New technologies are impacting and changing both traditional and modern industries. No sector is exempt from this revolution, and that includes education. Indeed, the education sector has already started to transform, as seen in the digital shifts that are increasingly necessary to improve the experience of students and youngsters alike and to prepare them for the jobs of the future, which at this moment are yet unimaginable (Schwartzbeck and Wolf, 2012). The educational system has the essential task of developing minds that will be able to mix past disciplines with new fields of discovery. Universities and institutions can take advantage of key developments like cloud storage and big data solutions to improve learning experiences and oﬀer better services to students.
The educational, cultural, and knowledge system as a whole has always faced risks and problems with difficult solutions.
First of all, most academic and professional institutions issue certificates and credentials that are difficult to verify. For employers and third parties to verify a single resume, they are often required to use inefficient and expensive procedures to test the authenticity of all aspects of the applicant’s experience. As expected, companies rarely have the time and resources to dedicate to those procedures. In addition, many diplomas are not digitally verifiable. It seems that only a few institutions release free and online certifications. In the case of qualifications obtained in the past, the situation is more complicated still.
Secondly, in recent years there has been a surge in the number of unverified degrees issued by legitimate-sounding institutions. These organizations often advertise themselves as official institutions with names that closely resemble those of famous academies, such that the distinction between them is not immediately apparent. This problem is aggravated by increased counterfeiting of diplomas and certificates. The proliferation of institutions raises an important question as to the quality of educational systems and universities, which is difficult to evaluate in a quantitative way. Institutions often issue diplomas or certificates with scant or absent details as to the course of study pursued and the student’s achievements. Employers, evaluators, and recruiters thus find themselves in the difficult position of having to consider documents of doubtful provenance, which are not standardized, and with possibly low image quality. Each of these problems might find solutions in blockchain technology.
Initially introduced as a technology to support the functioning of a decentralized payments system outside the brokering circuit of central banks, distributed-ledger technologies have evolved from both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective. In addition to the Bitcoin network, many other distinct blockchain systems have been developed that go beyond the simple transfers of funds by implementing different and/or supplementary functions (Tasca & Widmann 2018). Despite the passage of time, the underlying philosophy of blockchain remains substantially unchanged. It constitutes a distributed database based on two core cryptographic technologies thatensure the validity and authenticity of transactions: (i) public-private key infrastructure used to store and spend money; and (ii) cryptographic validation of transactions (Böhme et al., 2015). The data of past transactions are ordered in a series of ‘blocks’, such as in a public register, and cannot be altered except by the agreement of more than 50% of blockchain participants (nodes). Cryptographic technologies can thus create a “trustless” infrastructure to enable transactions—the trust is directly guaranteed by the blockchain system without the need of third parties (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).
Until recently, high schools and universities have not thought to use blockchain technologies to solve or mitigate the problems set out above. Old-fashioned organizational paradigms and a conservative attitude toward innovation have prevented the widespread institutional adoption of new technologies in general. This is partly due to the fact that the benefits of new technology are typically undermined by the high costs of training people in its use. With blockchain, however, the benefits of this trade-off weigh decisively in favor of technological adoption. In fact, the fundamental characteristics of blockchain address each of the key administrative challenges facing high schools and universities: data transparency, auditability, availability, immutability, and efficiency. In other words, it makes all the internal processes more efficient.
The benefits of blockchain apply primarily to data collection, processing, and sharing. The main beneficiaries are as follows:
- Students. Blockchain could provide higher security and robustness of their data: the use of high-security cryptographic techniques ensure that personal information will never be manipulated or subject to malicious data leaks. Students could also use self-sovereign identity solutions to certify their identity without needing to share the underlying data that makes up that identity.
- Universities and other institutes of education. Fully automated data processing benefits high school and university registrars who handle (typically, manually) sensitive and confidential student records. These records include, but are not limited to, attendance records, immunization records, grades, transfer information, transcript requests, etc. University registrars could be removed from the veriﬁcation process altogether. As a result, considerably fewer resources are devoted to qualiﬁcation veriﬁcations and more time can be spent on higher priority tasks, such as verifying the school qualiﬁcations of prospective students.
- Employment agencies and job seekers. Employers might, in fact, avoid the expensive, complicated and lengthy processes involved in background checks and evaluations of job applicants; the agencies might speed up the job seeking process by easily proving the authenticity of applicants’ academic qualifications.
In terms of areas, blockchain can be applied to the following:
- Transcripts. Academic credentials must be universally recognized and verifiable. At the moment, verifying academic credentials remains largely a manual process (heavy on paper documentation and case-by-case checking). Blockchain solutions could streamline verification procedures and reduce fraudulent claims to unearned credentials.
- Students records and certificates. Students records and any other type of accreditation can be stored in a blockchain. Digital records and certificates hold many advantages over paper records and certificates: they require far fewer resources to issue, maintain and use. The veracity of any record can be checked against the registry automatically, without human intervention. The security of the records derives from the security of cryptographic protocols, which ensure that any extract or certificate is cheap to produce but extremely expensive to reproduce by anyone except the issuer. Finally any issuer-fraud, such as changing the timestamp or changing a certificate serial, is not possible in the blockchain environment.
