Every week at the University of Washington in Seattle, the registrar’s office staff comes across at least three fraudulent diplomas. Every month, they uncover about two fraudulent transcripts.
“And these are just the ones we see,” says Helen Garrett, registrar and chief officer for enrollment information services.
“Our student database has not been hacked and is secure, but people pretend to have UW credentials who never attended or graduated from the university, and they try to pass doctored diplomas by employers, when applying for scholarships or grants, and even when applying to academic programs.”
U.S.-based colleges and universities rely on transcripts to prove a student attended or graduated, and international institutions rely on diplomas. Both types of documents, frequently requested by former students seeking a job or additional academic credentials, are not easily copied.
They are also difficult to obtain, often requiring former students to remember an old ID number or portal access code, and typically take three to five days to process.
Growing numbers of institutions want to revamp this antiquated process to provide academic credentials more quickly and securely with blockchain. The technology, which underlies bitcoin virtual currency, is a bookkeeping method that “chains” together entries so they’re difficult to modify later.
It allows large groups of unrelated organizations—including colleges and universities—to keep a secure, common record.
SIDEBAR: Beyond blockchain
Steps to blockchain adoption involve understanding the work required to make the switch, how the technology will improve service for students seeking academic records, and how it could disrupt the register’s office status quo.
Garrett, who has been researching blockchain for the past two years, gives presentations across the country for AACRAO, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Her aim: Get other registrars to see blockchain’s potential for warding off fraud. “I am on a crusade to convince my registrar peers to begin exploring blockchain as a way to validate our transcripts and diploma credentials,” she says.
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A few higher ed institutions have begun making strides.
Since the 2018 summer term, Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque has provided all graduates with the free option to receive a digital diploma that can be accessed online.
The college expects to begin offering digital transcripts on the blockchain to students by late spring or summer 2019, says Feng Hou, chief information officer.
Similarly, Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma offers blockchain certificates for non-degree programs and plans to use the technology to replace and streamline outdated processes, says Michael Mathews, vice president of technology and innovation, and developer of the EDUFAX system.
Now patented and available to other schools, that system uses blockchain to show an individual’s entire education and career history.
Benefits of blockchain for credentials
The blockchain gives students immediate access to their own data in a secure manner. For instance, Central New Mexico began exploring the technology as part of an institutional goal to transition “from college-owned technology to student-owned technology,” Hou says.
“Graduates can securely and easily access their diplomas—and share them with employers, other schools or on social media, such as LinkedIn—for the rest of their lives.”
The approach also offers improved security, requiring an impossible-to-replicate identity match, says Oral Roberts’ Mathews. That’s more secure than the current process, which usually involves a phone or email request from a student and a sealed envelope issued by the university.
Former students can request their transcripts numerous times, so there could be scores of “official transcripts” floating around for each person.
Blockchain technologies validate that there is truly just one official transcript, Mathews says.
The ability for all education institutions to contribute to that one official record for each individual is another reason to consider the technology. “With most appearing to be stand-alone entities, it is hard for them to see themselves interconnected in a value chain,” Mathews says.
“However, the truth of the matter is that the value chain or supply chain for any institution includes the K12 experience, prior life or work experience, career choices, pre-education assessments, industry connections and job fulfillment.”
Blockchain in practice
Accessing and using a blockchain transcript sounds simple, but actually making it happen requires a complete paradigm change. “With any technical transformation, it is 2 percent technology and 98 percent cultural shift,” Garrett says.
Starting slow can lead to success. While Washington isn’t ready to put credentials out on a distributed, peer-to-peer blockchain private network, leaders are considering embedding a unique code in each transcript and diploma, and when that exact code is entered into the university’s website, it would validate the credential.
Because Stanford University in California has already developed a similar process, Garrett hopes to work with administrators there to replicate it at Washington.
Oral Roberts started with a very small sampling to make sure leaders understood the process, security and value. After evaluating three different vendors, administrators chose Blockcerts to process the first few hundred blockchain certificates.
At Central New Mexico, leaders began with campuswide meetings, emails and other communication to increase blockchain awareness and achieve broad understanding and acceptance. That included providing training and support to student services staff.
“Digital transcripts on the blockchain put the student in control of their own hard-earned transcripts, which makes it easy for them to share their transcripts,” says Hou.
Students, however, must keep their private access keys safe and learn about the consequences of oversharing those passwords.
“We have to educate our students on how to use digital credentials responsibly,” Hou adds. That means protecting the integrity of the data by only providing access to those who need it.
Having already begun issuing digital diplomas, Central New Mexico’s IT department is integrating the back-end data for digital transcripts.
When that is complete, Hou and his team will begin working with student services to deliver digital transcripts to students and provide training on how to responsibly use, manage and share the information.
The registrar’s new status quo
Using blockchain to validate transcripts and diplomas will ensure that academic credentials are reliable, but it will also likely change operations in the typical registrar’s office.
Some registrars worry about losing the fees associated with selling transcripts, Garrett says. Even if that fee is just $10 per transcript, the revenue adds up. But institutions can still charge recipients for transcripts or the keys or hash codes needed for validation.
As with any other process improvement, the changes will help the department to become more strategic and be proactive with planning degree pathways for individual students, says Oral Roberts’ Mathews.
“The registrar’s office needs to become precision-driven and leverage all technologies—such as AI, chatbots and blockchain—in a methodical manner. We envision a registrar’s office not just processing enrollments and transcripts, but processing future dreams for the lifelong success of every student.”
Once a blockchain-validated process is in place for University of Washington transcripts and diplomas, Garrett plans to advertise on the website that only blockchain-enabled transcripts are valid and legitimate.
“By using a network of nodes from other institutions using blockchain, we would serve as a closed or private network, and institutions could validate the authenticity of one another’s credentials without having to use a third party,” she says. “The learner record belongs to the learner.”
Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer who frequently contributes to UB.