Blockchain in Higher Education: Are we on the Cusp of Transformation or Still Gathering Information?

Blockchain? In higher ed? Maybe? Yes? No? We had so many questions about this trending topic, so, we found some experts and asked them about it. Today, Megan Raymond, WCET’s Director of Programs and Sponsorship, is here to discuss her interview with three higher education experts about blockchain and the opportunity for this technology in higher ed. 

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


In June 2019, the Department of Education Office of Educational Technology convened a group of individuals interested or working in the application of blockchain in higher education. The attendees ranged from those working in the technology space to those within higher education. I was fortunate to participate in the conversations and work groups and learn from experts who have varying opinions about the reality, applicability, potential opportunities, and pitfalls of blockchain technology in higher education. I asked some of the experts I met about blockchain in higher education, and today’s post incorporates these collected opinions.

Thank you to the experts below who were so generous with their time and contributions. There are several other people who were involved that I hope to include in future blog updates.

Momentum in Blockchain Higher Eda dark metal chain on a concrete floor

There is a small groundswell of momentum taking place in the blockchain in higher education circles. Some of these examples include:

  • “blockcerts” for certifications and credentials,
  • bitcoin for paying for tuition,
  • blockchain for transcripts, and
  • using blockchain technology to retain authorship and attribution in open education resources.

Are all of these opportunities feasible? Let’s learn from several higher education blockchain experts and find out.

Starting at the Beginning – Understanding Blockchain

To begin, if your understanding of blockchain is like most people’s, a definition is advantageous. Blockchain is the technology that supports a distributed ledger, the data can be distributed but not copied and has only one owner. According to a Mission.org blog:

The information is constantly reconciled into the database, which is stored in multiple locations and updated instantly. That means the records are public and verifiable. Since there’s no central location, it harder to hack since the info exists simultaneously in millions of places. Blockchain technology was invented in 2008, but only came into the public conversation when Bitcoin launched.” ~ Paul Dughi.

The most helpful analogy I have come across is from New America’s Blockchain Trust Accelerator, The Blueprint for Blockchain and Social Innovation:

Blockchains are like trees, becoming stronger as they grow larger. Like a new ring in a tree trunk, a new block on a blockchain records a specific moment in the entire chain’s history; the block does not exist independently, but is a development of the entire chain, inseparably grafted onto the blocks preceding it by complex algorithms, ensuring validity and accuracy over time.

The addition of each new data block makes it increasingly difficult for unauthorized changes to occur. Just as you can’t remove a single tree ring without compromising the entire trunk, the information recorded on a single block cannot be isolated or altered without affecting the entire blockchain. Each new block grows from the blocks preceding it, and in turn helps to secure and inform all subsequent blocks added to the chain.”

Now that we understand blockchain, let’s dive meet our experts. Below I’ve included each of my questions to these experts, and their answers:

Spencer Ellis, Director of Educational Innovation, Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Helen Garrett, University Registrar and Chief Officer of Enrollment Information Services, University of Washington, Member, AACRAO Federal Compliance Committee.

Nina Huntemann, Senior Director of Academics and Research at edX

What are the potential applications of blockchain in higher education?

Helen: Credential fraud with academic credentials such as diplomas and transcripts is a serious problem for higher education officials. The University of Washington, for example, is notified of between 1-3 false diplomas a week, and these are only the ones that come to our attention. Students and former students must go through significant hoops to arrange for the academic credentials to be ordered, paid for, tracked, and delivered, and the production of these takes a great deal of human resources and/or those by transcript generating vendors.

By using a 3.0 web technology such as blockchain, the holders of the credential would have self-sovereignty over their academic records. They could provide them to any entity they desire, and that entity would validate back to the institution using blockchain that the record they hold is the most recent and true document.

As a positive application, blockchain could also be used to share and validate academic and co-curricular experiences and validate student employment, activities, research, internships, and awards. Graduate Schools and employers would no longer need to trust what an applicant has stated about these activities on their resume or applications, but they could use blockchain to validate with the institution that these are true and accurate.

What relevant data or units of learning would be on the blockchain?

Helen:

  • Transcripts.
  • Diplomas.
  • Certificates.
  • Employment history.
  • Student activities.
  • Awards and honors.
  • Research.
  • Overseas study experiences.

One of the most critical components of a block on the blockchain is the quality of data, what are the quality assurance standards to ensure that the data is accurate, verifiable, and meaningful?

Helen: The very nature of the technology is what insures that the data is true and verified. The data do not live on the blockchain, but the transactions do. For example, if a student were to change a grade on a transcript and adequately replicated the font and graphics, a recipient (like an employer) would not know unless they contacted the transcript originator and asked for another copy. Blockchain is a series of records that build in order, and each record has the date stamped records from the block before it and you cannot insert or change the record without that change being recorded in the chain. It is an immutable record and it is impossible to go back down into a record and not have that change be recorded. a visual representation of blockchain, connected and lit blue linesThe top block of the chain is the one true record and when a cryptographic key is used to validate that the copy of the record held by the recipient it must match the top record or it will be rejected. So, it is not a matter of the quality of the data, but that the top record, which contains every single transaction of each of the prior records or blocks, must be the one against which the cryptographic key is being used and matches.

What are some compelling reasons for using blockchain in higher education? Are there any reasons NOT to use blockchain in higher education?

Helen: The primary reason is to provide the record holder/learner self-sovereignty over their records. They need to be able to control who sees them. The only reason not to use blockchain might be the challenge of getting all 4,250 institutions to join a private peer-to-peer network to adopt a blockchain for credential validation and what it would take to make this happen.

