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Report: Blockchain 'Holds Promise' for Ed


Research funded by the U.S. Department of Education has found that the use of blockchain "holds promise to create more efficient, durable connections between education and work." The research was undertaken by the American Council on Education (ACE) earlier this year to explore the use of distributed ledger technology and blockchains in education as part of the Education Blockchain Action Network. Now the network is launching a competition intended to fund promising education projects.

In a new report, ACE said the use of blockchain is still "nascent." Researchers uncovered 71 "active efforts" worldwide that use the technology in education, many running as proof of concept or pilot projects and most related in some way to the combination of higher education and the workforce, "related to the issuing and verification of academic and work records."

Blockchains in these experiments are being used by schools in several ways, the researchers found:

  • To lock down and share "evidence of learning, recommendations and work experience";
  • For use in online courseware applications to make instruction and training "more accessible, affordable and applicable" to available jobs; or
  • To give people more control over their personal information.

The report was based on interviews with representatives from K-12 and higher education, credentialing organizations and technology providers.

Among the projects profiled is one led by the Dallas County Community College District, which is working with GreenLight, an education credentialing service, to provide electronic transcript delivery through blockchain.

Another, involving Arizona State University and Maricopa County Community Colleges, is piloting the "Trusted Learning Network," a mechanism for exploring blockchain's role in streamlining reverse transfer to award associate degrees to transfer students at ASU.

The big concerns expressed by people involved in those and other efforts focused on the costs of adopting and shifting to new systems; legal and operational questions regarding data ownership and control; the lack of understanding about the technology; and blockchain's overall lack of proven value in education.

The report noted that several projects are raising funds to continue their work through "initial coin offerings," a first-time sale of cryptocurrency to the public. Likewise, tokens, or units of cryptocurrency, are being given to participants as incentives and to pay for services or tuition.

The largest public blockchain is Bitcoin, according to the researchers. Typically thought of as a ledger of cryptocurrency transactions, Bitcoin has also been found useful for recording other types of transactions, the report stated.

Another blockchain in use in education is Ethereum, an open source outgrowth of Bitcoin. The advantage of Ethereum is that it can run "tiny, decentralized programs," otherwise known as "smart contracts." The same capability is available in the open source Hyperledger, supported by the Linux Foundation and described as a "collection of community-driven frameworks and code libraries for blockchains."

Now the network intends to run a $900,000 "Blockchain Innovation Challenge," which is designed to seed blockchain projects with the potential to boost economic mobility. Up to three pilots will be funded to create ecosystems for empowering learners and improving economic mobility. Both individuals and teams can sign up to express interest and receive early access to the application that will be released later this summer.

The "pioneers" in blockchain in education are "learning fast about systems and markets for documenting, verifying and sharing evidence of learning and competence," the report stated. In the future, "the unique attributes of blockchain — transparency, trust, and tamper resistance — may improve upon how these systems and markets operate."

"Now, as the implications of mass unemployment loom large, the imperative of making good on our collective educational investments takes on new urgency," wrote ACE President Ted Mitchell, in his foreword for the paper. "Blockchain, in particular, holds promise to create more efficient, durable connections between education and work."

The report, "Connected Impact: Unlocking Education and Workforce Opportunity Through Blockchain," is openly available on the ACE website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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