What is blockchain and how is it relevant for education?

GUEST COLUMN | by Chris Jagers

Now that using blockchains to secure and verify academic records has moved from speculation to implementation, many more people are seeking to better understand the technology and its benefits. I find that the World Wide Web is similar in structure and scale, and therefore a useful starting point.

The emergence of the Web was unusual because it grew out in the open, free from the control of any single company or government.

From fear to understanding

While this openness caused fear in the early days, that fear eventually gave way to understanding that openness and lack of centralized control were the key ingredients for making it such a valuable resource.

Similarly, public blockchains enable a new type of global software infrastructure that allows people to safely interact and to verify that certain things are true, all without a central authority.

An accounting ledger 

While software has traditionally been created and run by a single company, decentralized apps have no central point of control. Instead, they are supported by a global network of participants who opt into running the service in return for payment in the form of a digital coin. A blockchain is simply the accounting ledger that keeps track of a network’s coin, like a giant IOU system in the sky storing all the transactions on a timeline that is tamper proof.

The bitcoin example

Bitcoin is the first and most successful example of a decentralized application. The purpose of that software network is to facilitate secure financial transactions in a way that doesn’t rely upon any banks or governing authorities. Are there other decentralized apps? Sure. Ethereum is a global network for executing code, with compute power paid for in its native coin which is tracked by its own blockchain. And there are hundreds of others in nascent stages of experimentation.

Early talk, private v. public

Some in education are talking about building a new blockchain network that would only be open to universities. While this is theoretically possible, it makes some false assumptions about the security of existing blockchains and ignores the power of public infrastructure. Networks like the Web and Bitcoin are powerful because they are open and have been proven reliable over time. Private networks might feel good at first, like an intranet, but they will probably not have the same degree of security, longevity, or interoperability.

Relevance for education

Historically, academic records have been stewarded by a single institution and transmitted via a third-party vendor. Unfortunately, this approach has been riddled with problems that result in excessive time, expense, complexity, and even fraud — not to mention depriving students from any functional ownership of their records.

A blockchain’s greatest usefulness within education is how it can verify the authenticity of digital records, like certificates, transcripts, and diplomas.

Ultimately, blockchains simply record transactions, so they can also record a transaction like a school issuing a credential to a student.

Private information is never exposed.

The actual credential is stored off-chain by the school, and a tamper-proof copy can also be stored by the student. The blockchain simply stores proof of the transaction.

Verified credentials

When a student shares their credential, like when applying for a job, an employer can easily check if the credential matches the transaction fingerprint on a blockchain (like Bitcoin or Ethereum). If everything matches, the credential is said to be “verified.”

This verification check is similar to an old process which consults with a central authority. In this case, that authority is being replaced with a decentralized network, resulting in several technical and social advantages.

The main advantage being that blockchain networks are far more durable and incorruptible than any single government, school, or vendor.

For a heartbreaking example of how institutional collapse can destroy people’s ability to prove their identity, read about how the loss of Syrian schools inflamed an already tragic refugee crisis.

Already issuing records using Blockcerts

Education providers across the world are already issuing records using the Blockcerts open standard, which allows for interoperability and vendor independence.

Here are a few examples that reflect institutional diversity across many geographies:

 

In summary, we now have a public verification infrastructure that puts students in control of their educational achievements. Given this promise, the challenge is still on education providers to make good decisions about how to implement credential issuance.

Learn more about how your school can navigate a myriad of choices with a few simple values: Credential Issuing Systems: 5 Questions to Ask.

Chris Jagers is CEO of Learning Machine. Follow him on Twitter: @chrisjagers and @learningmach1