Surely you remember the day you got your high school diploma? How about the day you graduated from college? The joy of marking these milestones tends to stay with us for decades.
And yet for all their intrinsic value — the feelings of accomplishment, the camaraderie of graduating with friends — diplomas also have practical meaning. They signify achievement, endurance, and in some cases, exceptional intelligence and skill. We tout them in face-to-face and online conversations, and highlight them in social spaces such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
So valuable are diplomas that there’s now a billion-dollar cottage industry serving fraudsters who’ll pay up to look as if they’re graduated from a prestigious institution1. That should worry us. As educators, students, administrators, and service providers we should be taking steps to preserve the sanctity of the diploma. We can do that and make the document itself more useful. First, we have to get paper out of the process.
A Paper Past is Giving Way to a Digital Future
For students entering a workforce that’s governed by digital technology, the diploma needs to be an online-accessible testimonial for the person who earned it. We won’t get there overnight, but at Parchment we’re already taking steps to make the diploma more accessible and secure, and thereby more meaningful for both students and their schools. By 2020, I expect the diploma to change in the following ways:
- It will live online. Students live online so the documents that matter to them should live online too. Diplomas don’t yet, but you wouldn’t think so to look at most Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. There, you’ll find participants claiming degrees from any number of prestigious institutions. Profiles rich with dates, logos, and degrees completed are meant to reflect a sense of collegiate achievement. Whether the perception is deserved is another matter entirely.
- It will be secure and verifiable. An expert forger with the right materials can fake a degree from just about anywhere. Digital diplomas aren’t so easily replicated. At Parchment we’re developing a system that allows for institutions to not only issue diplomas digitally but also mark them with metadata that verifies their authenticity. We don’t expect it to be long before LinkedIn, Facebook, and every other site that allows for claiming a diploma to ask for a verified copy before it can be added to your profile.
- It will have layers of additional data. Digital diplomas will be marked up with more than just security data. Creative institutions will add a variety of contextual, machine-readable information as well. Examples could include everything from total years in school to a student’s official graduation date, grade-point average, and if appropriate, class ranking.
- It will be visual and interactive. Diplomas have always been a treat for the eye. In the future, we’ll make it even more so by making some parts of the document clickable. For example, the student with a double-major in physics and astronomy may have clickable links for both, allowing the viewer to see the coursework that went into earning those degrees.
The diploma has been a mark of achievement for generations. It still is, and I don’t expect that to change with efforts to make the diploma a digital-first document. But with fraud on the rise, our first priority as educators and administrators is to preserve the sanctity of this vital credential. The good news is we can do that and at the same time make the diploma itself more useful for students and for issuing institutions. And we can do it by 2020.
We’ll get there by making the diploma securely shareable. We’ll also make it verifiable and infuse it with data that preserves the integrity and brand of issuing institutions. Finally, we’ll make it visual and interactive to communicate more about the experience of the student who earned it. Will it be easy? No, but at Parchment we’re committed to realizing this future. We hope you’ll join us.
Matthew Pittinsky, Ph.D. is Chief Executive Officer of Parchment. He holds a B.S. in Political Science from American University, Ed.M. in Education Policy from Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. in Sociology of Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.