‘This Was Absolutely Insane’: How Blockchain Could Have Averted One Parent’s Registration NightmareMelissa Layne | Associate Vice President of Research and Innovation, American Public University System
Have you ever had one of those moments when you question the value of what you are doing? This is not one of those stories. In fact, it is a story of my conviction being hardened to the grade of a titanium plate.
My saga begins earlier this summer, when my son and I decided he would be better served by pursuing an intensive route for his senior year of high school. He took dual-credit courses exclusively, which give him the requisite credits to simultaneously earn his diploma and college credit. After attempting, in vain, to work with his high school guidance counselor (who refused to assist us in any manner), I made the decision to withdraw him from public school and start a homeschool program, consisting of all dual-credit courses. In theory this was all straightforward: We file the withdraw notice with the high school and create a dual-credit agreement with the college where he will be taking courses. He then registers, receives his 65% tuition discount mandated by the state, and starts taking courses.
What was not made clear is the process and associated forms were designed by an individual who was undoubtedly the love child of Franz Kafka and the Marquis de Sade.
First, let’s start with the dual-credit agreement. The document is available in what appears, at first blush, to be a convenient PDF with fillable fields for the student’s previous academic history and other fields for intended courses. Oh, how appearances can be deceiving. Those convenient fields are so small that you cannot enter a course name in anything larger than four-point text.
Second, there are only enough fields to enter one semester of courses for each year. None of this would be overly problematic, except that the PDF is locked to prevent you from editing it in any manner. Thus, I found myself creating a substitute document, with all of the fields replicated in a word document, that I then had to merge with the legal language in the aforementioned form.
As I started assessing the level of effort involved with this task, I recalled that the college in question already had copies of my son’s high school transcripts, personal information, and test scores for algebra and English courses he had already taken there. I thought, “Surely, they must be able to reference that information, eliminating the need for me to create and complete this form.” One would think this would be the case, right?
Upon speaking to the Office of the Registrar, I was informed the new student database and the dual enrollment database were in fact two separate platforms that didn’t talk to each other.
Mumbling under my breath I resigned myself to the fact that I would have to create the new form and enter the information from my son’s high school transcript and test scores manually. I took a deep breath and logged into the local school district’s portal to obtain the documents, only to encounter yet another barrier. The portal was shut down for the summer and all transcripts had to be obtained through filing a request and receiving a paper copy. Unbelievable. The only thing missing was a requirement that the request be faxed in!
So I was resigned to waiting again, imagining that somewhere a cohort of Trappist monks were slowly reading my son’s grades from an original, leather-bound tome and transcribing them with quills onto parchment. But after a few days, the Pony Express rider appeared on the horizon bearing the documents with a raised seal.
With eyes shining like a three-year old seeing presents under the tree on Christmas morning, I tore into the envelope so I could quickly transfer the information into the forms that I created. As I glanced back and forth between the transcript and the spreadsheet, I felt all of the blood leave my face. I stared at the wall in front of me and heard myself mumble, “What fresh hell is this?” Then, an earlier conversation came back to me with crystal clarity. I remembered asking the good folks in the dual-credit department if I could just attach copies of my son’s transcripts. The answer was a resounding “No.” For some unknown reason, courses, grades and test scores all had to be entered into the prescribed format. Now, the rationale was clear: The transcript and the dual-credit form were in completely different formats! Yes, I had to transcribe the information column by column. Oh well, it was still 5 p.m. and I don’t usually go to bed until midnight.
The next day I printed out the documents—paper copies were required for signatures—and headed to the Office of the Registrar with my son in tow. My son was very quiet the whole morning. I believe he saw something in my eyes, probably the same look that Martin Luther had as he was nailing his Treatise to the church door. That look turned to rage when we arrived to find a line that rivaled your worst DMV nightmares.
Three hours later we finally got in to see the registrar, who glanced at the paperwork, promptly signed and then forwarded it for processing (another person manually entering it into their system). Great, we had run the gauntlet and we were ready to enroll my son in his fall classes.
Actually, no we weren’t.
Much to my dismay, I was informed that I needed to provide proof of residence, other than my driver’s license.
