Blockchain technology is commonly associated with cryptocurrencies—the best known of which is Bitcoin. However, the technology has applications that extend far beyond the financial realm, and blockchain is increasingly seen as a potential game-changer in education, especially eLearning. Understanding what blockchain is can help eLearning professionals understand how blockchain affects eLearning.
Blockchain powers distributed ledgers
Blockchain technology is the foundation of a distributed ledger system. A distributed ledger is a record of transactions or contracts that is maintained in a decentralized format.
Throughout human history, records, deeds, financial transactions, and more have been recorded in ledgers. Though paper ledgers have given way to computerized ledgers, the central control aspect has generally been maintained. Blockchain could change that. With blockchain, it’s possible to decentralize control of a ledger, which offers numerous benefits relevant to educators, learners, and educational institutions.
In a blockchain-based distributed ledger system, records of a transaction are maintained—and simultaneously updated—in multiple, potentially thousands of, locations. Each member maintains a copy and participates in validating changes. Changes are tracked: Each update of a record adds a “block” to the “chain” of information that makes up the record, forming the “blockchain.” The blockchain is a permanent, searchable record of the entire history of the entry or transaction.
Unlike a centrally controlled ledger, though, more than one person can work on or make changes to a record in a distributed ledger. And, depending on the rules set for the ledger, multiple users can work on a ledger simultaneously, which can both increase accountability and enhance collaboration. Individuals’ names are not associated with records, further enhancing security.
The distributed nature of a decentralized ledger makes it hard to create fake records or gain unauthorized access. If the ledger is hacked, all copies, around the world, would have to be compromised at the same time and in the same way, which is extremely unlikely. Illicit or unauthorized changes can easily be detected, since each change creates a new block, and all individuals with access to the ledger can see when and how a change was entered.
A distributed ledger can be open to anyone, or it can be set up with strict access criteria. A middle-ground option would allow more people to see records while permitting fewer credentialed members to make and validate changes. Data are protected using cryptographic signatures and secure keys, which regulate access. This takes control and the power to make changes out of the hands of a single individual or entity.
Using distributed ledgers for eLearning credentials
Job applicants, students pursuing advanced education, and immigrants, among others, often need to prove that they have the educational or skills-based credentials they claim. In the era of centralized, paper-based credentials, this has meant procuring an “official” transcript of one’s educational accomplishments and providing it to the requesting organization. If a person’s university has been destroyed or a school has closed, if a refugee is fleeing a war-torn country, if the registrar’s office is closed—the credentials might not be available immediately, easily, or ever. However, if the credentials were available on a decentralized system, a distributed ledger for example, the learner could always access them. The learner’s employer could easily verify that the learner has completed coursework as claimed—and could verify that the educational institution providing the credentials is legitimate and is itself accredited.
A distributed ledger system has the potential to transform the world of academic credentials as it opens up the possibility of a robust global system of secure, accessible, and verifiable credentials for skills, coursework, and other forms of knowledge. These credentials include academic degrees, badges or certificates, or even peer-awarded assessments of a skill.
Corporations and governments are already using blockchain for non-financial purposes. For example, the national identity card program in Estonia is based on blockchain, and Kodak is using the technology to track intellectual property rights.
Use cases for blockchain in education
The Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission released a study in September 2017 that explains blockchain technology and assesses its potential effects and uses in the educational realm. The report includes several use cases, while also emphasizing that the use of the technology is in its infancy and that many more use cases are likely to emerge as educators gain a deeper understanding of how to apply blockchain in education.
Proposed use cases primarily center on awarding, transferring, and securing digital credentials, as well as on verification of a learner’s or an institution’s credentials. Describing the plethora of skills-based digital credentials available via social media, corporations, and “e-portfolio companies” as “a digital counterpart to a box full of paper certificates,” for example, the report cites the advantages of an instantly verifiable blockchain of digital credentials that the learner could access and any potential employer could verify. The report also describes the use of similar blockchains in scenarios such as transferring credits between educational institutions; accessing these credits to assess the skills of learners, employees, or instructors; and using blockchain to verify institutional accreditations.
The potential use cases for blockchain in education extend beyond credentialing, though, and include collaboration on and tracking of intellectual property, ranging from music to academic research and more, according to the report. Publication of a work, such as a research paper, could include verifiable blocks that record references used to develop it, for example. In addition, authors or artists scattered globally could collaborate on and share access to creative works. Other suggested use cases hearken back to blockchain’s origin as a technology for validating financial transactions: Student tuition payments, as well as funding grants to students or to education institutions, could be made using blockchain, for instance.
The future of blockchain in education
The JCR report concludes with a key finding: The future of blockchain relies upon openness. “Only ‘fully open’ blockchain implementations can reach the real goals and promise of blockchain in education.” The report stipulates three criteria of open implementations.
- Recipient ownership: The learner, rather than the educational institution, owns his or her credentials—by controlling the private keys—and can manage and share those credentials without needing to call upon the educational institution.
- Vendor independence: A record owner can share, move, or verify a record without calling upon a vendor. MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine have developed an open standard, Blockcerts, for issuing and verifying credentials. The goal of Blockcerts is to avoid a standards war that could lock educational institutions and other organizations into using particular digital credential vendors and their proprietary standards.
- Decentralized verification: Taking ownership, control, and security from an individual or institution and placing it in a decentralized ledger makes counterfeiting credentials difficult or impossible because cryptographic algorithms—not individual humans—guarantee that approved transactions or ledger entries cannot be altered once they have been validated.
Naturally, some institutions and corporations—those with proprietary certification schemes, for example—might oppose these goals. The report states that “blockchain-based ledgers have the potential to disrupt the key technology that underpins an industry currently worth $2.7 billion.” Thus the future of blockchain in education is as yet undetermined and open both to innovative ideas, including further development and adoption of an open standard—and to the efforts of organizations and companies seeking to protect vested interests and maintain their leverage in this lucrative market by “creating ‘partial’ and hybrid implementations which allow them to retain control of the ledgers, while still offering other advantages of the technology such as cost savings.” A key goal of the report is to encourage wider participation in the discussion—and determination— of how blockchain affects eLearning.
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Grech, Alexander, and Anthony F. Camilleri. Blockchain in Education. Joint Research Centre, European Commission. 2017.
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