When we hear about blockchain, it usually spins our head. Fintech experts and Wall Street analysts claim that it can make the conventional banking absolutely obsolete. Airbnb just hired an expert blockchain team, while Estonia is soon to use it for maintaining a million patient health records. But what actually is the blockchain, and what is its linkage to the educational sector? Initially developed as the underlying database for the bitcoin, a peer-to-peer digital asset and payment system, the technology of block chain is now being taken as purposeful and valuable technology, beyond the financial sector. The benefits provided by blockchain technology include storage of information on a permanent, secured and historical ledger that can be both private and public. This would change how the educational technology and application approach the student data.
A block chain is usually termed as a digital ledger, and may be a very simple form of definition should just leave it at that. It’s a ledger, a digital and distributed ledger. You can also understand it through its rather wordy definition stating that blockchain is the distributed database providing an unchangeable, (semi-) public record of the digital transactions. Every block accumulates a timestamped batch of the transactions to be put into the ledger, or else, in the blockchain. Every block is recognized by the cryptographic signature. The blocks are all back-linked, i.e. they refer to a signature of a previous block present in the chain, and we can trace the chain all the way back to the very first block made. It can be said that the blockchain entails an unchangeable record of all the transactions made.
In higher education, this implies that student data can be shared collaboratively among numerous institutions, instead of a single one, and also include data from co-curricular activities, online learning tools, employment history and all other learning experiences. This would enable the data to be shared, exchanged, understood and validated across various parties. Think of the images of students’ learning experiences that this could provide and how these images can help improve and develop course design, help transferring credits, or authenticate qualifications for an employment to a potential employer.
It is important to note that not all the blockchain use bitcoins, mining or use the same rules to mining as the bitcoins does. The blockchains can be handled by a consortium where the members take the decisions regarding the block processing. In addition, the block chains can also be private where one institution has a control over everything. A university might be interested to host a private blockchain or maybe a group of universities. An eco-system such as Open Badges that produces digital representations of skills and learning might take into account the consortium block chain.
We can say that blockchain is simply more than just a hype. Last year, MIT Media Lab announced the development of its software to issue digital certificate on the Bitcoin Blockchain. Holberton School also started providing its academic credentials in collaboration with Bitproof, a blockchain based notary body that authenticates content ownership. In the Open Badges community, the Badge chain team has begun discovering the ways badges can be made advanced by block chain. Sony Global Educationalso developed the blockchain technology, which facilitates safe exchange of academic records.
It is also worth considering the “Learning is earning”, initially presented by Jane McGonigal at SXSW 2016. Learning is Earning is the concept that introduces Edu blocks, which present unites of learning hours written to a block chain and can be used to pay some additional learning options. In addition, following benefits can be availed through blockchain technology in educational sector:
- Educator certification, credentialing and re-certification, both national lines and across state
- Management and tracking of school assets such as property, transport, furniture, journal, textbooks and technology
- Management of privacy of students and parental opt in/opt out permission
- Management of the special education, lunch and attendance records
- Distribution of state or federal programmatic funds and private grants
- Payment and distribution of students loans
We are still in the early era of block chain in terms of adoption and its development, and there are certain challenges. Bitcoins costs are fluctuating and still too hard to buy, transactions take enough time, and it is reliant on users to save the public and private keys used to track the transactions permanently and safely. However, even in presence of all these challenges, it is here to stay with innovations, adaptations and experiments on the way at a faster pace.