learning Machine, a Cambridge-based software company, to set up the Blockcerts collaboration, which issued diplomas linked to the same blockchain that underlies Bitcoin. The idea was to let students securely store and share their credentials, and allow employers to immediately verify them. For people displaced by disasters, that could be critical.

“I don’t believe in one central body having ownership over the digital record of people’s learning,” says Philipp Schmidt, director of learning innovation at the Media Lab, who spearheaded the collaboration. “Bitcoin blockchain lets us give the data back to the individual recipients.”

“Before graduation, MIT sends the students an invite e-mail, which says ‘Hey, go download the Blockcerts Wallet app, accept the pass phrase, and add MIT as an issuer,’” says Chris Jagers, cofounder and CEO of Learning Machine. “When MIT issues the diplomas, the student gets an e-mail with a digital file, which they can then import into the app.”

The app anchors the digital files on the blockchain, which works like a massive spreadsheet accessible to a global network of computers and holds millions of lines of encrypted transactions. With Bitcoin, these are monetary transactions. For digital diplomas, they transmit credentials from school to student.

The transactions are verified in batches (or blocks) by having computers solve mathematical puzzles. Then the blocks are added to the chain, where they are accessible to the entire network but encrypted to keep their contents secure.

Decrypting the diploma file requires two separate keys: a public key held by MIT and whomever the student shares the diploma with, and a private key known only to the student, which is generated upon downloading the Blockcerts Wallet app.

MIT registrar Mary Callahan says she wanted to use the security and flexibility of blockchain technology to give students control over their own records. As of March, 214 MIT students had downloaded their Blockcerts Wallet; in light of the pilot’s success, Callahan is aiming to offer digital diplomas to all MIT students graduating this June.

Blockchain verification technology could prove life-changing for refugees and disaster victims whose universities may no longer store credentials or even exist.

“There are all kinds of disasters,” says Learning Machine’s Jagers, “whether it’s a disaster of war like in Syria, or a natural disaster like in the Bahamas, or a technical disaster like in Equifax—these kinds of things happen all the time, and they’re inevitable.” By linking credentials to a blockchain, he adds, “we can ensure that we don’t have a single point of failure and that people can actually own their identity documents without any ongoing dependency on the original issuers or any particular vendor.”

Jagers says he expects a “new normal around digital records” within five to 10 years. 

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