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Technology Perspective

Blockchain can increase online trust of higher ed systems

New technology could bolster digital badges and e-portfolios, among other innovations for colleges
University Business, February 2017
Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.
Kelly Walsh is CIO of The College of Westchester in New York.

If you haven’t heard of blockchain yet, then it’s time to add this term to your technology lexicon. The most widely known use of the technology to date has been bitcoin, but blockchain is ripe with possibilities that go far beyond digital currency, with the potential to impact many industries, including higher education.

What is blockchain? Simply put, it’s a highly immutable, distributed ledger technology. Blockchain’s powerful security capabilities are based on complex hashing algorithms and regular updates to the transactional history (the “chain”) that are written in blocks to computers across the world.

The construct enables a democratization of data that can provide a new level of “trust” to transactions across the internet.

Microcredentials movement

There is much interest in the ways that blockchain might impact higher education. For example, the use of blockchain as a construct to empower the granting and standardized recognition of microcredentials (think digital badges, MOOC certificates, etc.) is already gaining a foothold.

The idea is being explored at schools like MIT that have developed blockchain-based certification protocols. The MIT Media Lab has created the “Blockcert” open blockchain certificate.

It is important to note that this is an open standard, which positions the technology for adoption and collaboration, and lays a foundation for an interoperable credentialing ecosystem.

Another higher education institution taking a lead in the exploration of blockchain is the U.K.-based Open University. This mostly online school has founded the Open Blockchain initiative, driven by the belief that blockchain technology can be used in education in many interesting and potentially revolutionary scenarios.

Its website provides information about numerous experiments, expanding blockchain beyond credentials to e-portfolios, feedback systems and more.

Back home, The University of Texas System is also incorporating a blockchain-based credentialing construct. The university is working on a “Total Education Experience” program that will deliver unbundled, stackable professional and academic credentials.

Reliable badges

Kerri Lemoie, CEO/CTO of OpenWorks Group, co-founded BadgeChain (www.badgechain.com) to explore the uses of open badges. Open badges can be used to recognize learning that happens anywhere, anytime, and can be as small as a “nanodegree” or as large as a traditional college degree.

Lemoie says one of the challenges with the distribution of digital badges is that they are stored on web servers. Servers hosting these services can fail, meaning digital badge content may sometimes be unavailable. Additionally, there is no inherent transactional history when badges are delivered this way.

An advantage of blockchain-based data is its wide distribution designed to ensure its availability, as well as the transactional nature of how the data is stored. With blockchain, a record of what happened and when is essentially permanent and tamper-proof.

Airdrops and hackathons

Further testament to the growing interest in blockchain’s potential to impact the academic world is the Blockchain Education Network. BEN, as it is known, encourages the development of blockchain clubs on campuses across the world and actively encourages blockchain adoption.

In September a “Bitcoin Airdrop” helped 250 students who joined their campus’s clubs create bitcoin wallets. “By downloading a wallet, requesting funds, and seeing it happen in real time,  a student can more easily ‘get it’ and participate in the local club,” BEN Executive Director Dean Masley says.

While it will be a few years before we see widespread blockchain adoption in higher education and industry, efforts are already well underway to drive innovation with this powerful next-generation technology.

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