An interview with SAIT executives

ODEM Interview with SAIT’s Registrar and CIO_linkedin_facebooks_twitter_blog_1200x675px

Why SAIT’s Registrar Believes Blockchain Technology Supports Education

Earlier this month, at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (SAIT) convocation ceremony, ODEM made it possible for graduating students have their diplomas also available on the blockchain. It was a first in Canada, and with 4,800 students in the 2019 graduating class, the biggest ever number of students eligible to claim their credentials on the blockchain.

During graduation celebrations, ODEM Marketing Director Ashley Chen chatted with SAIT Registrar, Neera Arora and Chief Information Officer, Michael Barr about why SAIT sees blockchain technology as part of their future.

Ashley Chen: Before we talk about blockchain and diplomas, tell us more about SAIT.

Neera Arora: SAIT’s mandate is applied education with hands-on and experiential learning. We take great pride in aligning ourselves with a range of industry sectors so that our programs are relevant and students gain real-world exposure, ultimately leading to high graduate employment rates. Programs at SAIT range from certificates to degrees, with an applied learning and research following the polytechnic mandate. 

Over the last decade, higher education has undergone massive change and evolution due to various factors like technological advancements or digital disruption, student demography, economic environment and government funding. Technology is playing a very big part in how we want to stay operationally efficient and evolve as an organization.

Chen: How is SAIT using new technologies to prepare students for a world that is constantly changing and developing? 

Arora: SAIT works closely with industry to stay abreast with trends and new technologies, and integrate these changes into our programs using our program review and renewal process. For example, following our successful pilot with Blockchain technology that got prompted by students during a capstone project, we wanted to pursue this further with all the graduates during spring 2019.

The Office of the Registrar is responsible for accepting and reviewing applications and supporting documents from domestic and international students. As we deal with a more diverse student population, assessing credibility and authenticity of transcripts is vital to ensure the applicants meet the admission requirements of highly competitive programs. This ensure they have the foundational requirements to be successful in the program they are registered in. 

We used Blockchain technology to issue digital credentials to all our graduates this spring. This enables the graduates to have access to their credential at all times, and they are able to share the same with employers without having to request a copy from SAIT. This would put our graduates at an advantage and help them with their employment efforts.  

Chen: How is SAIT addressing technological change and student diversity?

Michael Barr: Students are more complex than they used to be and diversity means we handle things in different ways than we used to. Catering to a wider demographic of students is part of what drives us to consider new technologies that will help to advance and implement our ideas.

Experimentation is important because it takes you to new places. That’s what SAIT is really good at: research, experimentation, development, and activation, or accepting when something doesn’t work.

Chen: Why did a blockchain-based solution resonate with you and other SAIT leaders?

Arora: We want to make sure our grads have access to credible and timely information so they’re more marketable. If they're sitting in Sydney, Australia, and they have a job offer, they don't have to come to SAIT looking for their transcript or credentials, they have access to all of their records directly on the blockchain, available anywhere in the world. So blockchain technology saves time and resources for us and them.

But most importantly, it’s about students owning their own credential. It’s theirs. We’re elevating the trust factor of that credential’s authenticity. Blockchain made a lot of sense for me as a new registrar who came in very interested in piloting new technology to streamline operations and enhance student experience. To implement it, we’ve taken baby steps, and I think it’s working well. We know there’s a lot more potential in this area.

Chen: How has SAIT approached the topic of blockchain technology and the protection of personal data?

Barr: There’s now an expectation that people can and should have more control over their data. But the world is full of cyber crime, and people are more diligently asking how an organization is going to secure the data that they collect. At SAIT, we’ve set a goal of increasing our current data security practices across the organization by 2025. Blockchain technology may not be the final destination, but it offers a way to encrypt every transaction and claim ownership over personal information.

While the origin of blockchain technology was with people who were performing illegal transactions, the use of the technology proved that it worked. That particular use of blockchain demonstrated that people who didn’t trust each other could conduct a successful transaction.

Working with ODEM is a chance to experiment with a new idea. We may have to pivot and try different things, but in the meantime we’re able to get into the market and create change. We’re looking forward to gathering feedback from the industry and our students who now have digital credentials. For us, ODEM’s platform has provided a great opportunity to learn.

Chen: How do you view the problem of fake diplomas and bogus academic records. Is that something you’ve encountered at SAIT?

Arora: From the perspective of the Office of the Registrar, we do see one-off cases here and there around transcripts that take us longer to validate. We have about ninety-two countries represented by international students who are studying here. We have credentials coming from all over, and sometimes you do find things that need extra staff to confirm. So we have to have that extra lens of authentication validating those credentials. 

Our objective is to ensure that the credentials leaving the organization give the graduate a valid and true source for their record of achievement. It’s important that our grads know that their credential is easily accessible and transferable, and eventually positions them for success.

Thank you to Neera Arora and Michael Barr for taking the time to sit down with us. At ODEM, we’re thrilled to apply blockchain technology to a solution that will support students in their pursuit of education and accomplishment. Learn more about SAIT, and about ODEM.