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Building Relationships with Students via Blockchain

When Salesforce introduced its upcoming Blockchain platform, Arizona State University shared the stage too, as an early adopter and partner in an effort to apply blockchain technology to student academic records. ASU's EdPlus CTO Donna Kidwell shares basics of the plan.


A few weeks ago, during its annual developer conference, Salesforce introduced Salesforce Blockchain, a platform connected to customer relationship management that promises to help organizations collaborate and share data securely through "distributed ledger" technology. On the stage as part of the announcement was Arizona State University, which has been working with Salesforce to create an educational network to enable schools to verify and share information, and particularly student academic records. In an announcement at the time, Kent Hopkins, vice president of enrollment services at ASU, explained that the network would have "the potential to be a game changer for integrated, seamless learning — increasing transparency of student achievements and ultimately making the exchange process of academic records easier for both learners and institutions."

The work with Salesforce is being led in large part by EdPlus, the university's central enterprise unit that focuses on the design and scalable delivery of digital teaching and learning models that hold promise for increasing student success and reducing barriers to achievement in higher education. Recently, EdPlus Chief Technology Officer Donna Kidwell explained to Campus Technology how the blockchain work with Salesforce was progressing, what EdPlus's role will be and why it's an important project for higher ed to undertake.

Campus Technology: Was EdPlus already working with Salesforce?

Donna Kidwell

Donna Kidwell

Donna Kidwell: Definitely. In fact, in my former days at the University of Texas at Austin and the UT System, we really looked to ASU as a model for how best to have a partnership with Salesforce and what kinds of things could happen.

From my own perspective, learner relationship management is a really important piece of what a modern-day university needs to think about. Most departments might have something like Salesforce so that they can send out e-mails for donations or keep track of an event that they'd like their alumni to be able to attend. That's business as usual, and a traditional CRM can do that. Salesforce, though, is really an engine for building a relationship with the learner over time.

Here at ASU we've got so much deep thinking around what President [Michael] Crow calls "the universal learner." That's our relationship with the learner from the moment that they may have their very first awakening of an experience because they're in a high school program that involves ASU, all the way through whenever it is that [they] want to stop learning. That could be a 60-, 70-, 80-year relationship. And if you're really trying to understand what the learner needs over that time, that's where you need a tool that thinks deeply about a longitudinal relationship with somebody. And Salesforce is one of very few companies that really excel in that space.

CT: Explain how the blockchain announcement fits into this and what EdPlus's role is going to be.

Kidwell: Blockchain is this crazy, exploratory, super-nascent technology. Maybe it's cool, maybe it's not. It's certainly fun to talk about. Researchers have been looking at blockchain on campuses for three or four years. There's a whole research team here at ASU that's been looking into blockchain. So universities have been exploring blockchain ever since it emerged as a potential technology.

Most of the universities working in blockchain are coming out of research interests, or it's a bunch of faculty in the engineering schools who are really trying to solve hard problems in financial security.

It's pretty unique as a campus to be thinking about blockchain from more of an enterprise learning unit or a business unit like EdPlus. That's one distinction. We're not completely unique, but the level of resources that we've committed to this makes us a pretty standout player in that space. There are not too many Tier One research institutions that are engaged on the business side with something like blockchain.

One of the core things that I think is built into the ASU charter is to think about who we include and how those learners succeed. That inclusion piece gives us a higher bar for thinking outside the box about who traditionally has access to a university education, and then what tools we've got in place to ensure that every capability is available to them and that we're reducing the potential barriers that might get in the way of them having a successful experience.

One of those barriers often is that a student — depending on which programs you're talking about and exactly what student demographic you're looking at — probably has between four and seven transcripts. They have a high school record, they may have dual enrollment, maybe they went to a community college, maybe they moved high schools somewhere so it's two high schools. It's pretty typical for somebody to have more than one academic record before they come to any university.

If you are a first-generation [college student] and you've never been through this before, just getting your high school records can be tricky — much less tracking down a couple of different high schools and a community college and [getting] your AP scores. That's just one example of where students who don't necessarily understand how to navigate the process of getting enrolled and admitted hit all kinds of bureaucratic stumbling blocks. And we would really like to make that far easier for students.

We started talking to Salesforce because a lot of educational institutions also use Salesforce, and we thought, well, what if we turn to something like a blockchain technology to create a place where we had secure, encrypted and trustworthy, completely verified data between our institutions? Then we could ask the student for permission to share that information between the two systems.

