TUM San Francisco Insights

Blockchain: an accelerating trend – also for universities?

April 26, 2019

Blockchain is no longer a futuristic hype on which only crypto currencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum are based. There are already other sectors in which the network technology in question has a disruptive effect and could therefore fundamentally change existing business processes. But what potential does the technology have for processes in the higher education sector?

For some time now, blockchain has been a research topic that is attracting increasing interest. The Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and the University of Nicosia (UNIC) in Cyprus are regarded as pioneers among universities with regard to blockchain.

The MIT Media Lab has been using the open standard Blockcerts for some time now to issue certificates to students. UNIC even offers a Master of Science in Digital Currency, posts academic certificates on the blockchain and has been accepting Bitcoin as a means of payment already since 2013. Last year, the two American Universities Stanford and Columbia also founded Blockchain research centers, setting new research priorities.

Blockchain in Research and Education

In addition, more and more universities are trying to meet the growing demand from students for courses on blockchain and digital currencies with corresponding offers. An analysis of the US crypto currency exchange Coinbase based in San Francisco in 2018 showed that 42% of the top 50 universities offer at least one course on these topics. The list is led by the universities Stanford and Cornell with ten and nine courses respectively.

According to the Coinbase study, blockchain and crypto currency courses are most prominent in the US. Only five of the 18 international universities offer at least one course. Only two universities - ETH Zurich and National University of Singapore - offer more than one course.

Even though the topic of blockchain is becoming more established as a research topic and the number of universities designing corresponding courses is increasing, the application of technology for administrative processes within the higher education sector has so far only been implemented in isolated cases.

Advantages of Blockchain for Universities Processes

The blockchain technology has great potential for administrative processes in universities and above all two important advantages:

Digital security is certainly the most important reason. Unlike most other technologies, it is a distributed peer-to-peer platform. This means that the so-called distributed ledger technology stores and spreads every transaction to countless computers worldwide, which in turn makes cyber-attacks and data protection violations more difficult and greatly safeguards the accuracy of data. Encryption and authentication are also among its most important elements.

At the same time, transparency is another advantage. There are no modification, update or even deletion options for entries. To be able to change an entry, it would have to be changed on every blockchain on every computer. Manipulations are thus virtually impossible.

Blockchain technology could simplify the management of trusted information and facilitate access and use of personal data by different units within the university without compromising data security. This would allow students to securely capture and use academic credentials, certificates, and other personal data. Data such as studies abroad or internships could also be collected. Because this information is unchangeable, such a database would be much more secure.

At the same time, students would have access to their own shared digital file, which would be registered, cryptographically secured and thus tamper-proof. They could share their information with potential employers without having to wait for the university to issue or certify certificates. Applying to study at a university could also be much easier and the process could be changed once and for all. There is no need for additional transcripts as there is always a digital, tamperproof copy. At the same time, registration information could be verified quickly.

TUM relies on worldwide cooperation

TUM also recognized the importance of digital technologies in universities early on and introduced its TUMonline intregrated campus management system ten years ago. For example, this system already supports all IT processes associated with the study cycle. Their high user-friendliness is an enormous success factor of the system, which was only recently named as an example of good practice with regard to the digitization of administration processes in this year's report of the German Commission of Experts for Research and Innovation (EFI).

Since last autumn, TUM has been working with eight other world-leading universities, such as MIT, Harvard and TU Delft, to develop forgery-proof certificates using blockchain technology. "We are developing a global standard for a trustworthy infrastructure to exchange digital certificates and proof of academic achievements," said Dr. Hans Pongratz, Senior Vice President of TUM for IT Systems and Services (CIO), in a recent interview.

The main reason for this cooperation is the universities' interest in using the progress achieved through new technologies in such a way that the needs of learners are at the forefront. “While digital technologies have had an enormous impact on research, teaching and learning, and as educational biographies are becoming increasingly individualized, little progress has been made to make such documents more secure and easier to verify. We want to change that. The latest blockchain and digital certificate technologies are ideally suited to that purpose” Dr. Pongratz continued.

The Bottom Line

Digital technologies have a big impact on the way we learn. Higher education processes, such as issuing and managing academic credentials, must also follow this trend, as practical verification and authentication requirements have changed.

The potential of blockchain technology goes far beyond digital currencies and could significantly transform organizational efficiency and the experience of university students. Its diverse application possibilities in the university sector are therefore both attractive and exciting, especially since there is still potential that is not even discernible today. TUM is one of the universities that has recognized this necessity as a sign of the times and is striving for an approach that can be used worldwide.


•    https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/media-lab-digital-certificates/overview/
•    https://www.blockcerts.org
•    https://digitalcurrency.unic.ac.cy
•    https://engineering.stanford.edu/news/stanford-computer-scientists-launch-center-blockchain-research
•    https://engineering.columbia.edu/press-releases/columbia-ibm-center-blockchain-data-transparency
•    https://blog.coinbase.com/the-rise-of-crypto-in-higher-education-81b648c2466f
•    https://digitalcredentials.mit.edu
•    https://www.e-fi.de/gutachten-und-studien/gutachten/