How Blockchain Can Improve Higher Education
25 September, 2020
As a peer-to-peer decentralized system based on consensus, transparency, and trust, blockchain technology is an ideal platform for building a modern ecosystem for the higher education sector. It has all the tools for introducing such innovations as verified student credentials, optimized resource management, secure content sharing, maintaining ownership rights, and promotion of a one-to-one tutoring system for self-paced learning.
Since the launch of Bitcoins in 2009, blockchain outgrew its initial financial focus and expanded into multiple other industries. It has become one of the most sought-after technologies and is altering the way businesses operate and interact with their end-users. One of the avenues where blockchain is making a mark is the higher education sector. It is challenging the very roots of the current centralized governance structure of educational institutions by contributing a technically sound, robust distributed system, eliminating the need for third-parties and middlemen.
The impact of technology on education has been tremendous. Blockchain promises to improve university education even further. Read on to find out how blockchain technology can transform higher education through verified credentials, student performance history, course management, secure content sharing, tokenized academic rewards, and much more.
What is blockchain?
Blockchain is a digital ledger of chronologically stored records. It contains a history of all past transactions that have taken place. It is a type of distributed ledger technology (DLT), that has a decentralized database maintained by several computers (nodes) joined into a network.
As a decentralized system, all computers participating in its network have a copy of the entire blockchain. Therefore, once the transaction data is approved, it cannot be changed or tampered with. Any modification to existing data has to be made through the execution of a new transaction. This creates an immutable system with very high security.
Some of the key features of blockchain technology are:
- Transparency. The transactions are stored on all computers in the network and can be viewed by all members on the network.
- Security. The distributed nature of blockchain makes it very hard to tamper with its records, making it highly resistant to cyber-attacks.
- Encryption. All transaction data stored in the blockchain is encrypted to protect the data and the privacy of the user.
- Disintermediation. The peer-to-peer nature of the network allows many applications to run without the help of intermediaries or the integration of third-party services.
How does blockchain work?
Blockchain is a digital ledger maintained and stored by all the nodes in its network. Once a user initiates a transaction, the blockchain network community needs to verify it. If the majority agrees that the transaction is valid, a block is generated. A unique identity called a hash is assigned to this block. The first block is called the genesis block, and each subsequent block holds the address of the preceding block. This creates a chain of linked blocks, and hence the name “blockchain”.
If a hacker or attacker tries to modify a block using one of the nodes, the block’s hash changes significantly, and all the other nodes will quickly notice that a fraudulent entry has been made. This makes transactions on a blockchain “immutable”. The data stored on the blockchain is encrypted using public-key encryption, safeguarding the privacy of a user’s data.
Blockchain adding value to students
Let’s consider a possible scenario of how blockchain can be used to aid students and facilitate improved learning. Once a student completes a college or university degree program, the institute provides a record of their results and transcripts that go into a digital wallet owned by the student. The verified document is a part of the blockchain ledger, which is immutable. After this, the student has complete ownership of this record, and it becomes a part of their profile. The student is in full control of this profile and can decide whom to share it with. The records being a part of a public ledger are accessible at all times from anywhere. This scenario leads to multiple possibilities that demonstrate blockchain technology impact on education described below.
Verifiable degrees and certificates
One of the important uses of blockchain technology is a platform for maintaining verified degrees and diplomas. If degrees and certificates are stored on a blockchain, the immutable nature of blockchain records makes it almost impossible to forge these documents. This eliminates the need for a third party to provide certified or attested copies of students’ academic records, reducing the administrative load in the college or university. Employers can be sure that the CV and credentials of the applicant are genuine, saving them from having to go through a lengthy verification process.
Student academic records
Blockchain technology brings more than just verified degrees and transcripts. It can hold information on the student’s whole academic career that includes courses taken by the student, the course contents, curriculum, and etc. Blockchain records can even include indicators of the student’s performance on class assignments, quizzes, and exams. Course instructors can leave comments and even create detailed evaluations of the student’s skills and achievements. These comprehensive academic profiles can be made available to future employers.
Digital badges are already gaining popularity for showcasing achievements and skills. Digital badges combined with a system of verification using blockchain technology can be a powerful tool in the hands of students. They could be acclaimed for various achievements and accomplishments attained while in college such as debates, sports, dramatics, internships, research work and publishing of research papers, etc. These badges can be shared by the students on social media or with a prospective employer in a secure and verifiable manner with a link to the issuer of the badge.
