Blockchain technology has already begun to play a vital role in innovating and transforming many of our existing industries. Thanks to it’s decentralized, highly-secure design, this technology can help take sensitive information out of the hands of third-party organizations and instead puts them back into the hands of the owners/end-users. In the world of education, this can be applied in a variety of areas. Whether it’s taking full ownership of one’s learning credentials to expediting credit transfers, much of the underlying system that supports our students are poised to be radically transformed in the coming years.
This promise is only further amplified by the new ways that people are educating themselves by. Today’s students are receiving education in both formal and informal settings, with an explosion of non-university institutions such as online courses, workshops, learning platforms, and skill-oriented boot camps. Traditional brick-and-mortar facilities, while still important, are finding themselves for the first time in their existence with new competition in the educational market.
This plethora of courses, certifications, and institutions make the current centralized model of present-day learning largely unsustainable, and blockchain technology promises to completely disintermediate our educational system.
Storing Records and Identity Verification
Perhaps the first area that blockchain technology can transform is how our system accesses and stores student records. Since information can be stored permanently on a blockchain, documents such as certificates and degrees can be verified and secured whether or not a user has access to the institutions record-managing system.
What’s especially important is that if the institution that issued the certification closed down or if the whole educational system implodes (as was the case in Syria, for example), these certifications remain verifiable because they are stored on a blockchain independent of the issuing institution. Once a university issues a certification, they don’t need to spend any resources verifying the validity of the document to third parties anymore, since they can go directly onto the blockchain instead.
At the same time, blockchain technology can help reduce the number of people who have access to a student’s sensitive information. Within larger institutions, student records might be accessed by multiple departments, where each department will end up collecting requisite student data on its own. This can mean that dozens if not hundreds of people might have access to a student’s personal details. Managing the access rights for all of these people, along with ensuring that whatever devices they are using remain hack-proof and secure, becomes almost impossible.
The application of blockchain technology can ensure that only a select few individuals have full access to this information. Organizations won’t need complex access rights systems, along with all the resources that otherwise would have been spent in network security and data-protection can then be put to better use elsewhere.
Student Ownership and Lifelong Learning
Another innovation that blockchain technology can bring to students is that it can allow them to own their personal data. This education data, as well as accreditation and other course information, can be owned by the student in one secure place (the blockchain) that’s accessible to anyone who needs to verify these details.
According to the findings from 2017 report by an EU joint commission on blockchain, “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 individuals learns to own, manage and share details of their credentials, without the need to call upon the educational institution as a trusted intermediary.”
At the same time, having an ownership of ones educational credentials can also incentivize and facilitate continuous lifelong learning. This runs parallel with the growing “micro-accreditation” trend, where learners are opting into smaller, more specialized certifications on various topics – often online. While there are some current platforms, such as certain social networks and online portfolio services, that try to offer a way to record students extra-scholastic learning, they come with some downsides that make these platforms less useful than one would think. Few of these platforms provide ways to verify listed experience and education – someone can simply write that they acquired a degree and the system will assume that this is correct. Employers will still need to verify that these details are valid, so in the end, little is accomplished by these platforms. Blockchain technology completely changes this, as once a certificate is recorded onto the blockchain it cannot be edited or falsified, so the only way for a student to show off their digitalized certificate would be if they genuinely acquired it.
Accreditation and Credit-Transfer
While on that topic, validating credentials across institutions as well as different education systems can be complex. In many countries, there are hundreds of different accreditation pathways – through both public and private institutions – that make it a hassle for employers to evaluate the quality of an education. Using a blockchain powered solution, companies that need to check the “pedigree” of a certification can do so with a single click, as opposed to spending hours trying to find out this information for themselves and verifying that the certification was genuinely issued and valid.
For students transferring between institutions, blockchain technology can make the credit transfer process work much more easily. Often times, students find themselves at a disadvantage when they realize they need to repeat courses in order to fulfill a new institutions requirements.
Effectively, the current credit transfer process is like a negotiated agreement between institutions, where each agrees to recognize each other’s credits for equivalent courses. However, some students report that these agreements are not recognized for one reason or another. Blockchain technology can be used to solidify these agreements though smart-contracts, where once the condition for a contract was fulfilled, the credits would automatically get transferred.
New Payment Options
If nothing else, blockchain-powered educational systems can allow students to fund their education through cryptocurrency. This can help in some cases to eliminate potential barriers such as restricted access to credit cards or bank accounts. Often times, especially for cross-border students, many institutions only accept electronic payment. Governments could instead provide students with funding in the form of blockchain “vouchers” that can only be spent at universities. Not only does this ensure that students don’t go spending their money elsewhere, as is often the case with student loans, but incentivizing criteria can be preprogrammed into these vouchers. For example, additional tiers of funding can be released if a student gets a certain grade, helping further incentivize students to exert themselves in their studies.
There are a few notable cases of university institutions trying to implement blockchain technology. Back in 2015, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab started developing an online-certification, Blockcerts, that would be used in issuing digital certificates. In 2017, MIT issued it’s first Learning Machine Certificates, a modified version of Blockcerts, for use in both the media lab as well as well as their business school.
In Europe, more institutions are opening their doors to the potentials of blockchain. The University of Nicosia on Cyprus began offering courses and degrees on the subject of cryptocurrencies and even issues academic certificates onto the Bitcoin blockchain through its own in-house software. Launched in 2014, this course attracts students from all over the world. The University even supports Bitcoin payments as tuition for any degree program.
Education is an area that is ripe for innovation, and blockchain technology is the prime candidate to usher in a new era in how students manage, update, and share their education records. Instead of relying on centralized institutions to constantly verify the validity of a certificate, students can use their own blockchain powered records of their education to verify the authenticity of their certifications. Students will also be empowered as never before to continue a life-long learning process, knowing full well that they will have a sense of ownership over their education as never had before.
Also published on Medium.