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Educational Blockchains
Educational Blockchains are Catching On

Added By: Francis Roberts

November 7, 2019

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Educational Blockchains are Catching On

Blockchain is advancing in higher education, as it is in all of society, with some interesting new applications and ramifications.

The origins of “Blockchains” stem from the need to track packets as they move through the network (We need to verify this). However, it was “Bitcoin” that moved Blockchains into public awareness.

It is best described as a distributed ledger system. Each entry is a block that is time-stamped, encrypted and replicated at all of the nodes along the chain. The most-discussed application of the educational blockchains is to enable secure credential dissemination. Educational Blockchains have been used by MIT for certificate dissemination since 2015 and diplomas since 2017.

In the intervening years, more universities have adopted blockchain for the dissemination of credentials. This is an important step that affords security and can provide the student with ownership of the transcript. This offers the potential for automatic approval of credit transfer. In addition, it creates the potential for students, rather than the university, to take control of their transcripts.  This is important because it can also be used to protect the Intellectual Property of any content created within the community.

There is actually a connection here between Educational Blockchains and Medical Blockchains.  I consider medical records belonging to the patient, not medical offices and hospitals.  Just as my medical record belongs to the patient, so too does the transcript belong to the student. This does not allow the student to alter any credentials, but the student can add credentials such as noncredit courses, internships, and other experiences. In this case, the student may provide assessments, endorsements, and other validating materials.

This is important.  Educational Blockchains cannot be changed only added to.

As EAB suggests, “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.”

But credential verification is not the only thing Educational Blockchains can do.  Educational blockchains enable more innovative and effective approaches to learning beyond merely the transcript.

One early example is suggested by Kevin Roebuck in Forbes: “Recently, colleges and universities have been creating consortiums to collectively aggregate their resources. One such effort, the Internet 2 Net+ Initiative, provides a range of application, compute, and other cloud-based services that participating universities can access. Blockchain’s peer-to-peer transaction-based model fits perfectly into such consortium efforts.”

In the old days, paper ruled.  If you wanted to learn you had to physically go to a “library.”  Plus, all your records were on paper.  Today, however, there is a seismic shift away from physical to virtual.  Now, one can learn from anywhere and we can easily move our records around.

Since physical presence is not required, we can move the focus of learning from a degree-centric environment in which the learner is only engaged while they seek a degree, to one that is more of skills-based lifelong learning.

Under this paradigm, the learning site connects with the learner prior to their physical arrival on campus (or online).  Learning is a continuum from birth to death.  21st Century learning sites must see learning as lifelong.  Blockchains are the way this will happen.

Michael Matthews of the Tambellini Executive Advisory Council suggests the magnitude of the impact is akin to other seismic changes we have seen in recent decades:

Just like the iPod, iPad, and smart phone revolutionized the music industry, blockchain technologies will eventually break apart the systems we have been using. The ability to put purchased data such as music in the hands of users eventually changed the systems and devices that were once needed. The whole music industry shifted the way songs were purchased and delivered once the supply chain was created to accommodate the devices.

Translated to higher education, that means a supply-chain approach of delivery of professional, continuing and online education will be made available to students from their teenage years to well into their senior citizen years.

The continuous delivery and documentation of learning will be secure, learner owned, documented and certified.

That is in stark contrast to the mostly degree-centric, institution controlled and very thinly documented approach of years past. And the movement to a supply-chain approach is one that will transform higher education as certainly and radically as the iPod and its derivatives changed music as well as our mobile society.

IBM suggests that blockchain may become a stimulus for collaboration in research and entrepreneurship across academe: “As intellectual property and assets have become more valuable, however, the sharing of innovative ideas has become more problematic in terms of tracking ownership, etc. … Setting up a consortium blockchain would allow individual professors and institutions to share information openly while also having an undisputed track record as to who owns what information.”

As institutions look to deliver curricula that support students seeking to enter into blockchain fields, universities are finding that they often are best served with cross-disciplinary programs. The new term is “fintech.” It crosses business and technological topics.

Hallie Busta of Education Dive summarizes the new field well:

“To tap into emerging industries, colleges often have to break through the walls that separate academic disciplines. One of the latest barriers they’re addressing stands between their business and technology programs. The emergence of artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain and cryptocurrency is changing how money moves between people and organizations. That’s created a new industry — financial technology, or fintech — around which colleges are being asked to create new curriculum as employers seek hires with these specific skill sets.”