Using Blockchain for student certificates slashes admin costs

By GovInsider

Exclusive interview with the Director of Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s office for innovation.

Once upon a time, showing up for a job interview empty-handed would have caused quite a number of raised eyebrows.

But one day, it may become the norm. Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) is the country’s first polytechnic to pilot the use of Blockchain to verify the authenticity of diploma certificates, says Patrice Choong, Director of The Sandbox, the school’s office for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Imagine the possibilities for potential employers: “When a student graduates, he just gives you his Blockchain ID and you can retrieve his academic records from his entire education history,” Choong explains, adding that the certificates will also be published on the student’s LinkedIn profile.

Blockchain in education

The certificates can also be used by universities, who spend a great deal of administrative time checking up on an applicant’s credentials.

“These calls are processed manually [but] if we publish it on the Blockchain and it becomes self-verification, you can imagine in the future, your diploma certificate could have some kind of a QR code,” he explains.

When potential employers or admissions officers scan the QR code, the system immediately retrieves the original certificate from NP’s servers without any fuss, Choong says.

“It’s a productivity gain, and also an additional layer of security,” he adds. And it’s more convenient for students as well: “[They] don’t have to meticulously keep [physical] certificates.” “It’s a productivity gain, and also an additional layer of security.”

Blockchain was first created as a distributed ledger technology, Choong explains, to be used for smart contracts. Applications for education purposes were not apparent at the time. “But we thought ‘Hey, maybe we can publish diploma certificates onto the Blockchain’,” he says.

NP is working with a smart contract startup, Attores, on the pilot. The pilot will begin with a handful of graduating students—“we are targeting for the next batch,” says Choong—and once it proves successful, the school will extend it to the rest of the student body.

Smart solutions and startups

This Blockchain pilot is part of NP’s Campus Ecosystem programme, which aims to pilot tech solutions for a smart campus. The school seeks to improve student life, learning and work processes, to name a few, says Choong.

NP has set aside S$500,000 (~US$360,000) for this first year of a three-year programme. NP is currently working with 12 startups to co-develop these smart campus solutions.

“We can build all the solutions in-house but that’s not very smart,” he explains. “What we try to do is, we partner with companies with the innovative solutions out there that also bring in the culture of experimentation and exploration.”

"We partner with companies that also bring in the culture of experimentation and exploration.” There are several benefits for startups to partner with the school, Choong explains. “We can be their first client, their reference client.

A few of our pilots, we were their first customers.” There is also the appeal of being able to test a product or solution on NP’s 15,000-strong student population. Startups can learn how to scale up if they had previously only tested on a few dozen people, according to Choong.

And much like how the Blockchain verification pilot came about, “startups also approach the school with products that were not originally meant for education and say, ‘I think there’s an application factor here for education’,” he adds.

Match made on campus

Part of problem-solving is “matching” with the right startups, according to Choong. He starts off with holding dialogue sessions with fellow directors to identify problems and areas that need improvement.

He shares an encounter with a frustrated staff member in charge of bursary applications, of which NP receives thousands every year. The applications cannot be processed until all of the required documents are present, and staff would personally have to call up students to ask for any missing documents.

There is an opportunity here for a startup to be “matched” with the problem and help NP devise a solution, Choong says—a document verification system, for example.

“The system immediately generates an email to the student to say, ‘You may have forgotten this’,” he adds. As NP innovates to improve the student experience both on and off campus, fresh grads will see less hassle in their job hunts—and that is always welcome.