Published on 2019/05/17

The EvoLLLution | How Next-Generation Credentialing Can Eliminate the Letter of Recommendation
Letters of reference—despised by both professors and students—could be made obsolete if postsecondary institutions simplify and automate much of the credentialing process while also more clearly communicating a student’s knowledge, skills and abilities.

This is the conclusion of a two-part series from Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities on the topic of next generation transcripts, blockchain and changing needs in academic credentialing. Click here to view the first installment.

In the first installment of this series, Lindsay Kelly described the lessons learned from a recent service design workshop conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The workshop focused on ideas for the future of academic transcripts, and how those ideas might relate to the Center for 21st Century University’s (C21U) work with blockchain-based academic credentials.

A surprising outcome of this workshop was the extensive discussion about letters of recommendation. While we did hope to prompt participants to consider how the reference letter-writing process might be streamlined in the future, we did not expect it to be the primary topic of the debrief at the end of the session. The creation of these letters is a challenging but necessary task that presents frustrations for students, faculty, employers and admissions offices.

During C21U’s service design workshop, three main “pain points” emerged for reference letters:

1) Students are often unsure how to ask for letters of recommendation, or how to request that faculty members include descriptions of specific skills or characteristics in the letters.

2) Faculty are often asked for a letter of recommendation long after the student completes the course. They must then spend a great deal of time digging through campus systems to try to refresh their memories about a specific student’s work and accomplishments.

3) Employers and admissions officers are often frustrated by their inability to verify the information presented in a letter of recommendation. In addition, the characteristics employers are most interested in—interpersonal skills, motivation, self-taught skills, work ethic—are often left out.

This conversation led to an important realization: When we talk about the potential of blockchain technologies to revolutionize academic credentials, we often imagine a new form of existing credentials, such as degrees or certificates. However, our biggest opportunity might be found in rethinking the letter of recommendation.

In a nutshell, our service design research shows us that the next-generation transcript could eliminate the need for the letter altogether.

The best way to describe the idea is by imagining one fictional student’s college journey: Susan Sophomore.

Susan’s Transcript

Susan Sophomore is a second-year student at State University. As she progresses through her undergraduate program, she is building a comprehensive transcript. After one year of college, Susan’s transcript includes credentials that describe:

  • Completed courses (e.g. “Chemical Principles” and “Computing for Engineers”): These credentials were automatically awarded by the student information system at the end of each semester upon passing each course.
  • Mastered subject matter (e.g. “Acids and Bases” and “GitHub”): These credentials were automatically awarded by the learning management system (LMS) at the completion of key units within each course.
  • Whole-person skills (e.g. “Leading a Team” and “Self-Directed Learning”): These credentials are awarded by faculty members and graduate teaching assistants throughout each semester.

Susan’s transcript is available to her at all times via an application on her smartphone. This imagined transcript is:

  1. Learner-owned: She doesn’t need to submit a request to the registrar’s office to access or share her transcript. It follows her wherever she goes—even if she transfers to a different school.
  2. Immediate: Susan is issued credentials immediately. For example, after scoring a 100 on her Acids and Bases test, she receives a notification that a new credential has been added to her transcript and she can begin sharing it with others right away (even if it’s simply to brag about her score on her favorite social network).
  3. Integrated: As described above, credentials are earned continuously. Every few weeks, Susan is notified about a new credential. Instructional designers (who are assigned to each course at the university) help faculty build these issuances into the design of their courses.
  4. Metadata-rich: Each credential includes details such as issuer, date, criteria, description and narrative. For example, her Leading a Team credential includes a short note from her professor describing Susan’s performance during her team project. You can read more on how that note might be entered in the Curate and Share section.

These characteristics mean that Susan could build a library of endorsements showcasing her varied skills and accomplishments and this library could support her throughout her academic career and beyond.

Curate and Share

Three years later, Susan finds herself applying for an entry-level position with a large company, PharmaNeu. In the past, she might have contacted her Chemical Principles teacher and asked for a letter of recommendation (and hoped that her professor remembered her). Luckily, she already has the ingredients for a letter of recommendation in her transcript.

She opens her transcript app to reveal the library of 63 credentials that she earned throughout her time at State University. Of course, she doesn’t want to provide all 63 credentials to the PharmaNeu hiring manager. So, she selects the following stack of credentials that she believes will prove her value:

  1. Chemical Principles – course credential
  2. Acids and Bases – subject matter credential
  3. Leading a Team – whole-person credential
  4. GitHub – subject matter credential
  5. Student Government – whole-person credential

She packages those credentials into a custom stack and shares them with the employer. Each credential reflects the same information that would previously have been described (with any luck) in a letter of recommendation written by her former professors and mentors at State University.

Susan does hope to include a note from her professor about the Leading a Team credential. She asks her professor, Dr. Frank Faculty, if he would be willing to add a short description of why it was issued to her. Despite the lapse of three years, Dr. Faculty reviews the previously-issued credential and its metadata, sparking his memory of Susan’s work. He adds a short note: “Susan noticed that her team project was flailing, so she took control and delegated tasks.”

Verify and Trust

PharmaNeu receives the stack of credentials as part of Susan’s job application, then reviews contemporaneous endorsements of her time at State University. To alleviate any concerns that the credentials within the stack are authentic, the hiring manager verifies the stack on a public blockchain. As a result, it becomes clear that:

  • The Chemical Principles credential was issued by State University’s student information system on May 20, 2025.
  • The Acids and Bases credential was issued by State University’s LMS after Susan scored a 100 on her February 20, 2025 exam.
  • The Leading a team credential was issued by Dr. Frank Faculty on March 13, 2025, and includes the note describing her performance.

PharmaNeu can rest assured that Susan actually earned these credentials, that State University systems or employees actually issued these credentials, and that these credentials have not yet passed an expiration date. Should State University ever cease operations, these credentials would still be accessible, shareable and verifiable on the blockchain.

Back to Reality

It is not a large technological challenge that prevents the above scenario from becoming reality. Rather, the challenge is largely existing processes and governance structures.

Here is a significant question to be answered: How can a university maintain oversight of the credentials? This is a valid concern. Schools do not want to dilute their brand by issuing credentials that may not accurately reflect its students’ knowledge and skills. How can the school ensure that the Leading a Team credential is not being issued to all students, regardless of their leadership skills?

The argument could be made that these questions remain unanswered in our current reality. Faculty regularly write letters of recommendation that include these types of endorsements on official letterhead, and they appear to be the official opinion of the institution to outside parties. Clearly, some thought needs to be given to how governance and oversight should be applied to these micro-credentials.

The other potential barrier is user adoption. We have been conducting pilots of the Blockcerts standard, and conducting user research with participants. A common refrain we often hear is that students will not feel comfortable sharing Blockcerts (or any other microcredential) with third parties until there is more widespread adoption. Returning to our story, Susan Sophomore would likely be hesitant to send her blockchain-based credentials to PharmaNeu if there isn’t a shared understanding of what these credentials represent.

At C21U, we plan to continue piloting the use of blockchain-based credentials to work towards a resolution of the barriers described above. After our service design workshop, we also plan to conduct user research on the concept described in this article and obtain more tactical feedback on the idea in order to produce preliminary designs. Eventually, our hope is that all learners can own a next-generation transcript that addresses the needs described here.

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