College for America Blog

What HR Professionals Should Know About Blockchain


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Posted In: Workforce Insight

Aug • 7 • 2018

When most people think about blockchain, they’re thinking about finance. But blockchain technology has the ability to impact higher education and the hiring process by eliminating fraud, giving graduates control over their own credentials and allowing employers to quickly identify who has what skills.

Because Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) has a mission to extend access to higher education opportunities that are workplace relevant, they are very interested in the potential of this new technology. That’s why SNHU is piloting a program that uses blockchain to generate online, unhackable credentials for its graduates.

During this pilot, 1,200 graduates of SNHU’s College for America program were invited to receive their credentials using blockchain technology to convey an unofficial record of their transcript or degree.

The digital documents, called “blockcerts” and distributed through software company Learning Machine’s platform, contain a verifiable and portable record of the degree earned. Perhaps even better, they also include metadata about the projects the student worked on, the competencies they mastered and other information typically found in transcripts.

The underlying technology

If you don’t completely understand blockchain, you’re not alone.

Blockchain is probably best known as the infrastructure that supports Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but the same architecture can be used to track any kind of transaction or record. That includes education records, allowing for the possibility of unalterable and more transparent college credentials because it is so secure.

Blockchain is a decentralized, chronological ledger that is theoretically impossible to tamper with, because the ledger is shared with a network. Transaction activity, called “blocks,” are sent to — and independently verified by — everyone in the network.

Then they are added to a chain of other blocks. The cryptographic key of a new block is dependent on the prior block. A block can’t be hacked because of its linked design, and because everyone in the network has a record of each change.

The possibilities for applying blockchain in education are still hard to project. Gamification expert Jane McGonigal spoke at SXSWedu 2016 about a potential future in which all a student’s learning is measured in something called “Edublocks” — a decentralized cross between a college credit and a badge. Anyone could issue an Edublock to anyone, and the marketplace decides which ones are valuable.

That sort of credential may be several years away. As a recent report by the European Commission points out, blockchain in education is in its infancy.

Blockcerts, however, are here and changing education now.

How blockcerts benefit graduates

Issuing blockcerts is a cutting-edge way of generating a learning record for colleges, and a huge benefit for students who receive a permanent, portable and indestructible record of their education.

For example, the physical diploma can be lost or stolen. This is especially relevant for students in SNHU partner Kepler’s college program in Rwanda, where many of the students are refugees. The graduates who live in refugee camps would not need to worry about losing their credentials; their blockchain credential would be permanent and could be accessed, shared and verified online. Blockchain allows the graduates ownership of their own data.

Blockcerts are also more than a virtual diploma. They contain information often included in a transcript. For example, College for America is a competency-based program, and SNHU’s blockcerts document the competencies and skills an applicant has mastered during their course of study, as well the degree earned.

This is important for internal hires who may have been sent to College for America by their employer for specific skills, as it verifies an employee’s new skills and competencies.

It’s also important for graduates. Often, requesting a transcript from a college can be expensive and time consuming. Some schools mail paper transcripts, which can sometimes take weeks.

This process may be a barrier for low-income job applicants or graduates, and can slow down a job search or hiring process. A blockcert allows students permanent access to their transcript information, and provides that information plus proof of a degree in one document.

How blockcerts benefit employers

When candidates apply for a job, human resources usually has to take their word when it comes to credentials. Once a résumé and transcript are produced, they’re often taken at face value until after the interview process, when (and if) HR verifies the applicant’s credentials.

This creates an opportunity for fraud: A survey by background check company HireRight found almost 85 percent of employers had discovered a lie on a candidate’s application. According to an article published by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), many of those lies concern academic credentials:

  • Applicants claiming degrees from schools they attended but did not graduate from.
  • Entirely invented degrees from schools the applicant never attended.
  • Purchased degrees from diploma mills.

Digital credentials issued through blockchain technology can be independently verified — not just by the institution that issued the credential, but through members of the blockchain network. Because blockchain is tamper proof, applicants with a blockcert truly have the degree they claim on their résumé.

Blockcerts also don’t require HR to verify a credential with a school. They can simply verify it themselves through the blockchain network, eliminating wait times.

Blockchain has the potential to make applicant pools searchable

Because digital credentials include skills and keywords, employers — once they become accustomed to such degrees — will be able to search through a stack of applications for the skills a job requires.

Rather than reading each résumé, HR will be able to find the most relevant candidates as easily as if they were typing a query into Google.

When it comes to recruiting, employers will also be able to find blockcerts that have been shared online by graduates. One SNHU graduate shared her blockcert on LinkedIn this spring, said learning solutions analyst Benjamin Dexter. She was surprised by all the attention and connection requests she received as a result.

Blockcerts aren’t a replacement for paper credentials… yet

Because blockchain is such a new technology, employers may not understand a blockcert when it’s presented to them by an applicant. Dexter and his colleagues are working to help graduates’ potential employers understand the blockcerts and what they mean for the hiring process.

“Most of them are very new to the experience and haven’t heard of blockchain being used for these digital credentials before,” he said, “so [we’re having] the first of what we hope are many conversations in getting folks acclimated.”

Once organizations understand these digital credentials, Dexter is confident they’ll be as enthusiastic about them — perhaps even more so — as the students who have received them.

In the meantime, physical credentials are still the official record for SNHU and its programs. And, although the blockcert program is planned to roll out to all graduates at some point in the future, paper credentials are here to stay.

“We love the experience of giving someone their paper diploma,” said Dexter. “That’s not going to go away anytime soon.”