Blockchain in Education. Key Ideas from the EU Report

The European Union has issued a new report on the potentials of blockchain technology in the education sector. Called “Blockchain in Education,” the European Commission report explores the feasibility, challenges, benefits and risks of applications of blockchain technology in schools and universities. Aimed at policymakers, the study represents an exploratory review of the topic, focusing on the state-of-the-art of the field in Europe. We gathered key usage scenarios from the report on how blockchain will transform education industry.

The blockchain is an emerging technology, with almost daily announcements on its applicability to everyday life. It is perceived to provide significant opportunities to disrupt traditional products and services due to the distributed, decentralised nature of blockchains, and features such as the permanence of the blockchain record, and the ability to run smart contracts.

These features make blockchain technology-based products or services significantly different from previous internet-based commercial developments and of particular interest to the education sector – although education, with some minor exceptions, is not currently perceived to be high on the agenda of most countries with national blockchain initiatives. In addition, currently, stakeholders within education are largely unaware of the social advantages and potential of blockchain technology.

Digital certification

Educational organisations currently issue certificates either in paper format or electronic format using public key infrastructures. These certificates are time-intensive and expensive to issue, maintain and verify. Public key infrastructures require using a certification authority as an intermediary to issue the certificates, creating a dependency which may be abused. Current verification records are also liable to be destroyed in the case of natural disasters or wars.

In this scenario, educational organisations that issue digital certifications will use a public blockchain to store the digital signatures associated with those digital certifications. Unique signed digital certifications are given directly to the users. Thus, verification of the authenticity of a certificate only requires comparison with the digital signature/hash stored on the blockchain.

Multi-step accreditation

Currently, there are literally hundreds of accreditation pathways in Europe. In terms of public accreditation, each country has a different system for accrediting organisations (and the agencies that accredit them), and often different systems for different kinds of organisations. In addition, multiple important accreditations are run by non-governmental organisations and by the private sector.

Employers and educational organisations recognising credentials often need to verify not only the issuer of the credential but also the quality of the institution issuing the credential. In such case, certifications issued by a government or private certifying bodies hold significant weight in determining the quality of the qualification.

Under this scenario, not only educational organisations, but organisations which accredit them would also put their own digital signatures onto the blockchain. This would allow for verification not only that Student X had indeed received a certificate from Institution Y, but also that Institution Y was certified by Accreditation Organisation Z. Such a system could be used to ensure that the educational organisation issuing the certification was licenced by the government, or to verify that the educational organisation had specific quality-certifications, e.g. that an MBA-provider was actually certified with the EQUIS accreditation.

Automatic recognition and transfer of credits

Currently, there is no meta-data standard to describe ECTS or EQAVET, no standard database for storing ECTS, and no standardised way to automatically store ECTS or EQAVET. The European Commission has commissioned a feasibility study on digitizing the diploma supplement, while a few EU funded projects have looked at the feasibility of ICT-enabled transfer of credits.

Under this scenario, educational organisations that use credits to award learning (such as Higher Education Institutions using ECTS, or vocational institutions using ECVET), would award and transfer credits on a custom-blockchain built specifically for those credits.

Lifelong learning passport

Many different social networks, e-portfolio companies and ‘backpack’ providers already provide users with a way to record their achievements. However, except for Open Badges, none of these provides ways to verify the experience and credentials described and included within these systems – therefore these systems operate as a digital counterpart to a box full of paper certificates – deriving, little to no additional benefits or efficiencies from the process of digitisation.

Under this scenario, learners would store their own evidence of learning received from any source – whether formal, non-formal or informal – and when shared, a blockchain would be used for instant verification of the authenticity of these documents.

Tracking intellectual property, rewarding use and re-use of that property

Currently, tracking intellectual property is a costly endeavour run by specialized organisations, usually when there is a significant business case to do so. Thus, collecting agencies track intellectual property usage of music and video so as to collect royalties, while journal companies track citations of articles since this data is valuable due to its use for academic promotion. Due to the complexity of tracking intellectual property, it is hard for people who are self-publishing to track and commoditise the reuse of their intellectual property. Thus, for example, reuse of open educational resources is generally not tracked, or tracked with extremely simple metrics with limited use.

Under this scenario, educators would use a blockchain to announce the publication of open educational resources and record the references they used. This would allow for notarization of the date of publication for copyright reasons, as well as allow the level of re-use of any specific resource to be tracked.

Receiving payments from students

At the moment, students pay for their studies using a specified currency. Especially for cross-border studies, and also in response to legislation, many organisations only accept payment made through electronic means. Under this scenario, students would provide payments for studies via blockchain-based cryptocurrencies.

Student funding via blockchains

Many countries fund tuition by giving students ‘vouchers’ to be ‘spent’ at any educational organisation or at a list of pre-approved educational organisations. Such voucher systems are an increasingly popular method for funding education since they provide free education to students, but still allow institutions to compete amongst themselves to provide the best possible offer to students Depending on the funding model, these vouchers may be subject to conditions such as requiring the student to graduate. Tracking compliance with these conditions requires a large administration. Also, changes in policies might mean that promised funding is not always allocated to students in line with the originally agreed rules.

Under this scenario, government (or sponsor) funding for tuition would be given to students as ‘vouchers’ on a blockchain. The vouchers could be programmed to release tranches of funding to either the student or the educational organisation, based on certain performance criteria such as grades.

Student identification within educational organisations

Within larger organisations, students need to regularly identify themselves with different parts of the organisation. In such cases, either each part of the organisation will collect the student data for itself, or the organisation will use single-sign-on, whereby one shared copy of the student data is used by all parties within the organisation. Under both these models, tens if not hundreds of people might have access to a student’s personal information. Keeping that data safe requires managing access rights for all those people, and ensuring that their devices are also secure and hack-proof – a mammoth undertaking.

Here, after students would share their personal data with the admissions office within an educational organisation, they would receive certification of their identity from the same office. Using biometric identification on a smartphone, coupled with this certificate, students would be able to identify themselves to any other part of the organisation that required identifying them, such as the library, gymnasium, canteen, student dormitories, student associations, etc. Each of these services would be able to identify the student without the need to ask for or store any personal data again.

Blockchain applications for education are still in their infancy, though quickly picking up steam. While many of the applications of blockchain technology cannot yet be imagined, experts from the European Commission find that within the educational sphere blockchain can influence digital certification, multi-step accreditation, the recognition and transfer of credits and student payment transactions. Governments are also showing an interest in pushing the blockchain forward education industry so near future will show how this technology will disrupt education industry.

Author: AI For Education


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