Recently, many people have been wondering whether blockchain will be the new paradigm in digital certification for the education and training world.
As the buzz spreads, some already seem convinced (and reassured) that integrating blockchain technology into the issuance of academic records (diplomas, affidavits, certificates, transcripts, etc.) will be an effective response to the legal and technological expectations and constraints of the education and training world.
And so I feel it is of the utmost urgency to clarify the advantages, disadvantages, and limitations of blockchain in digital certification.
First of all, blockchain is a technology. Like all technology, its role is to provide a concrete, serious solution to real challenges, one that can integrate (or adapt) the existing environments of the different users and their equipment, their way of operating, and their organization.
Looking a little closer, blockchain is just technology that does something differently (decentralized) from the way certification authorities (already, and among others) have been doing it for years: guaranteeing data integrity and time-stamping.
But with blockchain, what about the authenticity of the issuer's identity? Who guarantees that? With anonymous identities (or pseudonyms, in the best of cases), blockchain cannot, by itself, satisfy this second essential aspect of the digital certification of documents that must be certified true. Without being able to guarantee the issuer's identity, new technology for time-stamping a document has very little value, since it must be verifiable.
And there is also the question of generating and saving all those documents. The idea that blockchain makes it possible to save all kinds of documents securely and independently is false. Blockchain is and will remain a simple record, where only the digital identity of a document (the ‘cryptographic hash’) is saved – not the document itself. Indeed, saving the document itself will be terribly time-consuming and costly (financially and in the carbon footprint). And so the question remains of how to manage the documents themselves (their issuance, use, backup, and sharing) – since their often personal data must be processed outside the blockchain environment. All it takes for an institution to be at odds with the regulations is for it to upload documents containing personal data (to a personal space) if it has not received prior consent from the students/ alumni.
Digging a little deeper, then, we can see that blockchain responds to only one of the many aspects of a document’s life cycle (and digital certification), and that there is no way it can be a complete and serious response, either to the needs of academic institutions and their graduates, or to GDPR standards for personal data processing.
As I said above, blockchain will remain a technology to be integrated into existing tools for solidifying a true relationship of trust among its users, for concepts of identity and integrity, and especially for guiding users in the use, handling, and traceability of their data.