Students who complete a series of Duke engineering courses through the online learning platform Coursera will receive a copy of their certificate in the form of a non-fungible token – or NFT. The course instructor says this will likely be the future of education certification.
The unique digital token comes at the end of a sequence of courses on blockchain technology taught by Jimmie Lenz, who leads the Masters of Engineering in Financial Technology and Masters of Engineering in Cybersecurity programs at the Pratt School of Engineering, where he is executive in residence. .
An expert in financial technology, capital markets and banking, Lenz spoke to Duke Today about NFTs and the future of this type of technology.
Here are excerpts:
Q: Students in your blockchain technology course on Coursera receive their certificates as NFTs – a non-fungible token. How is this better than a traditional paper certificate, and what limitations, if any, come with documents in this form?
LENZ: Think of a paper diploma, can you use it to show an employer that you have indeed graduated from an institution? Probably not, after all, anyone can make a good copy of a paper diploma, right? How does an employer know if it’s legitimate? What usually happens is that you have to pay for an official copy from a university registrar, and this is only good for about a month.
An NFT, on the other hand, cannot be modified; it is “non-fungible” or unique. This is very easy to verify as an employer can simply go online and see that an NFT has been sent from the school wallet address to the applicant’s address. It may contain some metadata that also provides additional details. There are few limitations to what can be embedded on an NFT.
Q: Is the main benefit here portability, security, both, or something else?
LENZ: The safety aspect is extremely important for all parties involved. After the stories about Coursera’s NFT course appeared, I was overwhelmed with stories from employers about credential and experience fraud, which is very real and costly.
Q: How is this different from just a scanned image of a paper document?
LENZ: These NFTs are unique. The code has been changed so that they cannot even be transferred from the original wallet to which they are delivered. Making them non-transferable is just another security feature. The other element is the metadata I mentioned earlier; what if schools, after a student has given permission, integrate the NFT into each course taken? This way, an employer knows not only that you have earned a certain degree, but also the courses taken. Obviously, this is a huge difference compared to a paper diploma.
And another important thing here, what do most people with a degree do? Frame it and hang it, right? With an NFT, you can integrate it with your LinkedIn profile or other social media. Try doing it with a pdf.
Q: Do you feel an appetite or demand for this type of technology from companies, universities or other institutions that students who complete your course might share the certificate with? If you are an employer, for example, what is the advantage?
LENZ: I heard from these three people, students, employers and schools. The students were delighted to receive the NFTs; it was a total surprise they didn’t know until I told them to check their wallets. Then come the employers; they asked for NFTs that carried degrees and certificates, but also work experience – essentially a replacement for a CV, to try to reduce exaggerated or fraudulent information.
Q: You wrote an essay on this topic in which you argue that universities can explore this world of digital degrees and NFTs as a way to engage alumni networks. Do you think college graduates will soon expect material like this from their alma maters to come in this form? And how else could a university use this technology to engage with its students and graduates?
LENZ: I absolutely do. You’ve seen how NFTs have exploded in popularity, and we haven’t really scratched the surface of utility here. It will only take a few schools to adopt it before employers start asking for them.
But it’s also an opportunity to keep in touch with students and alumni. Unlike your school email, which many schools deactivate after a year (not sure why they would do that), a wallet address is permanent. Schools could use it for all types of engagement. From alumni events to fundraising, there really are few limits. How cool would it have been to send an NFT with a final message from Coach K to all the alumni with a short video embedded, for example?
Blockchain technology has already changed the world. As technology proliferates, not everything will come to light, but some things will become second nature, like the internet or cell phones. You can pioneer adoption, or you can be driven, but either way adoption will happen.