The Future of University Credentials Points Towards Blockchain And Open Badges

Gonzalo Álvarez Marañón    21 May, 2021
open badges

Do you want a university degree within 48 hours and without having to open a book, for less than €1,000? No problem. You don’t even need to go to the Darknet. Google “buy fake university degree” or “fake diplomas market” and you will find dozens of suppliers who guarantee you a replica of the degree of the course and university of your choice, for a modest price, variable depending on the prestige you are looking for. They can even falsify degrees issued by fictitious universities, some as illustrious as Miskatonic University. Anything will do because their vocation of service is to “help you find a better and faster job”. And why don’t police close any of them down? Because it is not a crime to sell them, but to use them. 

False documentation in the field of education is becoming a real social and economic scourge. It is trivial to put anything on a CV and very cheap to back it up with a fake degree, but very expensive to verify it. That’s why most talent recruiters don’t even bother to try and swallow it all. We need something better than paper degrees and diplomas! 

Digital credentials represent the natural evolution of traditional credentials to eliminate fraud. But a PDF with a digital signature is not enough. Enabling an agile and secure exchange of credentials that facilitates the verification and contracting process requires much more sophisticated cryptographic protection. Two technologies need to be brought together: 

  • Credentials beyond academic qualifications issued by traditional educational institutions: they will cover all types of knowledge, skills and abilities reflecting an individual’s lifelong learning achievements. Moreover, this will be digitally encapsulated using a standard vocabulary to describe such learning achievements that is universally recognised and easily interchangeable. 
  • A storage system for digital credentials that is transparent, immutable, unforgeable, and publicly accessible, to provide a secure and verifiable account of the academic history for anyone to verify. 

Hmmmm, how do these two requirements sound like? More and more people think Open Badges and Blockchain. What are they and how would they together solve the limitations of current titles? 

Open Badges, A Verifiable, Portable, Digital Badge Format, Packed with Information on Skills and Accomplishments 

To understand the purpose of Open Badges, it is first important to understand the limitations of current degrees, diplomas and certifications: 

  • Traditional titles, such as “Telecommunications Engineer”, do not say much about the specific knowledge, skills and capabilities of the owner. “OK, yes, so-and-so has an engineering degree, but does he have advanced Python programming skills, does he have the ability to lead a corporate network security project, does he have some working knowledge of ISO 27001, does he have some working knowledge of ISO 27001? The titles lack the granularity required by today’s job market. They tell an incomplete story about who holds them. Not to mention that many degrees and programmes are clearly outdated. 
  • There is education outside the confines of the university. There is a huge offer of non-formal training, currently served by a myriad of e-learning platforms, with real quality proposals, but it is not easy to validate the knowledge and skills acquired, which makes it difficult to recognise and compare them. 
  • There are many other places to learn beyond university and business schools and online courses: workshops, self-learning, personal or community projects, the workplace… How to make the knowledge and skills acquired in this way visible and relevant in terms that are recognised by formal educational institutions and by the training and career ecosystems? 

Today’s market requires a credential system that can capture knowledge, skills and competences in a granular way, in many different contexts, and associate them with the applicant’s digital identity. These credentials should be able to be displayed to stakeholders to demonstrate the capabilities. These credentials should enable learning to be connected across formal and informal learning contexts, allowing each individual to build their own learning pathways, at their own pace, based on their own interests and learning styles.   

Badges are the proposed solution to meet all these requirements. A badge can represent a micro-credential, but also any other type of credential, including official titles and manufacturer certifications. Undoubtedly, the most advanced and promising initiative in this line is the Open Badges project, initially driven by the Mozilla Foundation and currently under the leadership of the IMS Global Learning Consortium

In essence, an open badge is a standardised and open format for representing verifiable and sharable educational credentials, with detailed information about the achievement and what the owner did to earn it. Many Learning Management Systems (LMS) already incorporate them natively. In fact, open badges can coexist seamlessly with traditional qualifications and professional accreditation, complementing (or potentially replacing) them, with the advantage of allowing portability of skills and knowledge. 

