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Blockchain Pilot Empowers Ownership, Access of School Records

Ben Dexter and Heidi Wilkes.

At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), learning never ends, particularly when it comes to serving the needs of students. Yet new initiatives aren't undertaken without testing the waters first to ensure there's a measurable value-add before moving forward. Such is the case with a blockchain pilot, currently underway, with a focused group of alumni, to see if the opportunity to access digital credentials securely and easily is not only of interest but to also see how graduates would use them.

"In some ways this is piloting what a modern transcript would be: digital, portable, owned by the student, can be verified using the encrypted assets. Employers ... don't need to call up SNHU and verify that information, it's self-verified," said Colin Van Ostern, vice president of workforce initiatives at SNHU.

Bachelor's and associate degrees have been issued to SNHU's spring 2018 College for America graduates through the software company Learning Machine platform, as both paper diplomas and digital documents known as blockcerts - a digital document anchored to the blockchain for instant global verification.

Ben DexterBlockchain, perhaps most commonly known in relation to Bitcoin, "is the technology that underpins the transactional space," said Ben Dexter, workforce learning solutions analyst at SNHU, who compared it to a distributed general ledger with encrypted distribution that provides no single point of failure.

According to Heidi Wilkes, associate vice president of learning solutions at SNHU, the blockchain is an immutable ledger - not corruptible - because of the way it is distributed. Each block, or node, is verified, contingent of the verification of each other node in the information journey. While complex, this verification process happens very quickly, providing ready access to the user.

"Blockchain code on one block is reliant on the previous block," Dexter said. "One would have to rewrite every block of code, navigate a proof-of work requirement, and create consensus across the nodes in the network to tamper with any code in the chain."

While not the first to consider the potential implication of blockchain technology with regard to accessing credentials, SNHU approached this pilot to test for future possibilities to further benefit the needs of its more than 100,000-member alumni population. The pilot is considered a contained, low-cost way to determine the interest of graduates and to see what kinds of information would prove valuable to this group. Beyond how many are interested and learning what they choose to claim or own, Wilkes said, "What will they do with it?"

Graduates of SNHU's competency-based College for America program were intentionally chosen for this pilot. "Competencies give a rich amount of metadata," Wilkes said. "If someone has mastered all of these competencies and skills, how might having the ability to control and share this information empower them?"

She points out that this data is evidence of competencies learned and can be easily shared beyond current means such as through portfolios and in resumes and, more importantly, can be instantly validated, allowing graduates to "have and control a lifelong learning record."

"That could become a really powerful tool, verification wherever needed," Wilkes said.

Heidi WilkesReferring to blockchain as an eco-system driven by students, and enabling credentials that can be easily held and accessed in a mobile device, Dexter said, "Students and graduates benefit - it's in your hands, in your pocket."

This technology can be a gamer changer for certain disadvantaged populations, such as refugees, who may have lost access to important paper-based documents and credentials.

Wilkes said she saw many powerful opportunities to build on student success through blockchain technology, with the ability to claim earned achievements and own and share them.

"This project was a great proving ground for how we can use technology to be flexible and agile in responding to the needs of our students, who are becoming lifelong learners with the expectation to control and manage their own digital learning records," said Wilkes said.

Pamme Boutselis is a writer and content director in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @pammeb or connect on LinkedIn.

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