Blockchain Technology: Can It Change Education?

Blockchain technology, a data management tool forecast to disrupt a wide range of industries, has taken off for two main reasons: 1) it makes sensitive data simultaneously more shareable and more secure; 2) it takes sensitive data out of the hands of third party authorities and puts it back into the hands of its users. In the realm of education, this means everything from taking ownership of one’s learning credentials, to legitimizing one’s informal learning achievements, to expediting one’s knowledge transfer, to streamlining the job application process—all more easily and more securely. Educators and policymakers are in the earliest stages of applying blockchain tech to teaching and learning in these ways, but the possibilities point to a long-overdue disruption of the current education system.

First things first—how does blockchain work, exactly, and what are its main benefits?

What Is Blockchain Technology?

A blockchain is a database which stores permanent blocks of information, such as a transaction history, to be shared within a particular community. The best known example of blockchain technology is Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency that allows users to make and receive payments without going through a central banking authority. Crucially, blockchain makes it possible to send and receive only the most relevant bits of information to specified parties, and as each party receives a copy of the information, shared accountability keeps the information accurate and secure. Here’s an example of why that’s important:

“When you give a bartender your driver’s license, all that person needs to know is your age,” explains Zach Church, a writer for MIT’s Business Management blog. “But you’re revealing so much more—your address, your height, whether you’re an organ donor, etc. The same thing happens in commercial transactions.”

In other words, organizations don’t need to know everything about us, and it’s becoming increasingly critical that they don’t.

“Information disclosure is increasingly becoming a cost because of data breaches,” Church says. “We can’t keep our data private and it’s becoming increasingly complex to do so within large organizations. So imagine a model where you can verify certain attributes are true or false, potentially using a decentralized infrastructure, but you don’t have to reveal all these attributes all the time.”

That’s where blockchain comes in.

In their 2017 Joint Research Centre report, the European Commission explains why this technology could be so powerful:

  • Each member maintains his or her own copy of the information and all members must validate any updates collectively.
  • The information could represent transactions, contracts, assets, identities, or practically anything else that can be described in digital form.
  • Entries are permanent, transparent, and searchable, which makes it possible for community members to view transaction histories in their entirety.
  • Each update is a new ‘block’ added to the end of a ‘chain.’ A protocol manages how new edits or entries are initiated, validated, recorded, and distributed.
  • Cryptology replaces third-party intermediaries as the keeper of trust, with all blockchain participants running complex algorithms to certify the integrity of the whole.

Information on a blockchain can be thought of as a kind of public ledger for a specific group, designed to keep information secure and in the hands of only those to whom it is most relevant.

“The responsibility of keeping accurate ledgers has traditionally been assigned to a variety of institutions,” the Commission writes. “Governments control ownership of land by controlling ledgers of property; banks control the world’s monetary system by holding the ledgers for currency; while stock exchanges control large shares of the business world by holding ledgers for business-ownership.

But as data breaches become more frequent, trust in these third party intermediaries is waning.

“The corollary is that these institutions may individually or collectively cause significant harm or even social chaos by abusing the trust placed in them to accurately keep and maintain these ledgers. The inference is that these institutions have the power to use or abuse their control over the ledgers and exert significant control over individuals and societies within their immediate remit.”

In this sense, the main advantages of blockchain tech include:

  • Self-sovereignty: users can identify themselves while maintaining control over the storage and management of their personal data;
  • Trust: users can have more confidence in an infrastructure that securely offers transactions such as payments or the issue of certificates;
  • Transparency: users can conduct transactions knowing that each party has the capacity to enter into that transaction;
  • Immutability: users can rest assured that records will be written and stored permanently, without the possibility of modification or loss;
  • Disintermediation: the removal of the need for a central controlling authority to manage transactions or keep records;
  • Collaboration: the ability of parties to transact directly with each other without the need for mediating third parties

In the job sector, blockchain technology could help employers, job seekers, and organizations alike. Employers could better validate the accuracy of information supplied by job applicants, which could make the hiring process more efficient for recruiters and human resource managers. Job seekers could benefit from more personalized information management that matches their skills with job offers. Organizations could use the technology to automatise payments, contracts, and other documents and procedures.

