(By Donald Clark)
What is blockchain? Can it be used in education? In 2001, I designed and implemented a Napster-like system with no central storage or control that distributes learning content across a network for non-competing public-sector bodies. Everyone who created content could share it.
It didn’t work because, despite being non-competitors, the public sector organisations just didn’t like innovation and stuck to their institutional silos. They were fixed in their old ways – with massive duplication of content and no sharing, which is as true today as it was then. The same fate, I fear, could happen to Blockchain technology – but let’s explore its potential.
What is it?
Technically, Blockchain is a distributed database, spread across many computers with no central control that could transform governance, the economy, businesses and the functioning of organisations. And by the way, it’s already here, not only in Bitcoin, but in many other services and commodities – badges, credits, and qualifications.
Each ‘block’ is transparent but tamper-proof. A ‘block’ has a timestamp for recording transactions and offers indelible proof of all of them. Rather than relying on third parties, it’s a frictionless method for transacting with others.
In normal speak, the basic idea is that you cut out the middleman. There is no central database as everything is distributed, public, synchronised and encrypted. All transactions are logged with a time, date and other details – then verified by some very smart maths. Consensus decides, and every transaction is public.
What this promises is a more efficient, secure and transparent way of handling transactions. This could save a huge amount of administration, bureaurocracy, effort and time. The Internet of things may release its potential.
Who can use it?
Blockchain can be implemented within individual educational institutions, groups of educational institutions, and both national and international educational bodies. In fact anyone wanting to securely store badges, credits, and qualifications – and make educational data that matters available to others – could consider using blockchain technology.
Why does it matter?
As education becomes more diversified, democratised, decentralised and disintermediated, we still need to maintain reputation, trust in certification, and proof of learning. The increased focus on relevance and employability may also push us in this direction, as we also need more transparency. Blockchain could provide just such a system: a massive open, online, secure database.
How can it be used?
- Single institution
One school, Holburton School in San Fransisco, a software school that offers project-based education as an alternative to college courses, has already used blockchain to store and deliver its issued certificates. It’s seen as a measure to stop fake certification. Encryption and two-factor authentification are used to create, sign-off on and place the certificate into the blockchain database. The school still gives students paper copies, but a system-created decentralised clearing number (DCN) is generated that allows authentification by employers.
I can see Holburton’s point, as this approach demonstrates to employers that this school certainly knows its stuff on IT. MIT is doing similar things, as is the University of Nicosia.
2. Groups of institutions
As educational institutions cluster and co-operate, the need for shared repositories of certification and achievement become real. An example is the group of universities, Delft, EPFL, Boston, ANU and UBC, that recently formed a codeshare-like agreement on certification. It could also be used by affiliated organisations that form a global alliance or a global group of schools. Whatever the constellation of institutions or bodies, blockchain gives them a cheap, shared resource.
3. National blockchain database
Education is curiously nationalistic. Even in the EU, it is a devolved issue. Within a country, however, there is a great need for a shared approach to the range of credentials that are being produced at all levels in the system: schools, colleges, universities, institutes, examination boards, trade associations, employers, and so on. There is a real need for something that sits above them all. That solution could be blockchain technology.
- Global assessment
The current system of certification is not really fit for its purpose. A paper system is subject to loss, even fraud. With an increasingly mobile population of students and workers, a centralised database of credentials and achievements makes sense, whether you’re moving to another educational institution, a new job, a new country – and for refugees who have no copy of their degrees. Some sort of secure, online repository would be helpful.
Assessment would appear to be the first obvious application for blockchain. At present, it’s a mess, waiting to be cleared up by a smart operator. One player is Sony Global Education, who have a blockchain-based platform to house assessment scores. They want schools and universities to use the service so that individuals can share the data with third parties such as employers, LinkedIn, etc. Their aim is to offer a global service.
- Blockchain and badges
So let’s up the stakes with a wider initiative around Open Badges. Open Badges gather evidence for credentials. What could be better than a tamper-proof system for their storage? If a blockchain system can offer a massive way to deal with authentic accreditation, then the problems of openness, scale and cost for badges disappears (see Doug Belshaw’s blog).
To see how Open Badge chains can be converted to blockchain, see Serge Ravet’s blog. MIT has been using Bitcoin blockchain for certification and have open sourced the code.
6. Blockchain and MOOCs
Interestingly, there’s a MOOC on Bitcoin and blockchain by Princeton University on Coursera. Despite the carping, people keep on making and taking MOOCs. They are genuinely changing the way education is delivered and acting as a real catalyst for change, forcing universities into a rethink.
