Today’s blog is a conversation with a Feng Hou, Founder of Pistis.io and Chief Digital Transformation Evangelist at Maryville University. Feng talks about the power, potential, and application of digital ledger technology, i.e., blockchain, in education. Feng’s a visionary who has taken the promise of the digital ledger technology into practice by developing an open access blockchain solution.
Blockchain is an abstract concept for many of us. In a 2019 WCET Frontiers Blog we explained the concept:
“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.”
Now for the conversation with Feng, who is also WCET’s July Ask the Expert and contributor of the upcoming Closer Look guide, both will be available to WCET members in wcetMIX our virtual, member-only community. If you are a WCET member and interested in joining the Ask the Expert community, let us know.
Megan Raymond, WCET
Question: You have had quite the circuitous journey through education, how did you get involved with blockchain?
I have held numerous leadership roles in higher education and consider it my calling. In my roles as CIO, Chief Digital Learning Officer, and now Chief Digital Transformation Evangelist at Maryville University in St. Louis, I have had the unique opportunity to work with and implement some innovative solutions such as blockchain technology all for the betterment of the student experience, institutional efficiency, and cost savings.
Working with blockchain, I immediately recognized the tremendous and transformative potential for education. I have been on the front lines supporting both the faculty and the student’s IT needs. I experienced firsthand the disappointment of not having access to information people needed. I have seen and we all recently experienced the pain, the vulnerability and sense of hopelessness when our information has been ransomed, altered, or inaccessible.
Living through this drove me to find an answer. I was part of the early design and architecture teams to make a breakthrough with blockchain in higher education. I shared their frustrations on the slow progress made in this area. Sometimes it was surprising how quickly discussions bogged down on just defining and establishing standards. I am thrilled that WCET is providing this opportunity for us to discuss what blockchain can do for higher education with many practical use cases.
Question: Once you dedicated your talents and energies to blockchain, what were the next steps in the journey like? I imagine there were some ups and downs and friends and foes.
As the founding Chair of Education Blockchain Architect (EASIS) under the Linux Foundation, and the current Chair of Education Vertical under Blockchain Chamber of Commerce, I have been invited to the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, as well as T3 Innovation Network under U.S. Department of Commerce and Chamber of Commerce to discuss blockchain solutions for education. I continued to see my fellow educators anxiously looking for answers on how to address security and preserving the integrity of student records and other sensitive information as we all know how easy it is to manipulate credentials, falsify qualifications, or worse, have your identity stolen.
Since I am doer, when I saw the need for blockchain in education, I took actions and co-founded a blockchain service company called Pistis.io Inc. I fully understand some perceptions that blockchain is still aspirational and too early on the adoption curve, there are early adopters like Maryville University, Oral Roberts University, MIT, and Central New Mexico Community College, just to a name a few, that have proven the value of using blockchain and smart contract to transform their student digital experience, dramatically improve their institutional efficiency and reduce operational costs.
There are on-going discussions and debates on establishing a learner record which has led to some confusion, if not some turf wars. Another directional challenge is either a school should join some consortium or “blockchain ecosystem,” create an open access system not tied to any institution so that learners can own and control their credentials. The SSI (Self-Sovereign Identity), an international guideline, states that learners should own their credentials.
I agree with SSI because some of the solutions today continue to limit or restrict access unless you are part of an institution that happens to belong to a blockchain consortium. What happens when you switch schools, graduate, and go onto graduate school, or forego and get specialty training or online self-certification courses? In a closed system/institutional access, whatever you accomplished is tied to that institution or could be potentially lost because it was never captured. This tension helped stoke my desire to make a difference and help spur the universal adoption of blockchain which is open access and agnostic to the platform on which the blockchain was designed.
Question: Transcripts seem like the logical first implementation of blockchain, being a distributed ledger leads to a highly secure, immutable, learner-owned record. Talk more about how blockchain is being used in this capacity.
Yes, another key driver for blockchain in education is addressing the security of credentials that are received, and the time, expense, and resources needed to manually verify all sources of content. Institutions receive 10s of thousands of applications and its resource intensive to attempt to verify every item. Even if we wanted, requesting transcripts, particularly for international students, is next to impossible with potentially weeks, if not months, of turnaround.
Distributed ledger technology empowers learners by providing access and ownership to their learner record. As learners gain skills and credentials the blocks continually build and showcase the depth and breadth of knowledge acquired. Additionally, the learner maintains control over who they share the record with. There is potential to democratize the transcript and employment process.
What we have done at Maryville University is to implement an on-demand blockchain transcript solution that takes only five seconds to put transcripts at the learner’s fingertips whenever they need them. For all learners and particularly the digital natives, this has been a game changer because the transcripts are secure, immutable, readily verifiable, and shareable, and they only need to request the transcript once. And that’s not all – since the entire transcript request process is automated, it has reduced the time for the university staff to support the students; it has also saved the costs by more than 50% from other transcript service providers.
