Granite Geek: SNHU experiments with handing out degrees via blockchain

  • Putting college degrees and transcripts online is more complicated if they use blockchain, but it could be useful. Courtesy of SNHU

  • Putting college degrees and transcripts online is more complicated if they use blockchain but could be more useful. Courtesy of SNHU

Monitor staff
Published: 4/10/2018 12:15:42 AM

The New Hampshire college most associated with cutting-edge activities wants to see whether the cutting-edgiest of digital trends, blockchain, is a useful way to the very analog job of handing over your degree.

Southern New Hampshire University is making blockchain-enabled credentials, including associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, available to 1,000 past graduates in a pilot project to determine how to shift college credentials to the online ledger.

“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, the school’s vice-president of Workforce Initiatives, who has been spearheading the project.

(Yes, I realize Van Ostern ran for governor and has future political aspirations. I usually shy away from politics like a startled fawn, as regular readers and Science Cafe attendees know, but SNHU said he’s the guy in charge and the one to talk about it, so we got down to business.)

Blockchain is best known as the technological underpinning of bitcoin, but blockchain itself is not a cyber-currency. Think of it as an online ledger that is copied all over the internet, which makes it more trustworthy – you can’t change an entry to your benefit since the other copies will prove you wrong. It also can perform some other interesting software tasks.

Lots of startups and some established companies, not to mention pundits and techies galore, think these traits mean blockchain will be the Next Big Thing, enabling many current tasks to move online and become faster, better, cheaper. But as this column has noted previously, many folks think blockchain is a technology in search of a justification that does nothing that cannot already be done more easily.

Pilot programs like SNHU’s will help decide who’s right.

Van Ostern ticked off advantages to a blockchain transcript and degree, which is more than just a PDF image of the diploma you hang on your wall.

At the very least, it’s useful for students who are far away from Manchester and can’t easily get a physical copy of their transcript. This describes a lot of students for SNHU, which has far more online-only graduates than graduates from its physical campus, even including some students taking courses in refugee camps on the other side of the world.

But the intricacies of blockchain mean it can potentially do much more.

“We’re starting to enable a data-driven version of this, one that’s more granular,” said Van Ostern. For example, employers will be able to click through the course listing on your transcript to see what the class covered.

Eventually, he said, “there might be an extended transcript, which they could click through to see a presentation that you gave in one of your courses.” That could be particularly valuable when judging certificates or badges, which are less-than-academic-degree acknowledgment that you have passed certain courses or demonstrated certain skills.

Making it all work seamlessly and intuitively is the part that makes shifting college degrees and transcripts online more difficult than it sounds, said Heidi Wilkes, the school’s associate vice president for learning solutions.

“The challenge is that it involved so many areas of the university. It needed IT people, the registrar, we had to coordinate with communications in order for the students to understand what this is and how they can claim it. ... It was a great test of how we can be more flexible and agile,” Wilkes said.

But perhaps the hardest issue is that blockchain is confusing to most of the outside world. If you’re a graduate, who cares whether you’ve got trendy academic credentials if prospective employers don’t know how to read them?

“There are not that many institutions that you can take this to, in the same way as an official transcript,” agreed Van Ostern.

Wilkes said SNHU is working with IMS Global, an education-technology consortium that is developing standards. “They helped us to try to figure out early on how to approach the pilot, and what the ecosystem springing up around the technology would look like for education,” she said.

I suspect there’s another intangible – but nontrivial – benefit for SNHU: Being a blockchain leader will bolster their techy reputation, which is good for luring students and faculty and donations.

That, of course, will help the techy reputation of Manchester and New Hampshire. So there’s a benefit even for those of us whose college days almost predate the fax machine, let alone the internet.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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