Authentication of Education Credentials
The past decade has seen an explosion in the availability of and demand for online
courses. The availability has been fuelled by the rapid expansion of The World Wide Web
and Internet availability as well as a move towards Web 2.0 technologies. The most
startling development has been that of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) with
many courses being offered free of charge, targeting soft as well as hard skills. These
courses are massive in that they have extremely large enrolments by traditional
educational standards, are open to all and one hundred percent online attracting a global
student audience. Over time the product offerings of many of the MOOC Providers
(Udacity, Udemy and many others) expanded to provide paid-for major awards such as
“nanodegrees” particularly in technology disciplines such as software development,
artificial intelligence and machine learning. Many of these companies formed strategic
alliances with traditional universities to provide formal academic qualifications (Thrun,
2013). The Open University UK founded FutureLearn in December 2012 with 11
traditional UK universities as founding partners to expand their offerings and broaden
their reach. As of May 2018 the Open University in the UK has partnered with over 143
UK and international partners, including many traditional universities through
FutureLearn (Futurelearn, 2015).
The demand for these courses has also much to do with the growing acknowledgement that we live in an era of lifelong learning and that individuals will expect to carry on their learning throughout their working life. It is also clear that employers are in fact demanding almost constant upskilling and reskilling for their employees to meet the needs of enterprise. In the fast-paced world of modern business, gaining new knowledge ahead of the competition, especially from a technology perspective can be the difference between success and failure. In a recent report from the Irish Government on the Future of Jobs in Ireland (Ireland, 2019) entitled “Preparing Now for Tomorrow’s Economy”, they state that while the economy is in a strong position having recovered from the financial crisis, there are significant vulnerabilities in the domestic economy such as declining productivity levels for SMEs. A key factor in this demise are skills deficits amongst the labour force and availability of labour with the required skills. The report goes on to state that while the future is uncertain, it’s clear that by 2025 the economy will have changed significantly and this will bring both opportunity and challenges. One of the key challenges are the skills required for this new economic paradigm as technology will herald new ways of doing business and new economic opportunities – certain job roles will disappear or be redefined and emerging job roles will require new and different skillsets altogether. In particular they cite cutting edge technological areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality, Data Analytics, the Internet of Things and Blockchain. This is a strategic imperative to ensure highly productive, sustainable workforce that will be resilient into the future.
Traditional third-level institutions are also playing their part in the provision of
skills development courses available in a flexible manner to suit individuals in the
workplace. Through the Government of Ireland Springboard initiative which was initiated
in response to the financial crisis of 2008 to reskill workers who found themselves
unemployed and unemployable during the recession which followed. That programme
was instrumental in reducing the live register from a peak of 15% in 2011 down to less
than 4% in 2017. The Springboard programme however has continued and is now about
reskilling and upskilling a largely employed cohort of individuals. Through Springboard
courses are offered to participants by third level institutions both public and private. As
most participants are working, courses are predominantly delivered in a fully online or
The issuance of academic credentials has for many years been a paper-based
mechanism administrated by the awarding institutions. The “parchment” is a time-old
tradition which marks the achievement of a qualification with a degree of ceremony to
which it deserves. In practice the official documentation takes the form of a transcript of
student results often accompanied by a certificate and more often than not in the 21st
century delivered by electronic means. The turn-around time for academic transcripts is
often far too slow with a lengthy verification process which can take weeks from the time
of the original request to the time the requesting agent receives them. There is an
increasing pressure from all involved to provide these transcripts in a timely fashion,
including the awarding body themselves as it is becoming an increasingly onerous
administrative task. Some institutions are relying on pdf format transcripts appended
with electronic signatures but the method is vulnerable to forgery. The increasing
volume of courses available coupled with rising demand from enterprise and individuals
alike is placing increasing pressure on education providers to come up with a solution.
Over the past decade a number of organisations are seeking to provide recognition of formal academic qualifications in the form of digital certificates and formal (or informal) short courses in the form of digital badges or micro-credentials (Jirgensons and Kapenieks, 2018). Mozilla’s open digital badges have become the unofficial global standard and is built on an open standard. However, the system is dependent on trust in the system and the member educational institutes who provide verification. Badges could become “orphaned” or worse turn into “zombie” badges when issuers no longer want or are unable to host them, the badges have to be supported by a network of trust. Some experiments with blockchain seek to remedy this situation by creating a permanent, secure and sustainable infrastructure for educational credentials. The MIT Media Lab has produced Blockcerts (Blockcerts, 2019) built on the Bitcoin blockchain and the Open University in the UL has developed Digital Badges which they call Micro- credentials built on the Ethereum blockchain utilising smart contracts. Both are Open Source products. Many other EU nations are experimenting with educational blockchain. The University of Nicosia in Cyprus is one of the first universities in the world that provides full blockchain credentials including all certificates and diplomas. The University also boasts of being the number one in the world for blockchain education (Jirgensons and Kapenieks, 2018). It also accepts Bitcoin for application and tuition payments. The UNIC blockchain infrastructure is built using the MIT Blockcerts implementation (Grech and Camilleri, 2017). There are many other pilot projects either completed or underway across the EU although the researcher is unaware of any pilot projects underway in Ireland.
