30 June 2019
No industry is exempt from the blockchain revolution. Of all the traditional sectors, education may prove to be the one that is most transformed by today’s digital shifts. But how this transformation plays out will depend on how far universities and other institutions are able to embrace developments such as cloud storage, big data and blockchain to improve learning experiences and offer better services to their students. Many of the challenges facing the education sector are not new. But two in particular stand out which may find solutions in blockchain: verification and institutional identity.
First, a fundamental purpose of an educational institution is to provide its graduates with credentials which they can use to prove their completion of a course of study. Traditionally, these take the form of paper diplomas and transcripts. But they are rarely in a digital form, and prospective employers often do not have the resources to manually verify an applicant’s academic history. One consequence of this is an increased possibility of fraud.
Secondly, there has in recent years been a surge in the number of unverified degrees issued by legitimate-sounding institutions. These pretenders advertise themselves using names that closely resemble those of famous universities or institutions, so that the distinction between them is not immediately apparent. Often they will issue diplomas with few details as to the course of study pursued or their students’ achievements. The problem is aggravated by an increase in the outright counterfeiting of diplomas and certificates. These and similar problems might find solutions in distributed ledger technologies (DLT).
Initially introduced as a digital payment system outside the brokering circuit of banks, DLT have since evolved in both quality and quantity. New blockchain architectures go far beyond the simple transfer of funds, implementing numerous additional functionalities. There are currently thousands of blockchain systems of various kinds in production, and for the sake of simplicity it is common to refer to them collectively as ‘blockchain technologies’.
But despite variations and even technical rivalries, the underlying philosophy remains largely the same: blockchain technologies permit a new form of distributed software in which agreement as to the state of transactional data can be established across a decentralised network of peers. Consensus is built according to pre-defined rules that govern the updating of the shared registry of data (the ledger). Past transactions are sequentially ordered, and cannot be altered except by agreement of the majority of peers. Cryptographic technologies create trust in the system by ensuring the validity and authenticity of each transaction. There is no central authority that can change the data or arbitrarily change the rules. No single point of trust, no single point of failure.
A conservative attitude toward innovation in the educational sector has hindered the adoption of new technologies in general. Partly this is due to the fact that the benefits of a new technology are undermined if there is a high cost of training people in its use. But with blockchain the trade-off weighs decisively in favour of its adoption, since it addresses each of the key administrative challenges facing high schools and universities: data transparency, auditability, availability, immutability and efficiency.
Blockchain therefore benefits many participants in the educational sector. For students, the use of high-security cryptographic techniques ensures that students’ personal information is never manipulated, or subject to malicious data leaks or (unauthorised) commercial surveillance. Universities and other educational bodies can free up staff time by automating the data verification process for administrative records relating to, for instance, attendance, grades, immunization, and transcript requests. And employment agencies and job seekers can greatly speed up the complicated and lengthy processes involved in background checks and evaluations of job applicants.
Of these, the clearest benefit of blockchain can be seen in the processing of academic and other credentials. These must be universally recognized and verifiable. Taking the examples of student transcripts and certificates, the current system of checking these remains mostly a manual process, heavily reliant on paper documentation and case-by-case checking. By contrast, a blockchain solution could streamline the process by automatically verifying any record, without human intervention. Moreover, the digital records would be highly resistant to fraud. Cryptographically secured credentials are cheap to produce, but extremely expensive to reproduce for anyone other than the legitimate issuer; changing the data record itself, for instance by manipulating the date of issue, would be simply impossible. Similar uses for blockchain technologies can be envisaged for the management of library catalogues, peer reviewing, publishing, and intellectual property rights.
Despite these benefits, obstacles remain to the adoption of blockchain technology in the education sector. There are, in particular, areas of tension between the use of blockchain as an immutable registry for digital records, and data protection laws that grant individuals certain legal rights over the use of that personal data. Raw personal data may need to be stored off-chain to provide some mechanism for the deletion of private keys where these give access to an individual’s data. Whether regulators would find such an implementation compliant with data protection law is an important question that has yet to be answered.
By Paolo Tasca