Nina: Perhaps the most immediately impactful use of blockchain or distributed ledger technology in higher education is to remove friction for current and former students to access and send their learning record from one institution to another. This first step isn’t innovating what is on the traditional university transcript, but instead improving how existing records are transferred and empowering learners with more control and access to their learning record. If a learner attended multiple schools, especially if they did not complete a credential, a blockchain for learning would enable a concatenated view of their learning (e.g. grades received for courses from multiple institutions). If you are familiar with the stress students face when trying to transfer credits, the value of simply collecting records of learning in one secure place that the learner has direct access to share could partially ease that pain.

Spencer: Reasons for using blockchain are the same as those for using any tech in education: if it can be used to improve student experiences and foster further successes, it should be explored.

What are the most significant hurdles that higher education will need to overcome before blockchain sees broad adoption?

Helen: The primary hurdle is fear. Blockchain is not intuitive and I think about twelve people really understand how it works. People do not understand that the credentials’ data resides with the institution and does not live on the blockchain, so they worry about FERPA or loss of their records. Registrars who are depending on the revenue from selling transcripts and diplomas are afraid that there will not be a need to sell these with blockchain (which isn’t accurate) and that they will not have this important revenue as a result. Institutions are afraid that they will not have the information technologists on their campus to adopt and support the use of blockchain. And, if people do not need the credentials we produce, will we become obsolete?

“If we can convince registrars, the oldest protectors of academic records on earth, then perhaps we can convince anyone.” ~Helen Garett

Much like when the electronic data interchange transcript revolution appeared making it less popular to produce paper transcripts, we needed to make this technology available to all so that they could be equal participants in this new innovation. This meant taking time to expose registrars to this, developing a need for this technology, and providing guidance and training to make it so. It will be the same with blockchain, which is why I am delivering webinars on this topic and speaking at registrar conferences. If we can convince registrars, the oldest protectors of academic records on earth, then perhaps we can convince anyone.

With every new tech adoption that has broad implications, there are “winners” and “losers” who falls into these categories; Who are the biggest winners and losers? Does the benefit to the winners outweigh the impact on the losers?

Helen: The biggest winners are the students who will have more control over the provisioning of their academic credentials. The institutions will be able to spend less time and money tracking down fraudulent credentials and producing academic credentials. The losers might be organizations that produce transcripts and credentials for institutions as vendors and the National Student Clearinghouse who validate degrees.

Nina: The blockchain promises to make learning that is tied to an organization or institutional experience (military service, university courses, professional certification, on the job training) more visible and sharable, which is a positive development. However, we know that access to institutionalized learning is wrought with inequity. Thus, we could end up further marginalizing people not participating in institutionalized learning, exacerbating their invisibility in hiring systems for example. We need to be very intentional about including informal learning or learning that occurs outside of an organization, otherwise we could further bias the types of learning that are made visible and shared by blockchain technology.

Spencer: There must be some building of bridges from the tech perspectives to the world of education and vice versa; meaning we need to learn to speak each other’s languages. Mutually intelligible terminology and shared goals can help lead to more productive collaborations. Perhaps we start by identifying overlapping goals.

Building on the previous question, there are potential equity, access, and accessibility implications, how do we ensure that blockchain doesn’t marginalize these populations?

a series of connected computersHelen: This topic is especially important to me and the prime reason I am evangelizing the adoption of blockchain by my fellow registrars. When learners and employers begin to demand this innovative technology for validating academic credentials all institutions will be forced to come on board. Because of this we need to continue to partner with organizations like the Lumina Foundation who are working with industry to scale this technology and make it available to all. Foundations like the Gates Foundation may need to provide financial support to institutions with fewer IT resources to adopt blockchain, so the equity issue is not a challenge.

Nina: Anyone involved in discussions about and the design of blockchain for education should read Cara Lapointe and Lara Fishbane’s paper Blockchain Ethical Design Framework. Lapointe and Fishbane are researchers at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. In this paper they outline the key attributes of the blockchain and how those attributes can have a significant positive and negative social impact. For each component of the blockchain ecosystem, Lapointe and Fishbane provide a list of questions to facilitate an intentional approach to design. As they emphasize, once decisions are made it is difficult to go back so a commitment to intentional, ethical design needs to be at the forefront. The paper is a great primer for anyone new to distributed ledger technology, and the ethical design framework the authors propose is an excellent guide for the higher education community.

Spencer: We address inequities and access issues by involving all learners and users in the architecture of new and emerging programs. Not only in testing, but in design. The ever diversifying populous should dictate how this systems and tools are designed and how it might serve their needs. We should do this from the outset, not after we figure out what we are doing.

Is blockchain in higher ed just hype?

Spencer: Until proven to support the longstanding challenges we face in higher ed. (inequities, costs, program completion, etc.) any strategy could be considered hype. If strategies begin to address and change these outcomes, then they truly prove their worth.

Where do we go from here? Who needs a seat at the table?

Helen: The greatest consumer of transcripts are institutions of higher education, so this means admission and registrar teams. We also need student to realize the ease and benefits of this technology for procuring and sharing their academic credentials and to demand these of their institutions. Finally, we need employers who are validating degrees and resume statements to participate and support the adoption of blockchain so that institutions have the resources and support they need to bring it online.

______

Stay tuned to WCET for more about Blockchain in higher education. We are staying actively involved on a local and national level. Thanks again to those that contributed and thanks for reading.

Photograph of Megan Raymond against green background.
Megan Raymond
Director, Programs and Sponsorship, WCET
@meraymond


Additional recommended articles:

The Blueprint for Blockchain and Social Innovation, January 2019

Emergence of Blockchain, Inside Higher Education, June 2019

5 Ways Blockchain Is Revolutionizing Higher Education, Forbes, January 2019

The Blockchain Revolution and Higher Education, EDUCAUSE, March 2017

How Blockchain Could Change Higher Education, February 2019


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications, Community, and Social Media for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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