Blockchain facilitating research in academia
Blockchain in education offers a wide spectrum of possibilities to increase productivity in research, improved learning, and wider dissemination of knowledge. Let’s take a closer look at the use cases below.
Safeguarding ownership claims
Academic research is geared towards searching for new directions and disseminating knowledge. Unfortunately, there is reluctance in sharing ideas and breakthroughs as academics are at risk of losing intellectual property rights and ownership claims. Blockchain technology, being a chronological vault of data, can be used by researchers to publicize their research without fear of others making claims to it. As data on a blockchain is encrypted through public-key encryption, the researchers can share their ideas with whomever they wish, safely, without risk of losing their ownership claims.
Safeguarding digital contents and rights
One of the biggest problems faced by the academic community is plagiarism and illegal use of copyrighted material. The secure nature of blockchain can enable professors, lecturers, and other researchers to protect their intellectual property rights and retain copyrights to the materials they create. For example, academics can create an “education blockchain” containing course contents, syllabi, tutorials, evaluation schemes, etc. and distribute it in a controlled way to whomever they want, while retaining their rights over this digital content. Other academics can benefit from having a wider set of resources available to them. In this type of a decentralized education system, teachers and content creators can not only get recognition and acknowledgment, but can also get paid when others use their work.
Digital publishing platforms
Blockchain has immense potential for building a state-of-the-art, comprehensive platform for publishing books, research work, and technical articles. Using blockchain technology, the writers and authors can retain the copyright of their work while sharing it with anyone they wish. Those interested in the published material can buy it using cryptocurrency on an education blockchain network. Such digital publishing platforms have a higher scope for closer collaborative work between authors, editors, illustrators, and other team players.
Blockchain taking libraries one step further
Blockchain can take libraries one step further with more efficient storage and indexation of library metadata. Library metadata includes catalog information for books, magazines, and other library resources. Currently, libraries face two major issues with bibliographic data, i.e., centralization and a lack of traceability. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) maintains the Open Library Project, which is one of the largest databases of metadata records and an important resource for the higher education sector. However, its operations are centralized requiring membership fees for contributing records. The other problem is traceability, where modifications or changes in data are hard to track and trace.
Permissionless blockchains are a possible solution for maintaining and managing high-quality metadata, where all institutions can participate in submitting metadata records. As blockchain is a distributed system, there is a smaller chance of losing data and information from hacking, physical disaster, or sabotage. It would also cut the cost of maintaining records and improve the accuracy of such a system. Through blockchain technology, it is also possible to monitor and limit how many times a user can access, copy, or distribute a digital document. This system can become a part of a bigger blockchain education network.
Blockchain for collaboration and resource sharing
Blockchain can enable various institutions to pool resources, disseminate knowledge, and share content that would impact education in a positive manner. Some of the possible solutions are discussed below.
Sharing computing resources
The peer-to-peer, decentralized nature of blockchain can enable universities to share various resources such as cloud-based computing services, software, and other digital tools. Cloud storage based on distributed blockchain technology would be cheaper and more secure. Users of the services have the option to pay in cryptocurrency tokens.
Collaboration in learning resource creation
Blockchain technology in the education system can enable not only sharing of course contents, but also stimulate collaborative efforts between professors and researchers in developing course contents, learning resources, and other materials. Through cooperation and established liaisons, education can be taken to astonishing heights.
A decentralized education system where the universities compete in a global network of learning resources gives students the freedom to choose courses and build their curriculum with the help of student advisors. Blockchain technology can aid in building these resources with students accessing learning materials and the resource creators getting acknowledgment as well as reimbursement wherever applicable.
The students can collect rewards and points for attending courses from various institutes of the global education network and get verified certificates for each course and a digital degree once the course requirements are completed.
Blockchain smart contracts education use cases
Smart contracts are software applications that execute transactions only if the conditions of the agreement are met. The goal is to eliminate the role of a third-party intermediary, thus cutting down on costs and making the administration of tasks easier and less tedious. Smart contracts can enable automatic check-ins of students and teachers where students can pay and teachers can get paid in cryptocurrency per session or per course. They can be used for teacher-student digital contracts, like assignment deadlines, grading criteria, etc. Apart from an online classroom environment, smart contracts can also be used to manage student loan payments.
