MIT Starts University Group to Build New Digital Credential System

Higher Education

MIT Starts University Group to Build New Digital Credential System

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 23, 2019

MIT Starts University Group to Build New Digital Credential System

When a college goes out of business, all of its alumni can suddenly find themselves in an unexpected dilemma: How can graduates prove they actually earned their degrees when no one is left at the institution to send academic transcripts to prospective employers or graduate schools?

That scenario is one reason that a group of nine universities, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, today announced a collaboration to build a system that would let institutions issue digital diplomas and credentials in a way that can be verified without needing to check with a human registrar. The idea is to encourage widespread use of digital credentials across all kinds of academic institutions, and even at more informal places of learning, so that students end up taking ownership of how to communicate their learning to employers.

Once the system is built, “you can use that for your university diploma or the cooking course you took at the culinary institute,” says Philipp Schmidt, director of learning innovation at the MIT Media Lab. “You can store and manage that in a way that is entirely controllable by you.”

The tentative title for the project is the Digital Credentials Initiative, and the goal is to gather technology leaders from a collection of universities to create an infrastructure to issue and display digital credentials. So far the participating colleges include MIT, Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Toronto, Delft University of Technology (in the Netherlands), University of Potsdam and TU Munich (both in Germany) and Tecnologico de Monterrey (in Mexico).

The effort is in its early days and many basic questions have not yet been decided on.

For instance, it is unclear whether the group will be adopting one of the standards already being developed for credentials and badges, or building a new one from scratch.

“We don’t want to create competing standards if we don’t have to,” says Schmidt, adding that what the universities build will “most likely” be some version of the Verifiable Credentials standard being developed by the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium), a standards group co-hosted by MIT. The group also expects the standard to be “completely complementary” to the Open Badges standard that has been in the works for many years, he adds. The group will consider using blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, though it might be able to achieve its goals by less complicated means.

Why create yet another body of digital credentials? Schmidt says that one benefit is that the group will be led by universities, which may motivate other universities to join in or adopt their standards. “It’s a trusted community that is stepping up to become stewards of this standard,” he says.

Another impetus was to make sure no one commercial company develops the de-facto standard for how colleges share credential information. Others have expressed concern over patents owned by companies for digital credential systems.

Proponents of moving diplomas and other credentials to the digital realm have been making their case for years, but others working in the space admit that it is not yet a common practice.

“If you walk out on the street and say to someone, ‘Do you have a digital portfolio of your credentials and competencies,’ they’d look at you like you’re absolutely crazy,” says Scott Cheney, CEO of Credential Engine, a nonprofit funded by the Lumina Foundation that is building a directory of digital credentials.

Cheney says that more universities these days are starting to add their credential information to the Credential Engine directory, which is a sign that momentum is growing. So far the directory has information about more than 6,000 credentials from 191 organizations.

He says he welcomes the new group and says the universities should be driving development in this area.

One limitation of the group, though, is that it might be more difficult for colleges with fewer resources to jump in. “Not every university is Harvard, Berkeley and MIT,” Cheney notes. “There will be a lot of universities say, That’s great, I’ll get to it when I get the other 10 things on my list done.”

Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO of Credly, a company that offers services for colleges, employers and students to manage digital credentials (and which owns patents for digital badges), welcomed the new effort. “Having more institutions stand up for that notion is a great thing for this movement,” he says.

MIT plans to use the new standard developed by the group to issue its Micromasters degrees, its short-form online graduate degrees built on top of MOOC courses developed by the university.

Schmidt says the group hopes to issue a white paper in the next couple of months, and roll out its first pilot projects experimenting with a new technology framework later this year.

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