We could build the technology to bridge those, but that's not going to scale, and most campuses don't have extra technology resources to build a bunch of technology bridges for every partnership or articulation agreement. So, it's never going to happen. We're not going to get one-off tech data packages back and forth.

Instead, we thought, if we turn this on its nose a little bit, what if that learner record was issued and verified in a secure fashion by the institution and then we leveraged something like the consensus technologies, of which blockchain is one, to be able to put that in a place that was highly secure, replicated and distributed? Every institution participating would basically have its own copy. We wouldn't have to worry about ownership because, just like the internet, the technology itself is distributed across everybody who's contributing and participating in it.

Then the learner gets to say, "It is perfectly cool that you can see my records from this high school or that community college and I would love for ASU to be able to look at that." Likewise, if the student were at the community college, he or she could say, "I'm going to ASU, but you're more than welcome to look at what I take while I'm at ASU." At that point, the community college could determine that student was one English course away from finishing an associate degree and he or she just took it at ASU, so it might say, "You've earned an associate degree."

ASU isn't going to give an associate degree because that's not what we do. But it makes perfect sense for the community college to be able to recognize that achievement if it wants to.

Ultimately for the learner, they have done the work. It wasn't a question of whether or not they checked off all the boxes. We are reducing the friction in that bureaucratic process or the amount of work that it would take to go back and forth. We're saying, maybe technology could help us out a little bit.

CT: What would the trusted institutions like the high schools or those community colleges or ASU, for that matter, have to do to participate in this network?

Kidwell: They'd have to agree in principle that the idea of using a technology that offers something that we didn't have before makes sense for them. We'd have to agree on a common goal for our learners. We'd both have to be able to say, "Yes, we totally get it and we want to make our lives easier." That's a mindset and a willingness [involving] the individuals that are part of that process — whether it's the registrars, admissions or enrollment or wherever those decisions get made at your institution. They'd have to be willing to think differently about the problem.

They'd also have to have faith that the technologies that we're putting in place are, in fact, secure and verified and persistent. It really is important which partners we work with. We can't just go with any technology or homebrew our own. We need something that is enterprise-level and scalable and trusted. We're thinking about who the partners are out there that have trusted relationships with institutions. And then we're leveraging some technologies that are hyperledger-based. And a lot of the technologies we're using are based on international standards — so making sure that we're using the same standards that other institutions use. That checks off the box of, do we trust the technology?

The other piece is what the motivations are for them to try something different. In some cases, the institutions that we're partnering with have financial incentives and it's important to them to be able to demonstrate to their own leadership, whether it's at the state level or accreditation agencies, that people are getting credentials. For a community college to lose the opportunity to give somebody an associate [degree] because that person comes to ASU, that's [still] a win-win for the learner. It's probably a win-win for the state too because they get somebody who's got a better credential. But the community college doesn't necessarily get credit for all the work that it did because all of the credit hours don't convert over into the diploma. And it's the diploma that is often the thing that you look at when you're saying, "Are you doing a good job?" That's another piece of the motivation: recognizing that we want creative ways of being able to allow people to get credit for the work that they did in ways that our policies don't always support.

It means a lot of coalition building.

We are in the process of talking to the high-level stakeholders all the way down into individual admissions and registrar offices with the institutions that we want to partner with, so that we really do have alignment with everybody.

That's the hard part of world-changing.

CT: Can you lay out the phases you expect this work to take and what the various deliverables or outcomes will be?

Kidwell: We started this work about a year ago with Salesforce. Our very first proof-of-concept efforts were really very technology-feasibility oriented — just trying to prove to ourselves that blockchain made sense and that there was a reason to use the technology as opposed to all the other technologies — cloud-based, databases, blah, blah, blah. We spent really the first six months trying to see whether or not there was a business case around blockchain.

We then got the foundation of recognizing what the trust technologies were offering and that helped us figure out what would be the very first use case. That led us to the transfer credit issue.

The next step — and this brings us into about January [2019] — was starting to work with early-stage partners so that we could figure out all the business rules, and that's what led into the work that we presented in San Francisco at the Salesforce announcement.

All of that work was a partnership with ASU, Salesforce and a couple other partner institutions. We're not announcing publicly who those partner institutions are yet because we want to be really thoughtful of how that change management process works. Certainly, at this point we're not using live student data because we're really trying to figure out and make sure that we've got the secure technologies in place.

That will be the next thing, looking at what really is the learner experience and how we turn this into something that we know technically we can do, we know what the value proposition is, we understand what the process needs to be to get that in place with partner institutions. Now the effort is essentially building out that network and building out what the actual learner experience would be.

CT: Will these other institutions have to be Salesforce customers?

