What Does the Blockchain Mean for University Partnerships?


COVID has accelerated the evolution and adoption of a lot of new technologies across higher ed. What has the pandemic done to the blockchain movement specifically? 

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor of online learning at University of Illinois Springfield, and senior fellow at UPCEA, returns to the Enrollment Growth University show to remark on the acceleration of the blockchain movement during COVID-19 and how the blockchain can assist in new university collaborations.

Has COVID Accelerated the Blockchain Movement in Higher Ed?

There are two ways to look at this. In one way, COVID has slowed the process. Pre-pandemic, it was all hands on deck to advance blockchain as a boon to educational technology. Starting in March, however, the urgency of putting all classes entirely online took all the time and energy the IT teams could muster.

Certainly conversations around blockchain are ongoing and even expanding. But to move forward, it will take the full attention of hands-on programmers, support staff, and pedagogical staff, including the CIOs and registrars who will need to lead this transition.

How Blockchain Can Leverage Collaborative Moments

Putting everything online has challenged smaller colleges especially, but even universities have struggled. It’s obvious now that sharing courses makes sense. An instructor at one institution can deliver a certain course while a professor at another institution delivers another course, and you allow dual enrollment across those institutions. 

To that model, Blockchain brings the ability to credential on one platform and universally for students. Here’s an example: In 2017, MIT developed an open standard for what they called “blockcerts” for creating, issuing, viewing, and verifying blockchain-based credentials and certificates. It allows a number of advantages, but mainly one unified electronic platform to disseminate credentials. On one end, universities can put information in. On the other end, employers can tap in (with permission) and sort through the database. HR can make decisions, maybe even using an AI tool, to identify the best fit and then do those interviews. 

Plus, students, not institutions, will own credentials on a blockchain so they can add new data after graduation. 

Are Digital Credentials on the Blockchain the Perfect Currency for Higher Ed’s Future?

Blockchain’s original application was, of course, as an alternative currency. We can replicate that currency model within higher education so that students can substitute a course from one university to another university on their credentials.

Even better, when you put a course into your virtual transcript on the blockchain, it’s not just the course that goes on there. That solves a longstanding problem with transcripts. Historically, the document just showed a course name and number. The reader didn’t know what the student learned. 

On the blockchain, though, you can include example projects, sample codes, class rank, class size, and information about what was in the textbook. This approach gives hiring managers much, much more information, and graduates can better represent themselves to a potential employer.

The Blockchain’s Future in the Workforce

Let’s create a Venn diagram in our minds. We’ll draw one circle for the group of universities, another for students, and a third and bigger circle for employers. 

Right now, it’s a pain for universities to crank out paper transcripts. And doing this is not at the core of teaching and learning.

Students face the challenge of showing their transcript’s relevance when they are, say, 37 years old. These documents show degrees but not all the projects they’ve led, patents they’ve won, or ideas they’ve developed. 

And employers? What a mess! You announce a job and you get a two-and-a-half-foot-tall stack of resumes. It would be so much easier if you could just tap it off a blockchain and have AI have a program go through that and quickly tabulate key points. 

As we enter this fourth industrial revolution, it’s the way things should be done, not with paper and snail mail. That’s not the way to get transcripts out.

A Marketplace for Blockchain Credentials

In Europe, institutions are starting to use the blockchain to disseminate credentials. But we also see employers cataloging applications with blockchain technology. And of course, LinkedIn is a great example of a now nearly ubiquitous free-form site filled with brief, up-to-date resumes. 

LinkedIn possesses many of the pieces required to pull this off, but it will be interesting to see what happens in the EU. The Groningen Declaration created an agreement to work toward an easily accessible, highly transportable, and secure educational credential. Of course it’s based on blockchain. Schools such as Harvard and MIT are experimenting with a similar idea in the U.S.  

With all the uncertainty surrounding COVID and the economy, it’s really hard to tell how things will go, but we should see stable movement in a consistent direction by next fall. 

Next Steps for Advancing the Blockchain in Higher Ed

Step #1: Investigate the technology. 

It’s not a huge investment. It’s not a secret. Blockchain programmers are pricey and may need to be outsourced, but MIT has published a manual along with peer-reviewed articles on the topic. They have that whole standard for blockcerts. The EU also has done some work on this. So begin with the research.

Step #2: Invite a virtual guest speaker on blockchain.

Put your speaker in front of your academic leadership, IT department, and registrar. Those people need to be willing players in this whole process.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Ray Schroeder of the University of Illinois Springfield. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.