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How Blockchain Will Disrupt the Higher Education Transcript

Blockchain technology could offer a more learner-centered alternative to traditional credentialing. 

Last year, the MIT Media Lab began issuing digital certificates to the participants in its Director's Fellows program. The authentication behind the certificates relies on blockchain technology, best known for its connection to the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

In a blog post, Philipp Schmidt, director of learning innovation at the Media Lab, described how blockchain works: "In essence, it is a just a distributed ledger to record transactions. What makes it special is that it is durable, time-stamped, transparent and decentralized. Those characteristics are equally useful for managing financial transactions as for a system of reputation. In fact, you can think of reputation as a type of currency for social capital, rather than financial capital."

The technology has tremendous potential for higher education, according to Phil Long, chief innovation officer and associate vice provost for learning sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. In a May 12 Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander, Long pointed to credentialing as an obvious first place to apply blockchain in higher ed.

A Learner-Centered Transcript

A transcript is the record of what a student has accomplished at a university. The document is managed and controlled by the institution, not the student. In contrast, Long said, blockchain has the potential of providing an immutable record of an individual learner's accomplishment that can be disclosed in a public context. "The single thing that attracted me most is the potential it has to reaffirm the learner's ownership of their own record," he said.

Today when you get a credential from an institution, you receive a piece of paper, but ultimately anybody who wants to verify that credential goes back to the source. Yet new models of higher education are complicating that process, Long pointed out. "The notion that you will go to one university for all the training you need for your career is quite passé. In the future, many learners will have earned credentials from a range of institutions," he said. For anyone to validate those records, they are going to have to go back to every single source. "Is [blockchain] a way that that kind of intermediary chain can be broken?" Long asked. With blockchain technology, he said, "the assertion of the authenticity is made at the time it is created; there is no need to validate it thereafter."

Blockchain is scaring a lot of people, he added, "because its fundamental characteristic is the elimination of intermediaries — which is one of the reasons the financial industry became so excited when bitcoin was created."

New Types of Learning

One forum attendee asked Long if blockchain could help provide credentialing for MOOCs and other types of learning outside brick-and-mortar institutions.

If an institution is confident in asserting that the individual who has completed a MOOC has achieved certain accomplishments, the answer is absolutely yes, Long said. "The learner could have a record of their learning from MOOCs, professional development activities and universities."

Extending the idea further, Long referenced the work of a colleague from France, Serge Ravet, who suggests blockchain could be used to exchange social capital among individuals. For example, he said, the Future Trends Forum is a kind of learning community. "If you are getting value out of the way in which Bryan Alexander has pulled together members of the community in these sessions, in Serge's view, you would have a Twitter-like application where through the hashtag you could offer to Bryan a social piece of capital that says 'I valued this interaction' and it would go into Bryan's blockchain." And there would be an accumulation of that chain of affirmation and reputation that he would accrue — in essence the community validating itself. "That is sort of the anarchistic extreme of this idea," Long said.

Managing Credentials

Another forum participant asked whether learners would have to create something like a bitcoin wallet to store and share their credentials.

With the blockchain environment as the back end of bitcoin, there had to be a place to put the digital coins, Long said — the bitcoin wallet. Likewise, in credentialing, it would be useful to have a place to store credentials. "You could call that your wallet or learning credential store or portfolio," he said. "In the same model as bitcoin, every single learner would have one of these. In fact, ultimately, you would have one running on your phone and have your learning credentials with you at all times."

There were also questions raised about privacy and visibility. Long said that although users wouldn't be able to alter the contents of the learning record, you could decide which pieces of it you want to share with which audiences.

"People are thinking of extending this to an application environment that would add granularity and control over how you display things," he said. "But it is not editable. That is one of the big philosophical issues about this methodology. In the European Community, that would represent a real problem, I suspect, because in the European Community they believe in a right to anonymity and the right to choose what about [a person's] past record should be visible," he said.

"The philosophy of the blockchain environment is that you can write a block that supercedes a prior block, but you can't change history, Long said. "Whatever is in your record, in the view of the creators of this environment, is a validated occurrence and you therefore can't delete pieces of history you don't like anymore." If there has been a change, you can add a new block that reflects that. You can have an expiry — information is valid until x — and the block remains and says it is out of date. "This could potentially be useful in a medical education environment," Long suggested, "where you have to get continually recertified for your expertise in a certain area."

He added, "This leads to a very interesting and some would say concerning development because it is permanent and immutable, but it is the instantiation in bits of the ripples of our engagement in our communities. It has the opportunity for being both disruptive but also remarkably equitable and socializing across communities. At least that is the positive spin. The negative spin is that your sins are with you forever. The reality is we all have those sins. Maybe it is not a bad thing to recognize that we are all flawed people."

Getting Started

Participants asked Long how universities could get started with blockchain. "It is very germinal right now," he admitted. So far, most of the development work in the field has been transparent and in open source communities by organizations such as Ethereum and the Linux Foundation. The simplest way to start is to pick a blockchain environment; download and install it; and get a feel for what it consists of. "Right now it is pretty technically challenging," Long said. He and a colleague downloaded the Ethereum environment, they had it up and running in two days and have been playing with it ever since.

In terms of higher education credentialing, he noted, a group of registrars is following this environment, led primarily by Tom Black at Stanford University and Shelby Stanfield at UT-Austin.

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