As students, graduates and workers becoming more globally mobile, translating and verifying credentials and achievements are becoming more important than ever. Andy Dowling, chief executive of Digitary, sits down with The PIE News and shares his thoughts on the future of digital credentialing.
The PIE: What does Digitary do?
Andy Dowling: Digitary was launched in Dublin, Ireland in 2005. Since then, Digitary has grown to become the leading online platform for certifying, sharing and verifying academic credentials. We’ve been learner-centric since the very beginning and have enabled millions of learners to access their verified achievements and to share them globally with whomever they choose, whenever they want.
Digitary enables instant verification of records with full learner consent, maintaining regulatory compliance and eliminating the hassle of manual verification. I am proud to say that many of the world’s most respected higher education providers use Digitary to eliminate credential fraud, improve service levels and increase efficiencies.
The PIE: Digitary has been around for 15 years and you have 20 years experience. Why did you start looking at using digital verification so early on?
AD: I wasn’t very good at football when I was a kid, but I was great at programming computers. I spent a lot of time developing security software systems in industry and I also spent time as a university lecturer in computer science.
Between the two of those threads, I saw an opportunity whereby records are being stored in digital format at universities, but they’re being printed out on paper whenever they’re handed to a learner. I thought the technology, the digital signatures and the crypto were all there, let’s apply it to this particular niche area and make a positive impact.
Turns out that took a little bit longer than planned but we were probably a bit ahead of the market.
The PIE: As a discussion point, blockchain in education has only just started to pick up. You were there long before anyone was really talking about in a meaningful way, though.
AD: Blockchain is very interesting and attracts a lot of attention at present. Some of the narrative at the moment is that blockchain has sort of created the capability to digitally certify and verify credentials. That hasn’t really been the case in my view. The technology has been there for quite some time. Blockchain is another way of doing it.
“We’ve gotten used to the cloud and having someone else take responsibility for the keeping of our data”
The way we see it is just like any other technology, blockchain is not a solution by itself. It is a technology with pros and cons. How you apply that technology and how you build it into your overall solution, it’s incredibly important.
That’s why we didn’t jump on the blockchain bandwagon just to get some PR; we were actually quite analytical and slow to embrace it. Using SSI and our relationship with Evernym for blockchain came about after about 18 months to two years of evaluating how we could implement it in a meaningful way.
The PIE: How is technology changing education?
AD: Delivery is one point where we’re actually seeing quite a change as a result of technology. If you look at learning at the moment, learning in terms of the delivery is changing from bricks and mortar to distance learning and MOOCs and so forth.
The other aspect would be granularity. We’re seeing much smaller micro-level courses being taken, particularly in the distance learning space. That’s changing the frequency and the granularity at which people are being credentialed.
Technology then would also affect the certification and the means by which achievement has been certified. There’s a move towards digital credentialing generally, not only for what you call macro credentials, which are traditional three or four-year degrees, but also micro-credentials, open badges, for example. That’s why we’re very conscious of all of these and very proactive in this space.
On the converse, the increase in the use of digital also has impacts on the prevalence of fraud. Photoshop makes it easier to create very convincing, fake degree certificates, for example.
With all of these different things that are emerging to verify credentials, it’s important that communication is taken into account because ultimately those who need to verify someone’s credentials need to know how to do that. What are the right ways to verify a credential and what are the wrong ways?
The PIE: Is there a possibility digital credentialing won’t become a major disruption in education?
AD: In my view, there are two primary elements to it. There’s getting your business case right. Why blockchain, for example, over anything else and why would we do that? Blockchain doesn’t necessarily provide you with any huge amount of functional benefit. It’s the non-functional; the privacy of an individual’s personal data and giving them more responsibility and being custodians of that data. The functionality you can implement in a number of different ways.
“Like any other technology, blockchain is not a solution by itself”
The second thing is standardisation. Standards are being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, who push internet standards out, and they’ve got the verifiable credentials standards recommendation at the moment, which is likely to be the workplace form of choice going forward.
We’re seeing a number of projects that are embracing that particular recommendation at the moment and that’s something that we’re working on at Digitary as well. By having enough players involved, that will create sufficient momentum amongst stakeholders in the digital credentialing landscape for this to take off. Overall it needs to go hand-in-hand with a compelling business case.
The PIE: What is the business case for digital credentials?
AD: My opinion is that it starts with student mobility and the protection of privacy. There are many things too of course which play a part, but the primary focus should be on the learner. The learner should have the control to export their credentials in a standard format, consolidate them into their own online digital wallet and then have a view for presenting to third parties who need to utilise the information. That mobility and portability is the key benefit of online credentials, provided they are done in a standard, compliant way.
The PIE: Where do you see the future of digital credentials?
AD: There is a lot of momentum. The whole idea of digital credentialing is changing. It’s changing in terms of how credentials are represented on the granularity. Who certifies credentials? Is it just the institutions, is it MOOC providers, is it employers certifying someone’s experience? How is it recorded under a standards-based digital format? Where is it stored? How is it shared with the learners when you think of GDPR? How is it independently verified in a decentralised way? And with the UNESCO global convention and recognition of qualifications, how are our digital credentials actually recognised across borders themselves?
“Photoshop makes it easier to create very convincing, fake degree certificates”
There are very exciting times ahead. We want to accelerate the benefits of digital credentialing to learners and the way in which we found to do that is to look at going to the learner directly.
The PIE: There is a lot of momentum, but equally a lot of questions that remain to be answered?
AD: Absolutely. There are definitely challenges for all of the parties in terms of issuers, learners and verifiers. One key consideration is that issuers are going to be coming to terms with the tussle between who owns the actual record of the learner.
Universities and issuers can typically think it’s their records to be presented with their brand in a particular way. That’s sort of at odds with this idea of the learner curating their own record and presenting it as they see fit.
Learners could accept the challenge and be responsible for their own records and their crypto key in the face of an identity world. As individuals, we’ve gotten used to the cloud and having someone else take responsibility for the keeping of our data. If we lose access to it, it’s just a forgotten password.
In the world of crypto, that won’t exist anymore. There’s much more of a mindset shift to support and enable the learner to have control and own the responsibility.
The challenge of verifiers is the mindset shift change of trusting what you can get from the learners because technology allows that to be independently verified without the issuer getting involved. But they need to know how to verify. Communication is key in all of this.