Kidwell: We were really clear with Salesforce from the very beginning that if we were going to do this with them as a partner, we couldn't expect that everyone had Salesforce. The capability here had to be something that if you had Salesforce, great, and if you didn't have Salesforce, that's fine too. Because high schools don't have Salesforce, a lot of the smaller institutions, charter schools — a lot of folks don't have Salesforce. That was a requirement going in that the technology would be agnostic.

CT: You made a statement that EdPlus is committing a high level of resources.

Kidwell: Yep. I don't really want to put a full-time equivalent number of people or anything on it because the project ebbs and flows. But one way you could depict it is that this project has been a partnership between Kent Hopkins in the Office of the University Provost, the university technology office and EdPlus. What's interesting is it's not just one department on the campus; it really is a project that crosses multiple departments trying to figure this out so that we really do solve a problem that's a holistic one. It's not just one little team trying to go out and change the world. We're building that coalition from the ground up.

CT: When will we see something public?

Kidwell: Blockchain technologies are super, super early. The whole point of this is [finding] trusted ways to go about doing it and trying to leverage new technologies as soon as they're available — but not too early. So, we're in a hurry, but we're not going to do anything too crazy — in terms of timelines — that jeopardizes that.

That being said, Salesforce has said publicly that it expects the blockchain products to be available in 2020. It hasn't set a date when. We are doing this with Salesforce. Some of our timeline is coinciding with its timeline.

CT: The press release makes it sound as if EdPlus is doing this for multiple institutions and not just for ASU. Aside from those relationships you're setting up for ASU's education trust network, is there something here that ASU envisions spinning off into a new service?

Kidwell: Right now, that's not the intention of it. The intention is to try to look at how the technology affords us [the ability] to work with existing partners.

If you look across ASU as a whole and its 100,000 students and all the transcripts they're bringing in, to have this learner-driven, that's where we start. Where are most of the students coming from, and how can we make that ASU learner experience better — that's the fountain from an ASU perspective. But that means that a lot of our students are going to be coming either from other states or community colleges, and those have their own networks too.

And this is really interesting in an international context. To give you one example, higher ed is very interested in blockchain technologies to help refugees. If you're a refugee, you don't necessarily have proof [of your education]. That institution [you went to] may not even have people at it right now who could send a transcript if you were there. How we can help those learners recraft their experience after pretty tragic events that might have happened in their home country?

Definitely the intention is for this to be something very open. I mentioned earlier that we're using a lot of open standards. Some of this technology will be built off of existing open standards that are already in place and institutions are already using.

CT: You've used that word trust multiple times during this interview. Every time we place our trust in something or someone, it seems our data gets stolen. How do we know this blockchain work you're doing will really prevent that from happening yet again?

Kidwell: That is a great question.

At some point in any data pathway, there's a human in the loop. That is an unavoidable consequence of the human side of this data. We can put [in place] even the strongest of cryptology and double redundancies — I can use all sorts of big, fancy words — but at the end of the day someone at a keyboard will click a button, and at the moment they click that button all sorts of other things can happen. They could have software that's loaded on their machines that's doing keystroke capture. They could have somebody walking by that's watching them do it and sees the password that they entered. All that stuff will still be true. I think that it's beholden on us to try to do everything we can to ensure that the kinds of technologies we're choosing are serving us the best that they can. That's part of why blockchain's interesting; financial institutions are also working in the space, and they're dealing with some of the most secure data and financial transactions, clearly ones they don't want to have hacked either. There's very careful consideration there, but there are still people involved too.

CT: What's the big message you want to relay to higher ed about this project?

Kidwell: It is worthwhile for us to step back and allow ourselves to think openly about what new possibilities are out there. One of the things that is part of the promise and part of the hype, frankly, around something like blockchain is just that moment where you could say, "Hey, I could do this differently." And in that moment you can rethink your assumptions about how a process works, rethink your assumptions about what the policy is trying to protect, and whether or not everything that we're doing is really in the spirit of the protections that we think that we're giving to either our learners or to ourselves.

Technology gives us these neat levers to be able to say, "What if...?" and that's really what I think a lot of this is about — acknowledging that in trying to make a college education available to anyone who wants it, there are barriers in that process. In this model that I'm describing, it's the learner who gives that permission. And that's a whole different thing than the learner having to go get a transcript and have it sent in a sealed document between institutions. Now we're saying, "As a learner I own the rights to be able to let other people access it in a really unique way."

I think that's the core of the message: How can we use these moments of technology innovation to help us rethink the way the world could work?

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