Based on impact surveys conducted with 319 institutions in the US and Canada last year, AACRAO found that focus on digitisation of credentials centred around goals to increase efficiency, improve inbound and outbound processes and reduce fraud. More than half of those surveyed viewed credential fraud as a concern.

The report highlighted four main methods of digital credentialing:

  • Digitally Signed PDF: a scanned or generated document that has been digitally signed (including transcripts)
  • Micro Credential/Digital Badge: a digital certification for specific skills and competencies, typically an image file pointing to hosted data
  • Electronic Data Exchange (EDX): a digital credential (primarily transcripts) shared primarily between institutions using one or more of the various formats including EDI and XML
  • Blockchain Verifiable Credential: a natively digital document, digitally signed, that also leverages the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust for independent verification (including transcripts)

“The economic and cultural upheavals brought about by the Covid-19 crisis have accelerated the need for an expanded, secure, interoperable, and widely portable approach to the recognition of academic and co-curricular accomplishments,” the report noted.

“While some educational institutions have shifted to issuing EDX, digitally signed PDFs or blockchain verifiable credentials, reliance on paper-based credentials is still widespread. While both paper and even digitally signed PDF credentialing solutions have worked well enough, there are still unaddressed challenges facing students, employers, and other educational stakeholders in a global learning and employment marketplace.

“Reliance on paper-based credentials is still widespread”

“Existing processes that generate additional friction—such as the inability to reuse the same credential for verification purposes, cumbersome processes for accessing records, and lack of electronically readable documents—create inefficiencies and may create unintended barriers for learners to pursue additional education or employment opportunities.”

While blockchain has been promoted as a possible future method for verifying credentials, when asked about familiarity with how it could be used in HE to “instantly validate the authenticity of any document with the possibility of eliminating third party intermediaries”, half of respondents said they were “not at all familiar with the technology”. A quarter were “slightly familiar” and just 9% said they were very of extremely familiar.

Just over a third of those who thought the use of blockchain-verifiable credentials in higher education could be impactful thought there could be an increased trust in credentials.

“While EDX- and PDF-related solutions have been around for decades, blockchain digital credentials are the new kid on the block, and that is evident in the usage data. Few were confident in their understanding of blockchain technology,” the report noted.

“Investments should be made in educating the higher education community around the advantages and challenges of the various digital credentialing options, to clarify technical requirements, explain the relative security threats, and detail the requirements for implementation and operationalisation.”

“Investments should be made in educating the higher education community”

This echoes a previous survey done by research company Gartner in 2019 that found 47% of higher education respondents were “not interested” in utilising blockchain technology within an educational framework, including for payments, teaching and record maintenance.

They further identified digital credentials technologies as one of the key strategic technologies impacting higher education.

“In many ways, credentials issued by an education institution are the only tangible evidence of higher education. They should be considered the currency of the education ecosystem,” said the company’s senior research director Glenda Morgan.

“These technologies really enable universities to leverage technology to improve the student experience by giving them more control over their information. The only hurdle is a general lack of understanding of digital credentialing technologies and risk-averseness in the high-stakes nature of the higher education market.”

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