But as we’re here to discuss the future of education, let’s take a look at how blockchain technology could benefit learning.

How Could Blockchain Change Education?

1. Disrupting the Current Education Model

Today’s students receive an education in both formal and informal learning settings, not just traditional brick-and-mortar university lecture halls. There are MOOCs and other online courses, workshops and conferences, co-learning spaces and boot camps.

“The centralised model of present-day learning is no longer sustainable,” the authors of the report write. “Blockchain technology allows for a total disintermediation and disaggregation of higher education.”

Micro-accreditation could take place through a blockchain, allowing for the easy validation and transfer of skills and credentials.

2. Storing Permanent Records

Since records are stored permanently on a blockchain, documents like degree and course certificates can be secured and verified regardless of whether a user has access to an institution’s record-keeping system.

“Even if the institutions that issued the certificates were to close down, or if the entire system of education collapses (as, for instance, happened in Syria), those certificates are still verifiable against the records stored in a blockchain,” the European Commission writes. “Furthermore, once institutions issue a certificate, they do not need to spend any further resources to confirm the validity of that certificate to third parties, since these will be able to verify the certificates directly themselves on a blockchain.”

3. Identity Verification & Information Security

Using blockchain, students and job candidates can identify themselves online while maintaining control over the storage and management of their personal data. Currently, this is not so easy to do, as the Commission explains:

“Within larger organisations, students need to regularly identify themselves with different parts of the organisation. In such cases, either each part of the organisation will collect the student data for itself, or the organisation will use single sign-on, whereby one shared copy of the student data is used by all parties within the organisation. Under both these models, tens if not hundreds of people might have access to a student’s personal information. Keeping that data safe requires managing access rights for all those people, and ensuring that their devices are also secure and hack-proof—a mammoth undertaking.”

With blockchain, only a select few—namely the parties responsible for verifying a student’s identity—can have access to the data. Other than that, it’s in the student’s hands.

“This means that the organisation no longer needs to manage the complex systems for access rights, and only needs to secure the device or network where the verifications initial verification is taking place. This would save significant resources spent in hardening the network against data breaches, staff training on data-protection and in managing access rights.”

4. Student Ownership of Learning

Blockchain allows personal data to be just that—personal.

Students gain control and ownership of all their education data, including accreditation and portfolios of work, “in a secure place that is accessible to anyone who needs to verify it—and for their entire lifetime.”

Drawing on the research of Au (2017) and Lewis (2017), the Commission explains:

“Public blockchains facilitate self-sovereignty by giving individuals the ability to be the final arbiter of who can access and use their data and personal information. Within an educational context, the term is on its way to becoming synonymous with the empowerment of individual learners to own, manage and share details of their credentials, without the need to call upon the education institution as a trusted intermediary.”

5. Interactive Learning & Analytics

“Imagine a scenario where every learning activity is registered on the Blockchain, including informal learning – together with informal feedback,” the authors write. “All assignment test scores will be mapped on learning environments across Europe. Europe-wide analytics could then be developed from the ground up. The best lecturers in Europe by subject could be easily identified. Learning would become that much more interactive – and reputations built on more tangible matrices.”

The success of blockchain pilots in one country could then be used to encourage knowledge-transfer across nations.

6. Automatic Transfer of Credits

Credit transfer is a thorny process, often leaving students at a disadvantage when they find, for example, that they must repeat courses to fulfill a new institution’s requirements.

“Currently, credit transfer depends on institutions to negotiate agreements to recognise each other’s credits subject to certain conditions—but students often report that these agreements are not recognised. Using a blockchain, these agreements could be written as smart-contracts whereby upon fulfilment of the conditions of the contract, the credits would automatically be transferred.”

7. The “Lifelong Learning Passport”

There are a few existing resources, e.g. social networks and e-portfolio companies, that provide users with a way to record their learning during and beyond schooling. But they don’t take advantage of digitisation the way blockchain does.