Each Open Badge may communicate a qualification, skill or achievement by providing a visual symbol with verifiable data and evidence that can be shared digitally to facilitate access to employment and further learning cycles. To ensure that the value of each Open Badge is safeguarded, a number of criteria must be met: name of the issuing organisation, eligibility requirements, assessment criteria, date of issue, etc. 


Illustration 1. Example of an Open Badge.

Open Badges can be issued, earned and managed using one of the many certified Open Badge platforms. Stakeholders can be confident that an Open Badge represents a legitimate and authenticated achievement, the nature of which is described on the badge itself, which is also linked to the issuing organisation. Open Badges are verifiable, so that an employer can confirm the issuer of the badge and its expiry date, if applicable. 

In short, Open Badges provide the following advantages over the traditional credentialing system: 

  • Less fraud. 
  • Easier to list and find skills. 
  • Permanent record without fear of loss or dependence on the issuer. 
  • A more detailed and dynamic display than a traditional CV. 

However, an obstacle that Open Badges encountered in their early days was how to store and share them securely. And this is where the second main character of this story comes into the equation. 

When Open Badges and Blockchain Blend In Perfection 

Briefly, a blockchain acts as a distributed ledger open for anyone to read and write with the property that once a block has been added to the blockchain it is very difficult (ideally impossible) to change it. For more information on Blockchain, I recommend reading The CIO’s Guide to Blockchain

Storing badges on a Blockchain has several advantages: 

  • The student takes control of his or her official academic achievements (degrees and diplomas), rather than solely in the hands of the awarding institutions. 
  • Education does not end with formal training. Badges on a blockchain allow the student to add all kinds of credentials outside the academic walls, some that have nothing to do with the training itself, such as work experience validated by the employer. 
  • Open Badges + Blockchain = Trusted Credentials. All intermediaries are eliminated, as the credentials are signed by the issuing institution and anyone can verify their validity. 
  • Unlike a website hosted on an institutional server, Blockchain offers permanence and immutability: you have the guarantee that the data will neither disappear (as long as there is a node in the P2P network) nor be modified, whatever happens to the entity that issued it. 
  • Fraud disappears. 

Many projects are emerging to offer Open Badges on Blockchain, among which are: 

  • Blockcerts: In 2016, the MIT Media Lab proposed an open, tamper-proof standard for writing credentials on Blockchain, called Blockcerts, which allows credentials and their interoperability with other systems to be checked and verified. Not to be outdone, MIT has incorporated it into its digital diplomas
  • EKO: The EKO Blockchain platform is a public blockchain service built on Ethereum. It is fully compatible with EVM-based Solidity smart contracts and offers some innovative features, such as confidential contracts. 
  • Accredible: If you prefer to have it all done, Accredible is offered as a SaaS, including features such as credential creation and management, branding, integration with major LMS, full analytics and native tools to easily embed credentials into any channel. 
  • OpenBlockchain: This is an initiative of the Knowledge Media Institute (KMI) of the UK’s Open University, with several experiences with digital credentials. 
  • Bestr: Is the Italian platform for digital credentials, implemented on Blockcerts . 

Towards an Open, Transparent, Decentralised, Permanent, Immutable and Verifiable Credential System 

The digital credential market is in full swing: new technologies and standards are being explored, new commercial or open approaches are emerging, and many educational institutions are experimenting with alternatives. The combination of open badges and Blockchain enables digital credential systems that could prevent fraud, open new perspectives on how credentials are used and offer new mechanisms for communities to share knowledge. 

However, the real challenge is not technological but political. A cooperative effort will be needed to ensure that standards for digital credentialing systems are open and responsive to the needs of all stakeholders (learners, educational institutions, employers and governments), without prioritising the interests of one organisation over others. 

The future of verifiable digital credentials is yet to be written. These are just the first lines. 

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