“We envision a world in which the awarding and validation of qualifications no longer occur exclusively under the management of an education institution or an employer and individual students, teachers, and peers take more ownership of the learning experience and its outcomes without compromising on safety, security, and accessibility. We believe that block chain technologies may hold an answer to collating the outcomes of this new distributed learning reality and we intent to explore the possibilities that this infrastructure could provide.” Professor Domingue.
The centralized model of the present is no longer sustainable: learning happens increasingly outside the brick-and-mortar lecture halls of schools, colleges, and universities on online platforms, within communities of like-minded individuals, or by contributing to projects and initiatives in the real-world. Learning is far more international than it used to be: key education players open campuses abroad, while students travel to different countries to improve their employability prospects. In the networked, digitally empowered world of the 21st century, education providers often do not have remit or in fact the means and capacity to cover the range of activities learners engage with, which attest their achievements, knowledge, and skills. In line with the issues faced today, block chain technologies may hold an answer to collating the outcomes of this new distributed learning reality and we intent to explore the possibilities that this infrastructure could provide.
Block chain is a distributed database, spread across many computers with no central control that could transform governance, the economy, businesses and the functioning of organizations. Block chain can be implemented within individual educational institutions, groups of educational institutions, and both national and international educational bodies. As education becomes more diversified, democratized, decentralized 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. Block chain could provide just such a system: a massive open, online, secure database.
What will be the most important technology to change higher education? In global view, it’s not big data, the social web, MOOCs, virtual reality, or even artificial intelligence. These can be seen as components of something new, all enabled and transformed by an emerging technology called the block chain.
Today the businesses of encyclopedias, newspapers, and record labels are in various stages of collapse. They all have lost their monopolies on the creation and delivery of content. They are being decimated by the digital age that brought abundance, mass participation, the democratization of production, the rise of new digital delivery channels, the infeasibility of old notions of intellectual property, and completely new business models which are all enabled by the Internet. Universities are also losing their grip on higher learning as the Internet is, inexorably, becoming the dominant infrastructure for knowledge, ” both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people” and as a new generation of students requires a very different model of higher education.
Now is also a time of great opportunity, and there is a steady stream of proposals for change. Some say the web enables distance learning and the elimination of campuses. Others argue that we need more technology in higher education or that colleges should be opened up and be made free to all.
Block chain is most commonly known as the technology underpinning the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. But in recent years the open source code of the Bitcoin block chain has been taken and extended by many groups to expand its capabilities. In a typical education scenario students learn through a number of pedagogical activities and are assessed and receive feedback from teachers. Learning occurs either face-to-face, online, or a mixture of the two, all under the control of an educational institution providing quality, credibility, governance, and administrative functions. While the educational institution issues documentation that certify the achievement of major milestones in a degree (including transcripts), students are responsible for preserving and storing the work they had to carry out for their courses (e.g., essays, lab experiments, designs, software etc.) and the feedback given by the teachers for later use (e.g., to show to potential employers, apply for a study programme, internship, scholarship etc.). This creates a high overhead for the students, as they need to keep track, organize, and safely archive the relevant information, which often includes many individual pieces of work, stored as different media (e.g., emails, CAD files, pictures, sound, scans etc.), created over months or years of study. In the same time, the recipient of this information (a potential employer, the admissions team of educational institutions etc.) has very limited means to check the evidence submitted or to assess the candidate, as they have little to no context of the relevance of the work carried out to standard qualifications and skills frameworks. Block chain based ePortfolios can address these challenges through the development of an open decentralized, peer-to-peer platform, in which control of and responsibility for this information flow is radically disintermediated, away from educational institutions to students and teachers. This will be achieved by using block chain-based distributed ledgers, a technology that enables the secure and resilient management of distributed data in combination with data analytics techniques that add scale and flexibility to the way levels of qualifications are defined and granted.
Block chain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the block chain itself is incredibly overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting bodies, for example. As the block chain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Chatting, favoring, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? Benefits of block chain can be noted through mass adoption of block chain certificates fundamentally which can flip the power relationship and turns each individual into a lifelong registrar. Combined with the proliferation of accredited education providers and movement to a more skills-based economy, the technical breakthrough through block chain can provide the means for individuals to collect evidence of learning and achievement that cannot be taken away or erased.
One of the example of adopting block chain is: Blockcerts, which is an open standard for notarizing academic records on the block chain, released by the MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine. That code enables students to hold and share their own official records directly with others (everything from a diploma to a badge). This technology creates a new infrastructure of trust that replaces the need to request records from a central authority.
Opportunities in education:
The opportunities in education fall into four categories:
• Identity and Student Records: How to identify students; protect their privacy; measure, record, and credential their accomplishments; and keep these records secure
• New Pedagogy: How to customize teaching to each student and create new models of learning
• Costs (Student Debt): How to value and fund education and reward students for the quality of their work
• The Meta-University: How to design entirely new models of higher education?
Ways to use block chain technology:
There seems to be a lot of possibilities that can be explored for block chain technology for educational applications as detailed below:
• Single institution
Block chain can be used to store and deliver its issued certificates which can be seen as a measure to stop fake certification using encryption and two-factor authentication for creating, signing-off on and placing the certificate into the block chain database. The school can still provide students paper copies, but a system-created decentralized clearing number (DCN) can be generated that allows authentication by employers.
• Groups of institutions
Any educational institutions operating in cluster can co-operate for creating shared repositories of certification and achievement to become real by forming a codeshare-like agreement on certification. It can also be used by affiliated organizations that form a global alliance or a global group of schools which gives them a cheap and shared resource.
• 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 centralized database of credentials and achievements makes sense, whether students are 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. An Assessment would appear to be the first obvious application for block chain. At present, it’s a mess, waiting to be cleared up by a smart operator. One player is Sony Global Education, who has a block chain-based platform to house assessment scores. They advertise to schools and universities to use the service so that individuals can share the data with third parties such as employers, social networking site viz., LinkedIn, etc. thereby offering a global service.
• Continuous Professional Development
Always a problem, continuing professional development (CPD) is difficult to deliver, often fragmented, and poorly tracked. Imagine a block chain 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 incentivized 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, etc. 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 organization.
• 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. In continuation Mr. John Helmer has an idea of authenticating identity for access to subscription-controlled, academic content from libraries. Current systems viz., Open Athens, Shibboleth etc. uses centralized ledgers and are seriously dysfunctional. Block chain could be used here to provide a more robust authentication infrastructure. Block chain 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 block chain. Another one is providing education with an easy method of micropayments. Traditional financial transactions use expensive third parties who charge fees. Block chain allows free transactions between parties. This could open up micropayments for the use of educational resources, courses, etc.
Block chain 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 block chain is nowadays a ubiquitous hot topic, banks exist to enact transactions, creating an environment in which block chain’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 block chain takeover. Reputation will still matter, and this will continue to be derived from the quality of the instruction, teachers, research, and so on. However, block chain can play a role here, too, as one could imagine a sort of web of teachers and learners that deploys block chain to cut out institutions. This, in my view, is not impossible, but it is unlikely. It must also be recognized and conceded that block chain is not without its problems.