“Except for Open Badges, none of these [resources] provide ways to verify the experience and credentials described and included within these systems – therefore these systems operate as a digital counterpart to a box full of paper certificates – deriving, little to no additional benefits or efficiencies from the process of digitisation.”

With blockchain tech, learners could store their own evidence of formal or informal learning, share it with a desired audience, and ensure instant verification.
“This means students have a CV that updates itself and can be shared with employers. Employers, on their part, can reduce their workload since they won’t have to verify CVs and can simply search instantly to see whether candidates have the skills they require.”

Finally, a way to record lifelong learning.

8. Copyright for Educational Content

In theory, blockchain could allow educators to publish content openly, while keeping track of re-use, without putting limitations on the source material.
“Were such a system introduced, it would allow for teachers to be rewarded based on the level of actual use and reuse of their teaching materials, similar to how they are rewarded based on citations to research papers.”

Students and institutions could then make metrics-based decisions on which teaching materials to use.

Teachers could announce the publication of their resources and link to those resources, or announce which other resources they used in creating the material.
Coins could be awarded to educators according to the level of reuse of their respective resources.

“In an open-scenario, coins would not be spendable—and would be used to determine the prominence of an author. In a closed-scenario, coins would have monetary value and would result in monetary compensation. A more advanced implementation might automatically scan resources to identify what percentage of other resources were re-used and automatically award accordingly.”

For example, a smart-contract could distribute payment to authors based on how often their material is cited or used. Authors would no longer have to go through intermediaries such as research journals, which often limit use by charging high fees for access.

9. Multi-Step Accreditation

Validating credentials across education systems is not a simple business. In Europe, for instance, there are hundreds of accreditation pathways, through both public and private institutions, and employers therefore need to verify not only the issuer of the credential but the quality of the institution issuing the credential. Currently, the verification process involves consulting the institution itself, determining the quality of the accreditation the institution claims to have, confirming this issuance with the accrediting body itself, and checking with the governing authority to see if the accrediting body is authorized to operate in its particular capacity.

“This is an extremely time-consuming and technical process which requires experts in accreditation to manage,” the Commission says, noting how entire networks of agencies with offices in every EU member state currently exist to manage the process.

But blockchain offers a more efficient alternative:

“Using a blockchain, rather than researching these connections, institutions needing to check the ‘pedigree’ of a degree could easily do so with a single click. A fully automated process would then be able to visualize the accreditation chain and verify that certificates had indeed been issued, and (critically) that they were still valid for each step of the chain.”

10. Payment and Funding

Blockchain could allow students to pay for their education via cryptocurrency, which would eliminate barriers such as restricted access to bank accounts or credit cards depending on country of origin.

“Especially for cross-border studies, and also in response to legislation, many organizations only accept payment made through electronic means.”
Governments and organizations could also provide students with funding for tuition in the form of blockchain “vouchers” to be “spent” at universities, which could be programmed to “release tranches of funding to either the student or the educational organization, based on certain performance criteria such as grades.”

Several universities around the world are already implementing blockchain technology and reaping the benefits.

Open University UK is currently using blockchain to improve access to higher education and transparency of qualifications through MOOCs, open badges, and e-Portfolios. Their strategy is holistic, with “researchers encouraged to explore the full potential of technology, as opposed to one particular aspect (such as cryptography).”

The University of Nicosia on Cyprus claims several “world firsts” in using blockchain for education, including accepting Bitcoin for tuition for any degree program; offering courses on cryptocurrency and degrees in digital currency; and issuing academic certificates onto the Bitcoin blockchain, using its own in-house software. The cryptocurrency course alone has attracted students from over 80 different countries since its launch in 2014.

In 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab began using cryptology and blockchain to develop Blockcerts for issuing digital certificates to groups of people in its broader community. In 2017, MIT issued its first round of Learning Machine (LM) Certificates, commercial versions of Blockcerts, at the Media Lab and the Sloan School of Business. This is the first example of recipient-owned diplomas.

Will your school be next?


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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