Do blockchain and “Pomp and Circumstance” go together?

Southern New Hampshire University, a nonprofit institution known for being on the cutting edge of higher-education technology, wants to find out. It’s conducting a pilot project to make available blockchain-based credentials, including diplomas, to 1,000 alumni.

The university will monitor what the graduates do with digital diplomas and transcripts and determine whether there’s a demand for them.

This pilot experiment seeks to explore what it takes to operationalize the distribution of blockchain-verified digital credentials, to test selected software, and to gather data on graduate behavior in claiming and sharing digital credentials,” SNHU said in a February presentation.

Graduates with blockchain-based digital credentials will be able to share them with employers or graduate schools that will, in turn, be able to instantly verify the student’s degree and coursework.

Although SNHU has a physical campus located between Manchester and Hooksett, New Hampshire, its online enrollment, now at about 93,000, dwarfs its on-campus student body, making it one of the largest online universities in the U.S., according to Inside Higher Ed.

Graduates with blockchain-based digital credentials will be able to share them with employers or graduate schools that will, in turn, be able to instantly verify the student’s degree and coursework. The digital diplomas and transcripts will also spare graduates who live far from campus the trouble of traveling to obtain a physical transcript.

Alumni will be able to share the credentials on LinkedIn and social media, says Colin Van Ostern, the college’s vice president of workforce initiatives and head of the pilot program, according to edscoop, an education technology news website.

One observer says this is a smart use of blockchain technology, although it’s not bleeding edge. A lot of blockchain projects right now are happening just because people want a blockchain project and are using blockchain in situations where it isn’t necessary,” Alex Power, a former Google engineer, tells ThirtyK. Validating university credentials is a good use-case for a blockchain, but it’s not exciting or revolutionary.”

SNHU is choosing to embed mastered competencies in its metadata, says Van Ostern, according to edscoop. But, he added, “You could embed anything — portfolios, artifacts, projects, any evidence of learning.”

The university has already discovered one key challenge for widespread adoption of the credentials, according to the pilot presentation: A large-scale rollout will require significant investment in information technology.

Susan Gentz
Susan Gentz is a long-time journalist who has specialized in education, policy and technology. She has written for the Center for Digital Education's Converge, iNACOL's Education Domain and Clay & Milk. She was Deputy Executive Director for the Center for Digital Education, and earlier in her career, was a staff aid in the United States Senate. She is the founder of BSG Strategies, a technology consulting firm.