In addition to traditional leather-bound certificates, over the past year 619 MIT graduates were given the option of receiv- ing a digital version of their diploma through a pilot program
to make academic credentials secure and portable.
The MIT Media Lab and the MIT Registrar’s Office partnered
with Learning Machine, a Cambridge-based software company,
to set up the Blockcerts collaboration, which issued diplomas
linked to the same blockchain that underlies Bitcoin. The idea
was to let students securely store and share their credentials, and
allow employers to immediately verify them. For people displaced
by disasters, that could be critical.
“I don’t believe in one central body having ownership over the
The transactions are verified in batches (or blocks) by hav-
digital record of people’s learning,” says Philipp Schmidt, direc-
tor of learning innovation at the Media Lab, who spearheaded
the collaboration. “Bitcoin blockchain lets us give the data back
to the individual recipients.”
“Before graduation, MIT sends the students an invite e-mail,
which says ‘Hey, go download the Blockcerts Wallet app, accept
the pass phrase, and add MIT as an issuer,’” says Chris Jagers,
cofounder and CEO of Learning Machine. “When MIT issues
the diplomas, the student gets an e-mail with a digital file, which
they can then import into the app.”
The app anchors the digital files on the blockchain, which
works like a massive spreadsheet accessible to a global network
of computers and holds millions of lines of encrypted transac-
tions. With Bitcoin, these are monetary transactions. For digi-
tal diplomas, they transmit credentials from school to student.
ing computers solve mathematical puzzles. Then the blocks are
added to the chain, where they are accessible to the entire net-
work but encrypted to keep their contents secure.
Decrypting the diploma file requires two separate keys: a
public key held by MIT and whomever the student shares the
diploma with, and a private key known only to the student, which
is generated upon downloading the Blockcerts Wallet app.
MIT registrar Mary Callahan says she wanted to use the
security and flexibility of blockchain technology to give students
control over their own records. As of March, 214 MIT students
had downloaded their Blockcerts Wallet; in light of the pilot’s
success, Callahan is aiming to offer digital diplomas to all MIT
students graduating this June.
Blockchain verification technology could prove life-changing
for refugees and disaster victims whose universities may no lon-
ger store credentials or even exist.
“There are all kinds of disasters,” says Learning Machine’s
Jagers, “whether it’s a disaster of war like in Syria, or a natural
disaster like in the Bahamas, or a technical disaster like in Equi-fax—these kinds of things happen all the time, and they’re inevitable.” By linking credentials to a blockchain, he adds, “we can
ensure that we don’t have a single point of failure and that people
can actually own their identity documents without any ongoing
dependency on the original issuers or any particular vendor.”
Jagers says he expects a “new normal around digital records”
within five to 10 years. —Francesca Schembri, SM ’ 18
Blockchain technology gives grads control over their academic credentials.