Trust implications for the provision of digital badges
Poorly implemented badging systems have the potential to create an ethical and
possibly legal quandry where learners will quickly lose trust and the system is doomed to
fail. When a digital badge becomes a credential of learner achievement, be it large or
small, the issues of value, acceptance and trust begin to arise (Ifenthaler et al., 2016).
The value of a badging system in education requires the establishment of trust and
support across an ever-widening range of stakeholders involved.
Blockchain is emerging as a way to generate networks where validity, trust and
accountability can be created. The blockchain is an open, public, decentralised and
secure digital registry where information transactions are secured and have a clear
origin, explicit relationships and concrete value (Funk et al., 2018).
Placing the learner at the centre
The ultimate beneficiary of the certificate of achievement is the learner and as such
it’s important that the learner is in control of their achievement data. Many proponents
of digital badging in education assert the view that we must think about the badges in
the context of learning analytics – that it’s ultimately “student data” about themselves
and they should have the ability to display, sort, shuffle or filter according to their needs,
especially with the advent of the ardent lifelong learner whose “Digital CV” may become
unwieldy as they progress through their career (Ifenthaler et al., 2016). Again,
blockchain has the potential to put the user in control of the data about themselves, they
will have their own digital wallet and given the decentralised nature of the blockchain
network, no single central authority has control.
BECK, R., AVITAL, M., ROSSI, M. & THATCHER, J. B. 2017. Blockchain Technology in Business and Information Systems Research. Business & information systems engineering., 59, 381-384.
BLOCKCERTS. 2019. Blockchain Credentials [Online]. Available: http://blockcerts.org/ [Accessed March 2019]. BUTERIN, V. 2013. A Next-Generation Smart Contract and Decentralized Application Platform.
CAMERON, K. 2005. The Laws of Identity.
CASINO, F., DASAKLIS, T. K. & PATSAKIS, C. 2019. A systematic literature review of blockchain-based applications: Current status, classification and open issues. Telematics and informatics., 36, 55-81. COINMARKETCAP. 2019. Cryptocurrency Market Capitalizations | CoinMarketCap [Online]. Available: https://coinmarketcap.com/ [Accessed March 2019].
DUNPHY, P. & PETITCOLAS, F. A. P. 2018. A First Look at Identity Management Schemes on the Blockchain. IEEE security & privacy., 16, 20-29.
FUNK, E., RIDDELL, J., ANKEL, F. & CABRERA, D. 2018. Blockchain Technology. Academic medicine journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges., 93, 1791-1794.
FUTURELEARN 2015. Twelve top British universities have signed up to Futurelearn, a new programme offeringfree degree-style online courses to the public in direct competition with US-led rivals Coursera and EdX.
GRECH, A. & CAMILLERI, A. F. 2017. Blockchain in Education. Luxembourg : Publications Office of the European Union 2017, 132 S. – (JRC Science for Policy Report).
IFENTHALER, D., BELLIN-MULARSKI, N., MAH, D.-K., WILLIS, J. E., FLINTOFF, K. & MCGRAW, B. 2016. A Philosophy of Open Digital Badges. 81-40.
IRELAND, G. O. 2019. Future Jobs Ireland 2019.
JIRGENSONS, M. & KAPENIEKS, J. 2018. Blockchain and the Future of Digital Learning Credential Assessment and Management. Journal of teacher education for sustainability., 20, 145-156.
KITCHENHAM, B. & BRERETON, P. 2013. A systematic review of systematic review process research in software engineering. Information and software technology, 55, 2049-2075.
LAWLOR, B. 2018. An Overview of the NFAIS 2018 Annual Conference: Information Transformation: Open, Global, Collaborative. Information services & use., 38, 1-31.
LEE, S. T. B. 2019. A contract for the Web [Online]. Available: https://contractfortheweb.org/ [Accessed April 2019].
MALER, E. & REED, D. 2008. The Venn of Identity: Options and Issues in Federated Identity Management. IEEE security & privacy., 6, 16-23.
NAKAMOTO, S. 2008. Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system.
OTJACQUES, B., HITZELBERGER, P. & FELTZ, F. 2007. Interoperability of E-Government Information Systems: Issues of Identification and Data Sharing. Journal of management information systems., 23, 29-51. THRUN, S. 2013. Udacity partner with San Jose University.
YUAN, C. & LIN, Y. 2010. A survey of Identity Management technology. 287-293.
ZHAO, J. L., FAN, S. & YAN, J. 2016. Overview of business innovations and research opportunities in blockchain and introduction to the special issue. Financial innovation., 2.