Blockchain easing payment processing
In some institutes, student fees and payments currently involve a lot of manual processing, with the involvement of parents, students, and grant or funding organizations. Blockchain-based payments might be the answer to these challenges as they eliminate the need for a third party processing the fees and loans, taking additional credit card charges or bank fees out of the picture. There are already institutions accepting Bitcoin as a mode of payment like the King’s College in New York City and the University of Cumbria.
Blockchain in education: real-life use cases
Without real application, any emerging technology faces serious barriers in its mass adoption. Let’s take a look at a few examples of blockchain and education integration leading to improved learning and knowledge sharing.
Institutes and colleges
Blockchain is gaining popularity and has been adopted by a few institutions such as:
- Central New Mexico Community college (CNM) was one of the first colleges to issue blockchain-based diplomas in 2017. CNM allows its students to view and access their digital credentials using a mobile phone or a computer. Students are also enabled to share these with a prospective employer or a university for admission purposes.
- MIT partnered with blockchain-based service provider Learning Machine for offering digital education degree certificates. In collaboration, they’ve developed the Blockcerts platform which deals with the issuance, verification, and accessing of digital certificates.
Blockchain-based education platforms
Some notable platforms using blockchain to improve education are listed below. These and other similar platforms act as a proof of concept for a full-fledged “blockchain university”.
- Sony Global Education offers a technology improved education platform for storing students’ learning history, results of online tests and transcripts, etc. using blockchain technology. For instance, the scores and certificates of the 5th Global Math Challenge were stored in their educational blockchain and the participants were handed out digital results.
- ODEM is a blockchain-based online platform that connects students, educators, and employers. The goal is to reduce education costs by connecting students directly to teachers, eliminating the need for an intermediary. It also offers blockchain-based digital certificates that can be accessed and verified instantly.
- APII offers ways to improve education by providing verified credentials to its clients. Students can fill out their academic history, degrees, and transcripts, which are then verified and entered into a blockchain ledger. The information can later be shared with future employers and institutes for further admissions.
- Disciplina has launched its alpha version functionality. It offers a student app, which students can use to store their academic records, achievements, and grade history. Employers can later look at their verified records for recruitment. Disciplina also plans to launch the “Educator app”, which teachers can use to store course and syllabi information. Such platforms have the potential to impact education by introducing new models and ideas for teaching, learning, and sharing.
- Parchment offers blockchain services to both students and organizations. Students can store digital certificates and degrees, while companies have the option to store employee achievements with the issuance of digital badges and certificates.
Limitations of blockchain technology
While blockchain offers many benefits and can be employed to improve education, the widespread use of this technology in the education system is restricted by multiple factors, attributing to a reluctance in its adoption. Some of these factors are:
- High costs and effort to make the transition. Moving onto a platform powered by blockchain would require digitizing and merging existing and historic data from various sources into one network. Many universities have already invested in course management systems, student information systems, accounting software, etc. Some institutions may not even have a centralized system for storing information and still rely on paper-based processes. Moving to a new environment will be costly, requiring a lot of effort from administrators and staff.
- Running Costs. The decentralized and distributed nature of a blockchain system involves running multiple servers at various locations, requiring more resources as compared to a centralized system. Maintenance of such systems generally implies a higher running cost.
- Scalability and Speed of Transactions. It is a well-known fact that transactions on a blockchain-based system are slower. All transactions require a consensus between participants in a network before they are verified and added to the chain. Bitcoin processes 4.6 transactions per second on average, whereas major credit card networks process thousands of transactions. This raises questions on the scalability of a blockchain-based system.
- Training. Another major issue creating a barrier for adopting this technology is the education and training of various personnel. Learning about blockchain and training employees to work with this technology can involve extra expenses in terms of both time and money.
- Disintermediation. Blockchain technology is based on “disintermediation”, or the removal of an intermediary or third party. Typically, universities and other educational bodies have a governance structure, which would become dispensable by the introduction of blockchain. Eliminating the administrative power of the university also fuels hesitation and reluctance to adopt blockchain among executive officials.
The key benefits of blockchain technology are transparency, security, and decentralization. The impact of this technology on education is immense, with endless possibilities of how it can be leveraged for optimizing learning processes, motivating research, and facilitating academic records. Many innovative blockchain educational projects have already been launched with applications seen in verified credentials, peer-to-peer tutoring systems, and student-teacher relations powered by smart contracts.
If you would like to be part of the new technological wave of higher education, take advantage of the blockchain’s capabilities of an experienced software development team to help you come up with a tailored adoption strategy and bring it to life.
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