Data mobility in the Fourth Industrial Revolution age

Imagine your bank telling you they will go back to paper as a basis for their processes. No more bank cards, no more digital transfers, no more ATM cash withdrawals… would you be happy?

What about if air travel were to revert back to paper, with no more boarding passes on your smartphone. Most of you might be very unhappy.

So why should global learning mobility still be hampered by paper? Wouldn’t it be better to let people share their academic and professional achievements digitally, in a safe and trustworthy manner, with whomever they want, whenever, wherever?

A torrent of developments

This becomes a more pressing question against the backdrop of the ongoing advances offered by information and communications technology in industries as diverse as banking, energy, insurance, media and even government. We are showered in a deluge of new developments, which the World Economic Forum has called a Fourth Industrial Revolution. New technologies will increasingly affect our lives and reshape our economies.

Learning mobility, and the academic and professional recognition processes that enable mobility, will not remain immune to this change. These technological developments present some very pertinent challenges to recognition and credential evaluation and are high on the agenda of the ENIC-NARIC networks of national recognition and information centres.

Enter digital student data verification

The first area where technology is a potential game changer is in educational qualification verification – ensuring the authenticity of students’ academic credentials. A driving force for this has been the Groningen Declaration Network. Now in its sixth year of existence, the Groningen Declaration Network has served as an incubator and matchmaker, bringing together organisations around the globe that subscribe to its aim of full ‘Digital Student Data Portability’.

The best way to achieve full Digital Student Data Portability is still an open question. There are several options to choose from, and a scenario with multiple solutions running side by side might be the most likely.

Centralised student data depositories

One approach is to use a trusted data depository. The recently opened Norwegian Diploma Registry is one example. The diploma registry collects the students’ results from higher education institutions in Norway, and allows the students to digitally share these with whomever they want.

Other systems, at varying stages of development and based on somewhat differing business models, are in operation in Australia, Belgium (Flanders), China, Estonia, France, India, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, the Russian Federation, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, to name only the more well-known such depositories.

These centralised student data depositories capture a very big chunk of the world’s annual student mobility, and almost all are engaged in the Groningen Declaration Network. Many of them are in the public domain, but some operate as a trusted not-for-profit.

Networks for data exchange

There are also some groundbreaking transnational initiatives in this field. EMREX aims to provide a tool for the electronic transfer of student records between higher education institutions in the European Union and beyond. The Erasmus Without Paper project aims to create a network to support the exchange of student data for mobile students by interlinking higher education institutions and their student information systems.

Both projects involve higher education institutions, companies and NGOs across Europe and have received funding from the European Commission under the Erasmus+ programme.

Open Badges

Open Badges are “connected, verifiable credentials that are represented in portable image files”. The badges provide a method for encoding verifiable information about learners’ skills and achievements in visual symbols of accomplishments – badges – that can be shared across the web.

Open badges and other micro-credentials can be designed to capture credits below the certificate or degree level, for example, for MOOCs or online courses that are not part of a formal curriculum and users are free to combine them in their CVs or résumés as they see fit.


New distributed technologies such as blockchain may also provide an effective and secure platform for Digital Student Data Portability. Blockchain holds big potential because it enables individuals to own, access and share their own learning attainments in a secure way directly with recipients.

One prominent example is Blockcerts, which aims to give users ownership of their official academic records so that they are freed from ongoing dependency on issuing institutions – or any centralised authority – to verify their credentials and achievements.

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre has just published a groundbreaking report on the state of the art of blockchain in education and how it may both disrupt institutional norms and empower learners.

It remains to be seen whether the European Commission will embrace blockchain and support its deployment for learner mobility, but developments in this direction are already well under way in Malta and the Netherlands, which just hosted a very successful conference on Blockchain in Education in Groningen.

Why we should start piloting these new digital departures

There is a lot more to these new departures than just hype. Important players in the education ecosystem have already embraced the new technologies. And Europe’s refugee crisis gives ample illustration of the need.

The sheer dimensions of the refugee crisis that Europe has been struggling to come to terms with over the past few years provide a good rationale for implementing and rolling out digital student data portability. Not just for storing and sharing students’ achievements, but also for the purpose of authentication.

The United Nations recently launched the ID2020 project, which aims to provide a permanent digital ID to 1.1 billion people by means of a blockchain-supported network designed to build a permanent and legal identity using biometric data on a person’s phone.

Important initiatives are also under way to describe the qualifications of refugees who lack diplomas and transcripts to prove their educational background, and portable, digital student data would help us avoid having to map this out in every new country the refugee arrives in.

The Council of Europe’s European Qualifications Passport for Refugees project aims to make its passport digitally portable in the next project phase, whereas the Article 26 Backpack initiative in the United States has made this a central element of its solution from the beginning. In Germany, Kiron has designed a fully digital platform to help refugees gain access to higher education.

These initiatives may provide the impetus to usher in the widespread use of digitally coded data sets that the Groningen Declaration Network has been advocating for a couple of years, with the ENIC-NARIC network and higher education institutions now joining that chorus.

There is no doubt that the new developments will pose new challenges, in particular with regard to which sources and service providers we can ultimately trust. In a formal academic recognition process, credentials still ultimately need to be issued by an accredited institution and there is as yet no consensus on how we should award qualifications for learning across non-formal and informal avenues such as unaccredited online courses and work experience.

For Europe, the European Commission’s plan of introducing an EU Student eCard by early 2019 will also play an important role in trailblazing digital student data portability on a large scale. The new initiative, launched during the EU Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth on 17 November, aims for electronic identification of students and secure exchange of student data.

The commission will start its preparatory work in 2018, and will have the opportunity to set a de facto standard in the field. Paper-based credentials could soon be consigned to the history books.

Herman de Leeuw is the founder and executive director of the Groningen Declaration Network. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC) and president of the ENIC Network (European Network of Information Centres).