Question: Where are we at now with blockchain in education?
I am happy to share that there are many blockchain initiatives that are going on in higher education today. At the beginning of the year, ACE announced their first round of blockchain initiatives and listed Pistis.io as one of the national blockchain resources. I am also thrilled to see that our federal government including the U.S. Department Education and U.S. Department of Commerce, along with ACE and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have started their blockchain initiatives such as the T3 Innovation Network. Pistis.io is currently running a pilot to let lifelong learners post their own learning artifacts including video clips, soundbites, and even executable programming codes on blockchain as verifiable credentials. Many national and regional organizations such as Blockchain Chamber of Commerce, where I serve as the Education Vertical Chair, Colorado’s C-Lab, and the Learning Economy Foundation, as well as the newly founded Texas Blockchain Council, etc., have all been promoting blockchain adoption in higher education.
While many of those blockchain initiatives are focused on credential record keeping and sharing, which are important, early blockchain adopter schools such as Maryville University have leapt forward to leverage smart contracts to automate student services and manage hiring and vendor contracts. With the recent publicity about NFTs (non-fungible tokens), which is basically a blockchain token that certifies something to be unique, there is now new interest to use tokens to track student learning, job seeking, and even possibly financial aid and the use of cryptocurrency and NFTs as donations and gifts, etc.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the strain on resources and budgets with many schools that are in cost containment and cutbacks. The true cost efficiencies of blockchain are being realized, and the speed and performance of the technology, at less than ten seconds, coupled with the data security, is unparalleled.
Blockchain can help create open access to address the urgent needs for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, as learners will have lifelong free access to their learning credentials that they own and control. Learners can post and use what they believe to be the best way to show their talents and skills to prove what they know instead of where they went to learn it. There is no restrictions and boundaries, learners own their credentials, which can be verified and shared instantaneously when and where they need it.
Question: What’s next for blockchain in education?
Allowing students to truly own their credentials. How can our students differentiate themselves against the millions of unemployed with years of experience? How do they compete? What if we can highlight with verifiable examples of soft skills and expertise beyond just a course description or what is written on a resume. How about giving students the ability to securely capture their unique capabilities, learnings, and experiences? What if they can provide a portfolio showcasing these learnings through computer executable files, audio recordings, pictures, and video recordings all stored safely and securely on blockchain? Then allow them to access 24×7 and share with whomever and whenever they wish. They now have a fighting chance to compete in the corporate world, truly democratizing the education and employment process.
What seemed impossible just a year ago is happening. Job seekers can apply immediately for jobs, learners can transfer to another school, advance to higher degrees, and capture their self-certifications. Imagine the empowerment of having the ownership of your information and the ability to share it with whom you want and when you want it every day of the year.
Question: What’s next for you and Pistis.Io?
Well, we created Pistis.io to be a partner with higher education institutions and education organizations, such as WCET, to introduce, share, promote, and help implement blockchain solutions. That has been my passion and I have been really fortunate to have had the opportunity to share the success stories of Maryville University on the national stage, as well as to assist many schools to start their own blockchain journeys. And I intend to continue doing so.
As for Pistis.io, we are about to launch NFT4Education.com, which provides a blockchain platform for anyone who wants to share, trade, and donate their knowledge and IP based products and services; and as its name suggested it is dedicated to education.
NFT is a simply a blockchain token where creator’s ownership is recognized and kept in the metadata It is immutable. Since student learning experiences and instructor teaching methods are unique, they can be tokenized and shared. Also, imagine receiving a piece of artwork as a donation to the school. What if you created an NFT of a piece of art and it grew in value exponentially, adding much needed revenue and funds for the school? Or providing authorship and attribution to open education resources?
Pistis.io has developed the smart contract engine and is creating a Smart Contract as a Service model for schools to use these tools as a “plug and play.” You can take any process, no matter how complex or how many different departments that it will touch, and convert a week or months of manual, and costly workflow processes into seconds. Yes, you heard it right! Seconds. Hiring faculty or adjunct faculty, the entire process handled in second. Payment agreement plans, study abroad, leaves of absence, and more, again, automated to a matter of seconds.
We think higher education institutions have done a wonderful job, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help their students achieve their educational goals. With the help from digital technologies such as blockchain, institutions can now offer their students secure, immutable, verifiable, and shareable learning credentials all in seconds.
Thank you so much to Feng for this amazing interview! This post officially kicks off WCET’s Blockchain Month, sponsored by Pistis.io! All month long we will be sharing new content about the promise of Blockchain to digitally transform higher education WCET members can look forward to special events, new resources centered on this topic, and more! Not a member? Learn more about WCET membership so you, and all staff at your organization, can access these and our other great member-only resources!
Senior Director, Membership and Programs
WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies
Thank you to Feng Hou and Pistis.io for participating in Blockchain month and for sharing your insights in today’s post.
Chief Digital Transformation Evangelist – Maryville University
Chief Executive Officer – Pistis.io