Skip to Content
77 Mass Ave

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. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

2021 tech fails concept
2021 tech fails concept

The worst technology of 2021

Face filters, billionaires in space, and home-buying algorithms that overpay all made our annual list of technology gone wrong.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

surgery
surgery

A gene-edited pig’s heart has been transplanted into a human for the first time

The procedure is a one-off, and highly experimental, but the technique could help reduce transplant waiting lists in the future.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.