The 2,100 students preparing to graduate from Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) at the end of the summer term next month will receive the expected diplomas along with an added bonus.

Each student will have the opportunity to also receive a blockchain-powered digital credential, which they can access and send to prospective employers using a smartphone app. Developed in-house, the blockchain credentialing system gives students ownership of their academic records, which officials say can be independently verified by employers and will never be altered.

But that’s just the beginning, Feng Hou, CNM’s chief information officer, tells ThirtyK.

The blockchain-powered system addresses longstanding headaches with credentialing.

“Blockchain can be useful for higher education in many ways, such as storing permanent student records, developing interactive learning and analytics, automating transfer of credits… managing payment and funding, and indeed transforming the entire college operation, he says.

A New Kind of Credential

Higher education has embraced the opportunity to train and certify blockchain proficiency with credentials and degrees, and a New Hampshire university is testing blockchain-based credentials. But CNM is the first community college in the country to provide credentials on the blockchain.

CNM issued blockchain-based credentials for the first time last December, albeit for a short-term coding boot camp that graduated just 21 students. Since then the number of digital diplomas has increased to 300 as the college continued testing the technology. This term represents the first time all students will have the opportunity to put their credentials on the blockchain, and it’s happening a semester earlier than anticipated.

The blockchain-powered system addresses longstanding headaches with credentialing. Instead of having to contact a college, and often pay a fee, to formally request transcripts, which then must then be physically mailed to them, students receive a permanent digital record that cannot be altered or deleted even if the institution closes. This has been an issue of growing concern as the higher-education sector as a whole struggles to adapt to new digital learning models.

Community colleges, in particular, could benefit from the technology. Along with issuing associate and, increasingly, four-year bachelor’s degrees, they provide a wide range of short-term workforce training programs, boot camps, and other opportunities to develop specific skills, all of which could be better documented online.

Feng Hou says CNM is developing a blockchain-based microcredentialing solution that would allow students to earn “digital badges” in a broad range of skills, including “the soft skills that employers seek, such as email proficiency. Along with being independently verifiable, these kinds of microcredentials could be stacked with those earned from mastering complementary skills over time, allowing students to build on what they know over a career or even a lifetime.

What’s Next

While CNM’s blockchain credentials give students a way to prove what they’ve learned without requesting a transcript from the college, it’s not clear how many have used the technology to leverage their credentials, officials say.

“Our coding students are obviously into technology, so they embraced it,” Andrea Sisneros-Wichman, senior program manager for CNM’s Deep Dive Coding Bootcamps, tells ThirtyK. But since this is a very new technology in higher education and we’re ahead of the curve for digital diplomas, we haven’t heard much about them using the credentials so far. We knew that might be the case early on, but we expect the digital credentials to serve these graduates for a lifetime and that employers will soon be more familiar with the advantages of this technology.”

But CNM is moving forward. The college is developing a blockchain technology platform it plans to offer to other institutions at all levels from K-12 through universities. Feng Hou tells ThirtyK a “major announcement” on the platform will be made soon. The college’s enterprise arm, CNM Ingenuity, also is hosting the region’s first blockchain conference in October and partnering with the City of Albuquerque on a blockchain boot camp so employees can develop municipal solutions using the technology.

Back on campus, officials are evaluating other blockchain-based technology proposals that could pull together a broad range of services into a “blockchain college,” according to Feng Hou. It has also become one of the first colleges to pilot accepting crypto payments, starting with its fall conference.

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.