The digital diploma: assessing the impact of electronic certification in a Gulf Arab Society.

Brian O’Flynn


Throughout the Arab world, the concept of official paper documentation to certify a qualification is taken extremely seriously. In applying for a job, the posession of the actual certificate or diploma is as important as the possession of an official transcript. Holders of foreign degrees need to undergo a laborious process of diploma translation and multiple attestation before their qualification is considered trustworthy. Zayed University, a government run institution in the United Arab Emirates, graduated its first students in 2002. It took the groundbreaking step of eliminating the traditional paper certificate, replacing it with a digital diploma – a virtual certification with CD-ROM and online components. A first in the region, if not the world, its impact was deep, given the aforementioned emphasis on certification.

The initial reaction of graduating students was extremely positive. A sense of being on the cutting edge of technology was pervasive, helped by a concerted pr and media campaign by the university. Most Emirati graduates actively seeking employment traditionally turn to the public sector for career opportunities. Thus, the reaction of the ministries and municipalities was crucial in determining the early success of the digital diploma. Not surprisingly, public sector organizations, caught largely unaware of Zayed University’s action, claimed that the digital certification was insufficient and demanded officially authenticated paper diplomas from job applicants.

This work-in-progress focuses on the status of the digital diploma one year on from its initial distribution. All 379 graduates from the class of 2002 have been surveyed on their experiences and feelings towards the concept. A similar survey has been administered to current students at the University. Finally a cross section of organizations and companies now employing or considering employing Zayed University graduates were asked about their perceptions of the project.

This paper also focuses on the broader ethical issues raised. Privacy, accuracy and trust in the information presented are issues that we are currently grappling with. The digital diploma concept is growing into a larger, more encompassing digital portfolio, which incorporates reports on internships, capstone projects and a sampler of student work. This in itself raises questions related to quality control, authorship, ownership, data protection and granulated access. The paper will address these issues within the context of a conservative Arab society