An hour and a half later, I returned with a printed copy of my electric bill. This had to be the last step. Surely, the electric bill was the golden ticket needed to get into the academic version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. And indeed it was, the registrar gave the bill a cursory glance, nodded approval, and checked one of the countless boxes associated with each student’s profile.
Two hours later I sat at the kitchen table with my son and picked out his fall courses. A few clicks and he was registered, with the appropriate discounts applied. Approximately 12-16 hours spent over a period of two weeks and everything was finally completed. THIS WAS ABSOLUTELY INSANE!
How much easier life would have been if my son’s high school records had all been kept on a simple blockchain that could have been referenced with one simple hash and verified instantly?
It is absurd that the college had a separate database—one that couldn’t talk to the main database—for dual-credit students. The dual-credit status should have simply been an additional block on his student record blockchain, which in turn could have referenced the high school’s blockchain.
Likewise, imagine if all of our utility bills were blockchained. This would have been just one more connection that could have been verified and recorded almost instantly.
Obviously, registrars at colleges and guidance counselors at high schools are not entirely to blame for these pain points. The processes, procedures, protocols, etc. and lack of resources toward devoting funded solutions for emerging technologies are to blame. Additionally, if you work in the Office of the Registrar, or serve as a guidance counselor at a high school, you are not alone in your requests to fill gaps and reduce inefficiencies within your department. Many institutions face these same issues.
Requesting Student Records
Problem: The record-ordering process is often disjointed, confusing and far from streamlined. This frustration is then passed along to the student in one form or another.
Solution: Blockchain provides a central space for everything. Therefore my son’s transcript, state test scores, AP scores, SAT scores, grades, and even my electric bill to boot is ready to go.
Need a Diploma… Like Now? (not 5-10 weeks from now)
Problem: In today’s digital world, there should be no need for a student to wait five to 10 weeks for a diploma. Anyone with even a little bit of blockchain knowledge has likely wondered if it’s possible to use blockchain to bypass those third-party vendors who develop, process and send a paper or digital diploma. YES you can.
Solution: Here’s a thought: Get your marketing department to develop a sharp-looking diploma, verify it with signatures and stamps, then store it on the blockchain. It cannot be changed in any way, but the student can access their diploma and any other credentials on-demand at no cost. Also, think about the thousands you currently spend on diploma and credential issuers. This is really a no-brainer.
Seamless System Integration
Problem: Many times, institutions purchase student record systems that were integrated several years ago, and they do not “talk to” other internal or external systems SIS, CRM, LMS, and cataloging systems. Students may also use different methods to pay for classes. For example, if a university is made up of a large proportion of military students, in order to receive Tuition Assistance (TA) benefits, these students need to supply a deferment education verification letter to the military branch to which they are associated to confirm they are a part-time or full-time student so that they can receive tuition and housing before school starts. Due to the systems that the military branches use—which oftentimes do not talk to student record management systems—institutions must rely on staff to manually input the information. So, for example, if a name is spelled incorrectly, or if a social security number is off by one digit, synchronization of the records does not occur and the verification process is delayed. This creates unnecessary inefficiencies which prevents registrar teams from customizing their workflows.
Solution: Blockchain technology, by design, allows for flexible integration and support custom workflows. Credentials, verification letters, and other student records are stored on blockchain, therefore are accessible whenever, wherever.
Security and Verification
Problem: Data privacy is paramount, period. However, the Office of the Registrar has everyday access to student records. Additionally, fraudulent transcripts, diplomas and other credentials are issues registrar teams deal with occasionally as well.
Solution: Again, by design, blockchain is highly secure. Each “block” in a blockchain contains records of transactions, therefore each block is connected to the one before and after it. For a hacker to tamper with even a single record, he would need to change the block containing that record as well as the blocks linked to it to avoid getting caught. Records are also secure with cryptography. Students would have their own private keys to each transaction they make which serves as a digital signature. If the signature is changed in any way, the record becomes invalid.
When I look at the all time wasted—my time, my son’s time, the staff’s time at the high school and the registrar’s office—it is readily apparent that blockchain-based systems must be implemented as soon as possible.
Our registration nightmare is over… but for so many other parents it’s still around the corner!
Author Perspective: Administrator