I get pitch decks almost every day from founders who make claims about having graduated from this or that school or having certain skills. I’m sure most of them are honest, but some part of me would like a simple way to verify high-stakes claims. Nobody I know checks directly with those schools or asks to see official proof, which would be complicated and time-consuming. If only we could check the authenticity of claims by simply clicking a button and knowing the result is iron-clad. Sounds like magic, I know.
However, the rise of Bitcoin’s popularity over the last 10 years has created some interesting new possibilities for strangers to safely transact with each other. Bitcoin is digital money, the transfer of which is recorded on a global ledger called the blockchain. This blockchain ledger is replicated by thousands of computers all over the world, so it can’t be easily taken down or altered. In essence, the global blockchain is a timeline of transactions that have occurred, rendering it virtually unhackable. Of course, that was the big breakthrough with Bitcoin — finding a way to guarantee the immutability of its blockchain. And being a public blockchain that no company or government controls (like the internet), it functions as a public resource with potential to bring about positive change.
Applying Blockchain to Academia
Over the past few years, some schools have begun experimenting with using that blockchain as a notary for official records. After all, giving someone a certificate is just a transaction. And the blockchain can record who issued it, who received it, and store code that can be used to verify that the contents of the certificate have never been altered. This means graduates receive a digital certificate that is cryptographically signed by the school, is tamper-proof, and could be verified at a later date by anyone using a verification service to check the blockchain. This is a profound concept because it means that a decentralized technology can replace centralized institutions to provide security. Rather than consulting central authority, a look-up service consults the blockchain to verify the certificate.
The MIT Media Lab was one of the earliest pioneers to register digital certificates on the blockchain. Over a year ago, it announced a proof of concept and shared some philosophical motivations in keeping with its long history of openness. However, it didn’t fully open-source the code at the time for various reasons: It wasn’t packaged as a public resource, it was missing critical features, and generally its creators wanted to be prudent about security before releasing that code into the wild.
However, MIT spent the last year working with Learning Machine to develop its initial concept into a public resource, building blocks for developers to freely use. MIT is positioning the release as an open-source standard for a variety of services related to blockchain certificates to help ensure future interoperability. The motivation is clearly to help establish common patterns so that the future isn’t full of incompatible implementations.
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While many schools publish internal IT projects hoping to inspire others, these are often rendered useless because they contain idiosyncratic approaches and custom features that aren’t generally adoptable. MIT and Learning Machine have released something different and vastly more useful: They have developed a guide for developers that includes easy-to-install code, which can perform all of the functions needed. While using the open-source code is a command line interface, it is a major first step and only a matter of time before vendors start building products layered with the convenience of graphical user interfaces.
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Expanding Into Use Cases Beyond Education
Now, we have the resources to build apps that give students a measure of control over their official records. Obviously, we have a ways to go before this becomes mainstream, but allowing students to possess official artifacts of their education would be a transformative accomplishment (with obvious use cases far beyond education).
The web has done an amazing job transforming society with a new infrastructure of communication. And it looks like the blockchain could become fundamental in the near future. By providing a new infrastructure of trust, entirely new conveniences and power dynamics can emerge. If this technology can be woven into our daily tools, any app that connects with this secure anchor of trust becomes a transformative experience.
The potential of this technology could also prove valuable to nation-states and local governments. It could replace entire realms of bureaucracy with a decentralized technology that people trust. While our governments probably won’t change anytime soon, it sounds like our academic institutions are open.