Saturday, August 31, 2013

Digitally Certified University Certificates

Thomas (Tom) Worthington's Graduate Certificate in Higher Education from the Australian National University (ANU) 19 July 2013. Please note that the signatures and some other details have been obscured for security. Original at:
The Australian National University now issues Certified digital documents, to graduates. Provided in electronic form  are the academic transcript, Australian Higher Education Graduation Statement (AHEGS) and testamur. These are provided at no charge to the students (in contrast, USQ charges a fee for paper transcripts and provide no electronic certificates).

One of the problems for students and university administrators alike is producing certificates, transcripts and other evidence of study. Paper documents are easily forged and despite anti-copy features I find that laser printed copies of university certificates often look more genuine than the originals. One solution is digital certificates verified on-line.

The ANU certificates are distributed through  the Digitary service, which was a spin-off of Dublin City University. Instead of providing a certified paper copy or a scan of it, students can provide a hypertext link to the document in the on-line service. Copies printed from the service have instructions on them of how to verify the details.

This is a much more secure and convenient system, than trying to verify a paper copy of a document, or a facsimile of it. A university can provide such a service directly, via its own web site, but using a service shared by other universities (including the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics) increases the credibility of the documents.

In practice the system has a few problems. There are several weeks delay between graduation and the documents being provided on-line. Also there is no notification to the students that the documents are available, they have to keep checking the system. Given that a student is likely to want to make us of their qualifications for applying for positions immediately, this delay would be frustrating and result in much of the value of the system being negated.

The student uses their university user-id and password to access the Digitary system, via the university website. The student has control over who can access their documents. They can choose to have open access, limit access to users registered with the Digitary system or only a specific email address. Also the access can be set to expire after a specified period (default is 90 days). For limited access, Digitary sends an email to the recipient with details of how to get the document.

The documents when "printed" is a PDF file consisting of a cover sheet explaining the digital security process, followed by a facsimile of the university's printed certificates. By emulating the printed certificate, the reader of the electronic version will feel more comfortable. However, there is nothing on the facsimile (or the paper original) to aid verification. It would be preferable if all the certificates included a URL (and perhaps a machine readable QR Code) which could be used to verify the document. Also a photograph of the student, would be useful.

One problem is that my email system warned the message Digitary sent may be Spam. The company might want to reformat its messages so they do not look suspicious.

So as to demonstrate the system, I have set open access for my ANU Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (for the next 90 days). There seemed to be no harm in making this document public as the fact that I received a qualification from the university is not something I want to hide. However, the details of my marks for specific subjects is something I may not want to make so readily available.

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