Digitizing the university degree: how blockchain is going to redefine bachelors
Article first published on Agenda Digitale on August 27th 2019.
The University of Padua and the University of Milan-Bicocca, pioneers in experimenting the digitization of the degree through the Blockcerts system with the technical support of Cineca, have been invited to participate in the working group led by MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology - to design a system capable of guaranteeing portability and verifiability of university degrees, without any need to contact the issuing university but providing the highest security. The international meeting provided a context to focus on the global and national impact of what can be outlined as the future of the degree, starting from the diffusion of digital documents.
MIT's working group and the European scenario
The working group – announced in April 2019 and initially formed by nine universities from USA, Canada, Mexico, Germany and the Netherlands – opened up to the two Italian universities that recently adopted the Blockcerts standard, initially designed by MIT itself, and currently representing the only readily available working system to create this desired disintermediated verifiability.
In Europe too digital credentialing is a core topic: the European Digital Credentials Initiative proposes an overall framework where digital credentials of any level can be coordinated and valorized in the new Europass formats, while also a Blockchain Observatory and researches on the use of Blockchain for Education are being promoted. A lot of work is being done on this topic, and the Universities of Padua and Bicocca represent an avant-garde of first adopters: they are the first Italian universities notarizing degrees on a public Blockchain following the Blockcerts standard through Cineca's platform Bestr.
The working group guided by MIT is made by universities looking forward, to what will be the nature of university learning in a few years.
The digital revolution and industry 4.0 completely redefined learning needs, so learning paths are also changing, or will need to change. Considering how fast science and technology are progressing, a brief period of 3-5 years is not sufficient any more to create competencies that will be necessary for a whole professional life. Lifelong learning is needed, and every block of this path needs to be certified and added to other blocks. Moreover, a learner wanting to optimize his/her learning path will need to be free to get specific competencies from a university specialized in X, others at a university specialized in Y, others again on a high-quality MOOC platform, others again with experience in a company, and so on. It's the concept of stackable learning, made of multiple modules, each certified by a different institution, all stackable: proposed not by an institution but by a network of institutions and learning platforms.
Digitize and decentralize
If we want to get to the extreme conclusions of this argument, it is the medieval concept of degree which is going to die.
The cumulative learning path will not be certified by a single final title anymore, a rigid one that cannot be expanded: it will be recognized by many stackable microcredentials. Bicocca and Padua are among the most innovative universities in Italy and are trying to keep pace with the rest of the world.
In a world that is getting smaller and where students' and workers' mobility is a daily business, verifying the authenticity and validity of a degree becomes an obligatory step for many recruitment processes. For universities, responding to such requests is costly, and represents a bottleneck with ripercussions on the student, sometimes translating to a missed communication. Decentralizing verification of the validity of a title and removing every cost for this operation - in terms of time, effort and money - seems a little improvement for those not familiar with university governance, but it is already a huge step for student mobility, both among universitites and in the job market.
Blockcerts certifications could open even more interesting developments, such as decentralizing the upload of credits and microcredentials on a student's track of records so as to remove any administrative bottleneck to his/her international mobility. It is little known among those not working in universities, but currently communications between central offices of universities - needed to mutually recognize study credits - is the main obstacle to student mobility.
Verifiability of the degree - anytime, anywhere, and independently from the issuing institution and its reachability -, becomes crucial in forced mobility scenarios connected to political instability and migrations. For this reason the solution currently sought after should be applicable everywhere in the world so as to effectively facilitate exchange of talents. If verifiability of the degree without needing to reach out to the issuing institution is always important, it becomes a tool to guarantee human rights in the above mentioned contexts. Both Bicocca and Padua already had many cases of migrant or refugee students declaring degrees issued by schools or universities which could not be contacted anymore. In some cases not even embassies or specialized entities such as CIMEA are able to help.
It is even worse when we are not dealing with completed degrees but with tracking of records: for instance, Yazidi refugees have been hosted in Bicocca for some years, and some of them arrived declaring credits and passed exams at universities in their country of origin, but it has been absolutely impossible to verify their authenticity. When these people will be able to save their "self-verifying" records on the cloud, all these problems will be finally solved.
The advantages of adopting transversa international technologies are manifold for students and universities, both at short and middle range. In the short distance, students will not need to queue up and pay taxes to get duplicates of degree certificates any more: if they want to follow on their studies in other institutions - in Italy or abroad - they will be able to provide their degree by email and the receiving institution will be able to verify them instantly. Then, as the awareness of such digital credentials spreads to the job market, the same facilitations will be useful in the first steps of screening for any job position.
Resumées based on self-declarations will not be needed any more: the potential employer could be given direct access to the student's academic certifications wallet. Digitization of degrees will not only make them verifiable: there are many points that are currently being worked on, both in Italy and internationally, to bring the degree into the future. For instance, making learning paths much more flexible and based not on single institutions but on a network, focussed on getting microcredentials through recognized assessments, independently from the learning path.
Let's consider a student needing to learn quantum mechanics for his/her degree to an amount corresponding to 12 credits. Does the student or society care if he/she learns it through a traditional course provided by Padua or by Bicocca, or through a MOOC provided by MIT or through a friend's teaching or through autonomous study of quality books? No, everybody only cares that he/she learns it well and can demonstrate it. So, if we publish detailed syllabuses (lists of everything a student needs to know and be able to do in order to demonstrate that he/she adequately knows quantum mechanics) and we provide experts with panels and/or sets of questions and exams to evaluate such competencies, then any learner considering that he/she has learned quantum mechanics enough can enrol to a qualified assessment, in any authorized institution, and try to pass it. If he/she passes, learning credits will go into his/her track of records without any strict connection with how the student learned.
Implications for recruiters and institutions
It's not easy to predict how such innovation will be received by recruiters and institutions. Some scenarios open up which can completely change how recruiting happens. For example, the availability of a digital tool for instant verification of the degree could make degree verification a daily activity for recruiters, thus minimizing fraud.
This perspective is where the future of this innovation is at stake: if it stays reserved to a few universities issuing digital credentials while many others and the job market don't even know about it, it will soon die. If other universities start issuing, accepting and requesting digital credentials, it will be just a few years before we see paper certificates disappear and the traffic of digital university credentials dramatically increase.
“From a technological point of view, one format or another is not a big difference, as long as they are solid and answer to the use case's needs" - highlights Cineca's CEO, David Vannozzi –. While designing technical solutions, Cineca chose on purpose to avoid strict ties with specific technologies, but instead to support the concept of digital credentials, that can be expressed in any needed format - be it Open badge, Blockcerts or any new standard - as long as security, authenticity and verifiability of a degree are guaranteed and the University needs to devote less effort to its adminstrative operations, while being able to pursue the innovation that digitization makes possible - such as the stackable credentials approach - as it best sees fit. Therefore our goal is not only to support Italian universities in their innovation path, but to do so integrating systems that are already in use and that for many years have been the digital respository of all information pertaining to didactics, students and degrees”.