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Michael Sessa, President & CEO, PESC, US

The PESC GEO Code is a bold ambition to enable all universities to be able to transfer secure documents globally using a system not dissimilar to the international telephone network. Spearheaded by the Postsecondary Electronic Standards Council, The PIE chatted with PESC president and CEO Michael Sessa about this vision for seamless – and free – data delivery in higher education.


"We hold our student data hostage – that’s how I look at it"

The PIE: How did you become involved with PESC?

Michael Sessa: I didn’t apply for this job – I actually started in banking. As I got more involved with student loans and everything got more technical, I started hearing about the standards group called PESC. I started asking questions, and they asked me if I wanted to be more involved.

In 1999 I joined the steering committee. I was one of the three board members in charge of finding the executive director. After viewing 150 resumes, we didn’t find anyone we wanted. So I was asked out to lunch and they said ‘you’re the one’. I didn’t want to have to do all that work, I’ll be quite honest. But my president at that time said ‘this is your moment, go’. And so, at 34, I took over PESC.

The PIE: How would you describe what PESC GEO Code is to someone who has never heard of it?

MS: The purpose of PESC GEO Code is focused on the delivery of education data. Just like FedEx: they have a parcel to deliver and coordinates to deliver it to. FedEx doesn’t ask whether there is a licence for that location, building or whether it is insured or whether it’s accredited. They just know it’s a location, a destination, there are coordinates and I need to get something there.

“Just like FedEx: they have a parcel to deliver and coordinates to deliver it to”

And the problem in higher education is that there is no way to do that globally. Is it the zip code of education? Who governs zip codes? Nobody cares. Truly, we just use them, everybody understands them; why can’t we get that same understanding with higher education?

And we hold our student data hostage – that’s how I look at it – because the business model here is just wrong.  Simple things like understanding where to send data, why isn’t that such a higher priority than say blockchain or AI? 

The PIE: What piqued your interest in higher education?

MS: What really got me was how shocked I was when I thought higher education – the place of intelligence and intellect and wisdom – would be understanding of the importance of standards and be farther along than any other industry, but what I found is that they were far behind every industry.

That got me angry, but that got my passion ignited, that’s why I’ve been at PESC ever since.

The PIE: And who was behind the idea for GEO Code?

MS: PESC has been working on this for 20 years, but Matt Bemis of the University of Southern California came into the fray and codes emerged as the number one issue, so we said let’s give the old college thing a try again.

So USC – being a top institution for foreign students coming into the United States – was the most interested. They would create dummy code because they had all this international volume coming in but some lacked codes, and some codes couldn’t be verified.

“USC – being a top institution for foreign students coming into the United States – was the most interested”

We came up with the whole methodology of seven digits and Matt worked with the IERF [International Education Research Foundation] to pilot the production of it with a small population.

And now, it’s been two or three years and we’re processing tens of thousands of files using GEO Code.

The PIE: How many institutions globally are using it now?

MS: Matt has a team at USC all volunteering to do all the data scrubbing so that once we built GEO Code directory, you don’t have to build it again. So we have to fill the directory and we have 132 countries so far but that represents about 95% of the global volume of institutions.

Parchment, one of the largest service providers of digital credentials in the US is adding it to all their files, and CollegeSource. So institutions can now add them when they send and receive, and so we’re starting to push out this ‘zip code’, we’re asking others to add it to their code sets and we’re adding their codes to our code sets.

Canada is going to adopt it once we add all the high school codes. So we have hundreds of thousands of high schools but we want to get it correct and get the functionality, make the directory sexy, add the logos and all of that. Right now it’s just functionality on the directory.

“We have 132 countries so far but that represents about 95% of the global volume of institutions”

The PIE: What’s the next step after that?

MS: The next stage is all education organisations because the biggest thing is learning happens everywhere and learning happens outside of the classroom as well. So we have to get to those organisations too because that makes GEO Code more useable, with the zip code of all educational organisations.

GEO Code has two levels, there’s GEO Code the service – you can use it, you can look it up, it’s the google of codes and everybody can use it. How can institutions get involved? Look up their code, get familiar with it.

The other functionality we’re building is all kinds of customisable downloads, you can download a code set. But what we ultimately want is the Canadian model [of total adoption]. We have a group that is very responsible and very proactive and very empowered to represent Canada. We now have four volunteers to be the pilot country administrators.

“Canada is going to adopt it once we add all the high school codes”

We have countries lined up so Australia and New Zealand are following in the footsteps of Canada – they are interested in learning more, in understanding the standards more. And there’s a big presence with the Groningen Declaration Network, so once we get it right with Canada, we can just roll it out with everywhere else.

The PIE: How is GEO Code different to other services out there?

MS: It’s free. And that’s the other driving force – to buy a download of codes from some vendors costs several thousand dollars for one download. So institutions have to pay to download the global codes – that’s like having to pay to find a zip code.

We’re not looking to determine whether an institution has accreditation or not. We have been charged with delivering data, so if I have to deliver data, maybe the institution closed, maybe it changed names and maybe it was recorded as a diploma mill – maybe it’s in court fighting that status of a diploma mill.

So GEO Code didn’t create diploma mills, and PESC can’t solve the problem of diploma mills. That’s like looking at a zip code to see if a building has insurance. We’re about delivery, but we do know that institutions want some minimal amount of information – active or inactive is that status we provide.

The PIE: Is there much competition from other code developers in the market?

MS: We can’t stop other code sets emerging. If a new program or vendor wants to put out a new code set – for us, fine, go, but we’re going to link to your code set and we are going to ask them to link to GEO Code. We expect new codes, that’s what innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit is. But we’re going to link to them so that we have solved this problem once and for all.

Just six months ago we were saying oh, we have 19 countries, but once we figured out how to do it, it just escalated. It’s usable, but now the thing is to put the bells and whistles on it. Folks want to download it. Application developers love GEO Code because any programmer anywhere in the world who is developing a system always comes across institution ‘code’. And then my phone rings.

“We’re processing tens of thousands of files using GEO Code”

The PIE: Why do you think nobody has done it before?

MS: Because there is no overarching organisation in the world, there is no zip code police and no school code police. And people are making thousands of dollars off of it. Nobody will make it free and open until Google does. And that’s the pillar of PESC, we are by the community, for the community, not for profit and we hope GEO Code becomes as common as zip code.

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