IT Forum Perspectives

Blockchain in brief: Six ways it can transform higher education

by Danielle Yardy

A new report from the European Commission sets out eight different scenarios for the application of blockchain technologies in education administration. In this blog post, the IT Forum explores the potential for some of these scenarios to disrupt status quo models for colleges and universities in North America.

Despite the hype, blockchain’s transactional speeds are still far too slow for global financial management. Bitcoin currently operates at just 0.01% of the efficiency of Visa for transaction clearance—and it uses 35 times as much energy to do so. But for slower transactional environments like higher education, the potential applications are diverse. In blockchain technologies, each “block” in a given “chain” represents a timestamped transaction relating to an asset with real-world value. Blocks cannot be changed, and are stored in perpetuity.

For colleges and universities, this technology presents various opportunities to transform the way that educational value is both recorded and transmitted. Here are six we think could make a stir soon:

1. Using a blockchain for automatic recognition and transfer of credits

What it looks like: Educational institutions award credits for completed courses on a custom blockchain built specifically for those credits. Implementation would require a credit standard, a custom blockchain, and sufficient community agreement to ensure immutability.

Why it matters: The decline in first-time, first-year student enrollments is having a real financial impact on a number of institutions across the United States and focusing on transfer students (a pool of prospects twice as large) has become an important strategy for many. But credit articulation presents a real challenge for institutions bringing in students from community colleges. While setting standardized articulation requirements across the nation presents a high hurdle, blockchain-supported initiatives may hold great promise for university and city education systems looking to streamline educational mobility in their communities.

2. Blockchains for tracking intellectual property and rewarding use and re-use of that property

What it looks like: Educators and researchers use blockchain to announce the publication of educational resources and record references used. Copyright is notarized at the date of publication and later re-use can be tracked for impact assessments.

Why it matters: Despite increasing demand for academic research to break out of the ivory tower (including mandates for publicly-funded projects), current citation tracking and research is severely limited by the intermediary role played by the journal industry. If researchers were able to publish openly and accurately assess the use of their resources, the access-prohibitive costs of academic book and journal publications could be circumvented, whether for research- or teaching-oriented outputs. Accurately tracking the sharing of knowledge without restrictions has transformative potential for open-education models.

3. Using verified sovereign identities for student identification within educational organizations

What it looks like: Students receive certification for their identity upon admission, which they use to identify themselves to any other areas of the institution without further need for storing personal data again.

Why it matters: The data footprint of higher education institutions is enormous. With FERPA regulations as well as local and international requirements for the storage and distribution of Personally Identifiable Information (PII), maintaining this data in various institutional silos magnifies the risk associated with a data breach. Using sovereign identities to limit the proliferation of personal data promotes better data hygiene and data lifecycle management and could realize significant efficiency gains at the institutional level. 

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4. Using a blockchain as a lifelong learning passport

What it looks like: Individuals store evidence of learning amassed from various sources, with verification of receipt/completion stored to a personal blockchain. This digital identity would allow users to upload their educational claims and submit them to providers for verification.

Why it matters: Changes in educational delivery methodologies are accelerating. Educational institutions and private businesses partner with online course delivery giants to extend the reach of their educational services and priorities. Traditional educational routes are increasingly less normal and in this expanding world of providers, the need for verifiable credentials from a number of sources is growing. Producing a form of digitally “verifiable CVs” would limit credential fraud, and significantly reduce organizational workload in credential verification.

5. Using blockchains to permanently secure certificates

What it looks like: Institutions replace public key certification infrastructures with digital signatures to permanently authenticate issued certificates. The open source solution Blockcerts already enables signed certificates to be posted to a blockchain and supports the verification of those certificates by third parties. Institutions and graduates must secure the physical or digital certificates, but the capacity for verification becomes eternal.

Why it matters: When an institution issues official transcripts, obtaining copies can be expensive and burdensome for graduates. But student-owned digital transcripts put the power of secure verification in the hands of learners, eliminating the need for lengthy and costly transcripts to further their professional or educational pursuits. An early mover, Central New Mexico Community College, debuted digital diplomas on the blockchain in December of 2017.

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6. Using blockchains to verify multi-step accreditation

What it looks like: Verification by accreditation organizations that is stamped to the same blockchain as certificates marks a two-step authentication: Not only was the certificate issued by the stated institution at the given time, but at that same time, the institution was accredited by the signatory organization.

Why it matters:  As different accreditors recognize different forms of credentials and a growing diversity of educational providers issue credentials, checking the ‘pedigree’ of a qualification can be laborious. Turning a certification verification process from a multi-stage research effort into a single-click process will automate many thousands of labor hours for organizations and institutions. 

While the use of blockchain technology is nascent in higher education, continued developments and their applications demand CIOs’ attention. To realize its full potential in education, open implementations will be crucial. Undoubtedly, vendors will attempt to establish proprietary platforms to protect their interests and CIOs must raise awareness of the limits of such partnerships among campus leadership before these developments proceed too far. Blockchain offers an opportunity to transform the administration of higher education from the inside. Institutions must be at the forefront of these endeavors to ensure they are effective.

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