The University of Lille goes blockchain with EBSI

Winner of a European call for projects in 2021 to deploy a digital infrastructure for trusted public services based on blockchain technologies, the University of Lille has installed a certification system, Fr.EBSI, based on EBSI’s diplomas use case.

Perrine de Coëtlogon, Board Member of Open Education Global, French Representative to the European Blockchain Partnership, Project Manager of DemattestUlille, Blockchain & Open Education at the University of Lille’s Direction de l’Innovation Pédagogique, explains how the University of Lille came to integrate this use case and how it will impact all higher education institutions in France and Europe.

Could you introduce yourself and explain your connection with EBSI?

“After a Franco-German background, I was a lawyer in mergers and acquisitions at the Paris Bar for seven years before becoming passionate about educational innovation at the University of Lille. Convinced of the interest of open education, I was from 2015 to 2018 a digital, European and International expert at the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, discovering the European working group on digital skills. I finally joined the Pedagogical Innovation Department of the University of Lille. Since 2018, I have been working on the contribution of blockchain technologies in an educational context and on promoting the use of open educational resources. On these two themes, I was therefore well prepared to make the link with European, Francophone and international initiatives. I represent the Digital Education Directorate and the French Interministerial Digital Directorate within the European Blockchain Partnership. I was looking for a blockchain infrastructure that meets many criteria, including its carbon footprint, its wide distribution and its compliance with international standards (for maximum interoperability). The European blockchain Services Infrastructure met all these criteria and more. Furthermore, I am a Member of the Board of Open Education Global, an organisation for which I created the first Open Education Global Francophone conference in November 2020. I have just received the award for supporting the UNESCO recommendation on open educational resources along with the 293 other presenters at the Open Education Global 2021 conference!”

How did the University of Lille come to use the diplomas use case?

“The merging of the University of Lille in 2018, with more than 70,000 students and 6,500 staff members, represented an exceptional opportunity to think about scaling up its information systems. I quickly realised that blockchain was both an innovative technology and a digital transformation of the tuition services: this is what convinced my vice-president for digital transformation of degrees, and above all, the director of tuition. The containment allowed her to see the limitations of digital certificates in adobe format, in the student’s hand, as well as the paper diploma (difficulties of routing, slowness and cost of printing and sending, easily modifiable scanned copy). After a first proof of concept between September 2020 and March 2021 on foreign language certificates (the French TOEFEL of the public sector, as it were), the university’s management committee decided to move on to the DemattestUlille project: we learned at the same time that we had been selected as an operator by the Inter-Ministerial Directorate of the Digital Economy to test the EBSI with fr.EBSI. So these two projects complement each other perfectly.”

“It should also be noted that the ideas coming from cryptocurrencies resonate with open badges: an alternative way of recognising people, their human qualities, their skills, beyond a diploma issued by an institution. But always with the same W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] standard, which visually takes different forms depending on whether we are working on certificates of achievement (rather rectangular) or on open badges (stars, rounds…). The final idea is that we can easily find our diplomas, open badges and other certificates throughout our lives.”

“All the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place so that, on the one hand, the person authorised to issue diplomas or certificates presses a button within their digital work environment, and on the other hand, the student receives their link to the diploma (a private key), which they can immediately share with an employer, who will be able to verify it. Finally, there are some actors working on the creation of a portfolio in which we can manage these new certificates.”

What led you to partner with BCdiploma?

“We work with Blockchain Certified Data, whose main brand to date is BCdiploma, because it is a company that came onto the market the year the RGPD (General Data Protection Regulation) came into force. To put it simply, their patented solution encrypts data and atomises it in the chosen blockchain. It is particularly interesting on the issue of data protection and above all, they are really specialists in distributed systems, it is their specificity in a business, schooling software, which they also master perfectly.”

“From the outset, we wanted the French node to be hosted by Renater, our National Research and Education Network (NREN), the operator of the education and research infrastructure, which is our other partner in the fr.EBSI project.”

How is the experimentation of this use case going?

“We are beyond the use case, in a real massification process that involves 23 university staff members from 5 different departments, starting with our Data Protection Officer and including the Head of the schooling department of the faculty of legal, political and social sciences and the quality unit. As we want to be in full control of the process, there was no question of sending the emails via MailChimp for example. We also had to ensure that we had control over the private keys, which were stored like other student data in the ISD. On the other hand, even if BCdiploma were to disappear or change business with their new patent on the distributed cloud… the links sent to students will continue to exist. We proceeded on “cold data” 2020, and gradually, the heads of the schooling services of the 11 poles of the university (33 components) will be able to issue themselves. In addition, we have had a sworn translation into English of the entire range of courses offered, which has been accompanied by a comprehensive search for existing translations. We are looking forward to the first exchanges of diplomas with the University of Luxembourg to improve the fluidity of registrations!”

Does the University of Lille intend to implement other EBSI use cases?

“The University of Lille is testing the use case of Self-Sovereign Identity at a minimum, but above all, the role of coordinator is becoming stronger with time and the upcoming French presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have also written, with a small team, a White Paper “Blockchain technologies for the public sector” which will be published very soon in English and German and which has given us a much better view of other use cases that interest us. Finally, we are making the link with the “Education & Skills” component of GAIA-X and this is also another way of approaching the initial case study!”