The Graduation Gap: Using blockchain to support the class of 2020

Graduation is a big deal. The culmination of years of hard work, a celebration of achievements, and an excuse for a good ol’ party. But for the class of 2020, walking across the stage in front of friends, family and classmates to mark the transition from graduand to graduate could not be further from the reality we find ourselves in. For obvious reasons graduation ceremonies the world over have been cancelled or postponed, and universities find themselves searching for alternative ways to celebrate their new alumni. But how will this impact institutions and graduating students?

It’s not just the ceremony itself — the entire cultural ritual of ‘becoming a graduate’ has been whisked out from underneath the feet of an entire cohort. Posing with dissertations on deadline day, heading straight to the pub after final exams and dressing to the nines for summer ball. The ceremony is the final tick on the university bucket list, so many simply won’t feel like graduates. And, unfortunately, it may not just be this year’s graduating class. With Cambridge and Manchester already confirming that online learning measures will continue into the next academic year, it seems unlikely that traditional graduation ceremonies will be able to take place any time soon. Education is working towards a ‘new normal’ and, until we get there, it’s important that students caught in the transition period don’t feel forgotten.

New initiatives are popping up weekly, from big-name YouTube broadcasts with the likes of the Obamas, the Jonas Brothers and LeBron James in the US, to virtual ceremonies with avatar robots in Japan. Whilst these gimmicks bring the fun back into graduation and can help bridge short-term gaps, they do little to address the long-term changes that universities will need to make. It’s likely that students may graduate in smaller groups; perhaps course-sized ceremonies rather than school or faculty ceremonies. Outdoor ceremonies have also been touted, which could pose problems for winter graduates. However the ceremony is designed, the most important aspect is that every graduate needs access to their certificates and qualifications.

For many, a degree certificate is the key that unlocks the first door in their career. Companies will often require a verified certificate as a condition of employment. Whilst online lectures and ebooks are transforming the learning experience, paper is still king when it comes to certificates. Given current circumstances, many universities are simply unable to access printing facilities leaving many students in the dark as to when they’ll receive their documentation. Not to mention the added costs and administrative processes facing staff tasked with posting the hundreds of thousands of certificates which are now unable to be awarded at ceremonies. 801,135 qualifications were awarded in the last academic year. If every certificate was posted via recorded delivery at a cost of £2.94, that’s an additional cost of £2,355,337. The situation we find ourselves in has forced universities to adopt digital in almost every other area of the education journey, digital certification seems like the next logical step.

Historically, digital certificates have seen slow uptake in the UK. It can’t be disputed that a large part of this is tradition. Universities are rooted in tradition. In years past, Hogwarts-esque buildings, enormous libraries and stringent exams were synonymous with a quality education. As digital looked to disrupt that, universities were not typically the first to embrace it. A prime example of this is ebooks, which have been around since the 1970s and are still not fully embedded in university culture. When it comes to qualifications the image of a framed certificate hanging proudly above a desk is one that, whilst still aspirational, is no longer practical. In coming years, learning will become less restricted to a singular degree and will move towards a personal pathway of individual modules or micro-credentials. The image of 40 framed certificates hanging proudly above a desk seems slightly less appealing. Of course digital certificates are more convenient; available for a lifetime, instantly accessible and not at risk of being damaged or lost. The message here is that tradition is less important than offering the best experience, and as everything else in the world of learning moves online, certificates should be no exception.

Tradition isn’t the only hurdle. When considering digital certificates, it is imperative to note the importance of security. It is news to noone that certificate fraud has been on the rise and is a very real risk to educators, students and employers. Certificate fraud isn’t just claiming you were awarded a 1st rather than a 2:1. In one case, an NHS psychiatrist practiced for 22 years without a licence thanks to a fake certificate. Digital certificates have certainly not helped; it doesn’t take an expert to whip up a realistic looking document using readily-available design programmes. In answer, printed certificates nowadays use special ink, watermarked paper and holograms to make it increasingly difficult to fake the real thing. Yes, these measures help but they’re costly and they’re not fool proof. Cifas indicated that 2019 was set to see yet another increase in bogus qualifications. So the question is, can we introduce digital certificates to UK higher education, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be edited or faked? Put simply, yes. And the answer is blockchain.

Although blockchain has been around since 2008, it’s still very much an emerging technology in terms of its practical uses and is not widely understood in the public domain. In education specifically, there are tons of use cases for blockchain with verified certificates and transcripts being one of the most widely recognised. Issuing certificates using blockchain guarantees immutability; once they’ve been issued they can’t be changed, tampered with or edited in any way. In simple terms, blockchain certificates offer a higher level of security than their paper counterparts at a fraction of the price.

By all means, blockchain isn’t perfect. Without becoming too technical, the mining of some tokens requires energy, and lots of it. In fact, Bitcoin uses more energy than Switzerland. However, as an emerging technology improvements to blockchain are being made all the time. Since the introduction of Bitcoin, newer blockchains and tokens have arrived on the scene which are faster, cheaper and more scalable. Many companies which utilise blockchain at scale also make use of tokens which have been pre-mined, therefore limiting the need for energy-consuming mining processes. It can’t be denied that the benefits outweigh the negatives, though. The benefits of blockchain go beyond security and cost, and extend into employment and the economy. Verified blockchain certificates can be shared with recruiters, employers or other networks helping to mitigate the effects of limited global movement. Restrictions on travel, both domestically and internationally, are likely to be in place for an extended period of time. But, this doesn’t mean graduates should be limited to career opportunities in their home towns. We’ve already seen how remote working has been embraced across the world and these practices are likely to stay, to some extent, long after the pandemic. Naturally, as working becomes increasingly remote, so will recruitment practices. The ability to share verified credentials online will become vital in ensuring global recruitment processes are able to continue, regardless of ability to travel.

Graduation ceremonies might not look the same, commuting to the office could become a thing of the past and learning pathways may become non-linear and last a lifetime. But, one thing remains. Qualifications, whether they’re degrees, micro-credentials, professional development or practical skills, are the key. In this period of intense educational change, the printed certificate may become collateral damage. A pillar of tradition sacrificed for the greater good. And, in the grand scheme of the changes facing all of us, it seems like a small sacrifice to make.

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