- Libraries. Blockchain could help libraries expand their services by building an enhanced metadata archive, developing protocols to support community-based collections, and facilitating more effective management of digital rights.
- Publishing. Blockchain could have multiple applications in the publishing industry, from securing new talent, to rights management, and anti-piracy efforts. New platforms are emerging to level the playing field for writers and encourage collaboration among authors, editors, translators, and publishers.
- IP rights. Currently, tracking intellectual property is a costly endeavour run by specialized organizations, usually when there is a significant business case to do so. Time-stamping scientific discoveries allows to protect intellectual property from being misused. Blockchain could also enables a model for open innovation and open educational resources whereby we could eliminate intermediaries such as fee-based journals, thus allowing anyone to publish openly, and accurately keeping track of re-use without putting limitations on the source material. So teachers would be directly rewarded based on the level of actual use and reuse of their educational materials, similar to how researchers would be rewarded based on citations to their papers.
- P2P reviews. Thanks to blockchain, the review process could be open to any peer in a given community in a transparent way.
- Scoring. Authors could be scored/rated automatically by the nodes in the blockchain network as opposed to by a handful of peer reviewers.
- CV. Blockchain can enhance fraud detection and prevention. This would free up administrative resources by reducing the amount of work needed to process credential verification requests. In addition, blockchain is useful in this way not only for academic institutions but also for employers and third parties, such as job seekers. The former might avoid the expensive, complicated, and lengthy processes involved in background checks and evaluations of job applicants; the latter might speed up the job seeking process by more easily proving the authenticity of their academic qualifications.
However, all that glitters is not gold. A problem that is worth highlighting is the complex relationship between blockchain and well-established regulations, which include the particularly challenging data protection. With the recent enactment of the General Data Protection Regulation, data need to be exchanged in accordance with definitive standards, and subject to certain essential rights. Some of these (the right to be forgotten and data redaction, for instance) are not easily enforceable when it comes to blockchain and DLT. Blockchain architectures will, for instance, need either to store raw personal data off-chain or provide some mechanism for the deletion of private keys where these give access to an individual’s data. Whether regulators would find such implementations compliant with GDPR remains to be seen. Thus, the path to widespread adoption of the technology in the education sector is still long, and many challenges remain.
Böhme, R. et al. (2015) ‘Bitcoin: Economics, Technology, and Governance’, 29(2), pp. 213–238. doi: 10.1257/jep.29.2.213. De Filippi, P. and Wright, A. (2018) Blockchain and the Law. Harvard University Press.
Schwartzbeck, T. D. and Wolf, M. A. (2012) The Digital Learning Imperative: How Technology and Teaching Meet Today’s Education Challenges. Digital Learning Series.
Scott, P. (2000) ‘Globalisation and Higher Education: Challenges for the 21st Century’, Journal of Studies in International Education. doi: 10.1177/102831530000400102.
Tasca, P., & Widmann, S. (2017). The challenges faced by blockchain technologies–Part 1. Journal of Digital Banking, 2(2), 132-147.
Paolo Tasca Executive Director, UCL-CBT Mentor of the Supercharger Program Paolo Tasca is a Digital economist specialising in P2P financial systems. An advisor on blockchain technologies for different international organisations including the EU Parliament and the United Nations. Paolo is founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Blockchain Technologies (UCL CBT) at University College London. Prior to this, he was Lead Economist on digital currencies and P2P financial systems at Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt working on digital currencies and P2P lending. Paolo is the co-author of the bestseller FINTECH Book and the co-editor of the book Banking Beyond Banks and Money. In addition, he is author of various scientific papers about blockchain, which have been published by prestigious international scientific journals, such as the Harvard Business Review. As Executive Director of the UCL CBT, Paolo is also directly involved in various research projects concerning different application fields of blockchain technologies. Among them, the BARAC Project (Blockchain Technology for Algorithmic Regulation and Compliance) supported by EPSRC, and the P2P-IoET Project (The Internet of Energy Things: Supporting peer-to-peer energy trading and demand side management through blockchains) supported by Lloyds Register Foundation. Dr Tasca holds an M.A in Politics and Economics (summa cum laude) from the University of Padua and a M.Sc. in Economics and Finance from Ca’ Foscari, Venice. He did his PhD studies in Business between Ca’ Foscari Venice and ETH, Zürich. His doctoral dissertation on systemic risk in financial markets was subsidized by the Swiss National Science Foundation with more than 500.000 €.
Other current appointments are: Permanent Member of ISO TC 307 committee on standardisation of blockchain systems at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); Member of the DLT/1 technical committee at the British Standards Institution (BSI); Honorary Research Associate at Univeristy of Cape Town Financial Innovation Lab; Honorary Research Associate of CFS at Goethe University; Research Associate at the Systemic Risk Centre of the London School of Economics; Research Associate of the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire Internet et Société; Senior Advisor of the Beihang Blockchain & Digital Society Laboratory in Beijing; Board member of the Cyprus Blockchain Innovation Centre.