The certification issue, though, remains a little vague. Each separate MOOC provider issues certificates. With some imagination, the real demand for MOOCs could be boosted by secure certification in the form of agreement among the major MOOC providers. It could even open up MOOC certification for actual degrees. MOOCs are about decentralisation and widening access, so there’s every reason to suppose that organisers will want to decentralise and increase access to their certification.
Always a problem, continuing professional development (CPD) is difficult to deliver, often fragmented, and poorly tracked. Imagine a blockchain system that really did this within a profession, taking issued CPD data from conference attendance, courses, and other forms of learning. Teachers and other professionals could get inputs from trusted providers and thus be incentivised to do more CPD, if those experiences and learning opportunities were securely stored in a reputable system.
- Corporate learning
Companies deliver huge amounts of training to their employees, but storing achievement is not easy. Current learning and talent management system technologies, SCORM, et al, are a bit old and tired. What’s needed is a more open but secure system for use not only internally, but also by employees when they leave an organisation.
Vocational education is now big business, as governments around the world recognise the folly of relying too heavily on purely academic institutions to deliver post-school education. In the UK, a system of three million apprenticeships is to be funded through a levy on payroll. It’s a complex business, as employers will play a stronger role in their management and delivery. How are they going to manage the process and certification? Blockchain is a real possibility, as it could offer a centralised but neatly distributed national database for the authentification of both process and certification.
- Bodies of knowledge
This one’s more obscure, but imagine something like Wikipedia or Khan Academy, academic journals, OER, even research bodies, issuing proof of learning from their systems. Thanks to John Helmer for the idea of authenticating identity for access to subscription-controlled, academic content from libraries. Current systems (Open Athens, Shibboleth) use centralised ledgers and are seriously dysfunctional. Blockchain could be used here to provide a more robust authentication infrastructure.
Blockchain could be used for a myriad of learning experiences from various sources. It requires a small transaction model, and this could be where ‘eXperience API’ (xAPI), which can be used to gather evidence from micro-learning experiences, comes in handy. It is open source, the natural successor to SCORM, and stores data in Learning Record Stores. This seems like a natural route to the use of blockchain.
Another is providing education with an easy method of micropayments. Traditional financial transactions use expensive third parties who charge fees. Blockchain allows free transactions between parties. This could open up micropayments for the use of educational resources, courses, etc.
All in all, it frees up the system, makes it more open and flexible. And who would argue that this is not a good thing?
Blockchain is a technology that clearly has applications in the world of learning at the individual, institutional, group, national and international levels. It is relevant in all sorts of contexts: schools, colleges, universities, MOOCs, CPD, corporates, apprenticeships, and knowledge bases.
Rather than the old hierarchical structures, the technology becomes the focus, with trust migrating towards the technology, not the institutions. It is really is a disintermediation technology.
Traditionally institutions have been a source of trust: universities, for example, are trusted “brands”. In finance, where blockchain is nowadays a ubiquitous hot topic, banks exist to enact transactions, creating an environment in which blockchain’s advantages are readily obvious.
In education, however, there needs to be trust beyond the technology. We are looking, I think, at a hybrid model rather than a wholesale blockchain takeover. Reputation will still matter, and this will continue to be derived from the quality of the instruction, teachers, research, and so on. However, blockchain can play a role here, too, as one could imagine a sort of web of teachers and learners that deploys blockchain to cut out institutions. This, in my view, is not impossible, but it is unlikely.
It must also be recgnized and conceded that blockchain is not without its problems. There are data-regulation issues, and a cloud has been created over the technology by the fact that one of the exchanges in the Bitcoin system – which is based on blockchain – saw $500 million disappear! And last but certainly not least, after considerable difficulty, US authorities were able to close down the infamous “Silk Road” drug-dealing exchange, which was also blockchain based.
Yet the biggest obstacle to blockchain’s more widespread use is cultural. Education is a slow learner and a very slow adopter. Despite its obvious advantages, the learning world is likely to be slow in implementing this technology, as most of the funding and culture is centred around the individual institution. Bologna was dead the day it was signed as nobody really wanted to lose their students and suffer financially, but it nonetheless became the framework for European higher education. This indicates clearly that the stimulus for change will have to come from elsewhere.
One thing I know for sure is that students have their eyes open and are looking for alternatives. Check out BEN, the Blockchain Educational Network, a grassroots student-organised movement. Perhaps, like Bitcoin, the blockchain revolution will ultimately come from left of field.