Are Blockchain Diplomas the Real Deal?

MIT is issuing degrees using blockchain technology. How cute.

Who needs a paper diploma when you have blockchain?

This post originally appeared in Money Stuff.

How can I tell if you have a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology? One way would be for me to ask MIT. If they say yes, then you have a degree from MIT. If they say no, then you don't. That is what having a degree from MIT, customarily, means: that MIT acknowledges you as a graduate. MIT is an important credentialing institution because a lot of people trust its degree-granting process. It is, to use the term of art, a trusted intermediary. It is thus well suited to keep the ledger of who has degrees. MIT's list of people who have MIT degrees defines the set of people who have MIT degrees.

But you know whatever this is fine sure:

This summer, as part of a pilot program, a cohort of 111 graduates became the first to have the option to receive their diplomas on their smartphones via an app, in addition to the traditional format. The pilot resulted from a partnership between the MIT Registrar’s Office and Learning Machine, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based software development company.

The app is called Blockcerts Wallet, and it enables students to quickly and easily get a verifiable, tamper-proof version of their diploma that they can share with employers, schools, family, and friends. To ensure the security of the diploma, the pilot utilizes the same blockchain technology that powers the digital currency Bitcoin.

"MIT has issued official records in a format that can exist even if the institution goes away," says the Learning Machine guy. I guess that is an advantage! What happens if a job candidate shows a potential employer her MIT degree on a smartphone app, and the employer calls up MIT to check and MIT says "we have never heard of her, she is not an MIT graduate"? Does the employer trust MIT, or the app?

No no no no no, look, this is cute, and there is a real thing here. It is possible to imagine a future in which "identity" lives on "the blockchain" (a blockchain? several blockchains?). Instead of giving a landlord your Social Security number so he can run a credit check, and giving an employer your MIT transcript so it can confirm you have a degree, you could accumulate your credentials and endorsements and creditworthiness and whatever in a blockchain wallet. Your identity could be your blockchain public key, and when someone wants to endorse you for something -- when MIT wants to give you a degree, when your landlord wants to acknowledge receipt of your rent payment -- they could all do it there. It might all be more secure and efficient and open and useful than our current disorganized system of identification and credentialing. In that world, of course MIT would give out degrees on the blockchain, and calling up MIT to check on a degree would be a weird archaism.

But it is hard to be a first mover. What if I started my own app -- powered by the blockchain or whatever -- that gave out MIT degrees? You could whip out your phone and show an employer your MIT degree, that I gave you. In the imagined future of blockchain-based identity, employers would be accustomed to using in-blockchain methods of confirming that an MIT degree was actually conferred by MIT; my app would lack the requisite cryptographic proof, and would be ignored. In 2017, though, employers will just call up MIT to check, same as they would if you gave them a photocopied paper transcript. All the blockchain stuff, for now, is just for show.

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