The COVID-19 pandemic drastically, and perhaps permanently, altered life as we know it and the education industry was certainly no exception.  In fact, education may have seen some of the most dramatic changes!  People had to find different ways to do familiar things. Online shopping boomed like never before, and classroom education was swiftly replaced by virtual learning platforms. Businesses were forced to function remotely, and many that could not went out of business.  Unfortunately, many learning institutions also fell prey to their inability to meet demands. Schools and colleges were forced to shut down and operate on virtual platforms. In fact, even after entering another year of the pandemic, most schools and educational institutions are still operating virtually to some extent. As such, students and educators have been able to maintain learning thanks to education technology. A host of technological innovations has made it possible for students to continue their lessons and not miss out on vital years of their education.

Researchers and scientists are working each day to revolutionize the domain of education.  2021 looks like a year when the domain of education shall give testimony to a number of trends in education technology.  One big technological implementation will be blockchain technology.

Before we jump into the technical aspect of what blockchain technology is, let’s discuss why it matters to the education industry.

What Does Blockchain Mean for the Education Community?

Vendors, industry associations, and a range of education stakeholders are working to leverage blockchain technology to address the challenging data sharing and transparency issues faced by institutions, schools, and students, whether through adapting existing data products and processes or through entirely new applications.

The education industry is full of transactions on a daily basis.  Most of these transactions contain very personal information on students and staff alike.  Transactions are complex and costly.  They are prone to human error or fraud.  Each participant has their own separate record of the data and can alter it without the person they pass it on to even knowing.  Transactions are inefficient due to the requirement of intermediaries needed for validation.  In addition, transactions frequently cause delays & losses due to paper-based content and data being stored locally by each party.

With the help of blockchain technology, countless units of information and data can be stored for later retrieval.  Using blockchain technology for transactions solves virtually all of the issues mentioned above.  Peers have a single shared record system so once the transaction is validated, the record is permanent, secure and permanent.  Most systems that utilize blockchain operate in conjunction with a smart contract, which is code running on top of a blockchain that contains a set of rules under which the parties mutually agree. This eliminates the need for third parties.  The owner of the transaction has the power to move anything of value freely and instantly without intermediaries.  No more waiting for someone to approve the transaction.  In summation, blockchain technology reduces or even eliminates paper processes, the need for intermediaries, speeds up transaction times and increases efficiency and transparency.

What Are the Possible Education Industry Uses?

Since blockchain technology is safe and utterly secure, storing essential pieces of information shall come in as a welcome relief to those working in the domain of education. From assessment reports to academic records, everything can be stored safely in the blocks that make up the blockchain technology.

Blockchain technology is also increasingly being used in various online courses and ePortfolios. The Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) systems are also all ready to address problems concerning authentication, scale and cost for several eLearning platforms. Students can also use the DLT systems to publish their accomplishments once they start looking for jobs.

As I mentioned above, many universities and institutes have applied blockchain technology into education, and most of them use it to support academic degree management and summative evaluation for learning outcomes. Blockchain technology can formulate the whole transcript. In the formal learning context, this includes learning contents and outcomes as well as students’ achievements and academic certificates. Subsequently, in the informal learning context, information about research experience, skills, online learning experience as well as individual interests are included.  Translated, this means that not only are students being given control of their own data but the employers and other organizations receiving the information will be more informed about the student and their expertise.

Because all data is automatically run through pre-set procedures, errors are drastically decreased while efficiency is increased. Therefore, blockchain technology can not only significantly reduce the cost of labor but also improve efficiency of the organization. We all know that educational institutions could use lots of improvements in the efficiency department!

Due to the trait of currency property, blockchain can be used to motivate students by implementing “learning is earning” (Sharples and Domingue 2016). The smart contract between teachers and students can be applied to the educational scenario. Real-time awards can be given to students through some simple clicks by the instructors. Students will gain a certain amount of digital currency, according to the smart contract, as rewards. This kind of money can be stored in the education wallet, used as tuition, or even exchanged with real currencies.  However, I feel this will be reserved for university level institutions due to the currency implementation.

Formative assessment has been advocated for a long time, and yet it is still not reliable because it is not easy to track every detail of teaching and learning. Applying blockchain and smart contracts can cope with this challenge. Due to the immutability, traceability, and reliability of blockchain, the data recorded on blockchain is more specific, authentic, and secure. Take “collaborative learning” for instance, which is regarded as an excellent way to carry out constructivism instruction and cultivate students’ ability to work with others. However, it is often accompanied by the problem of free-loading, which hinders fair evaluation. Blockchain technology can mitigate this issue. Each student submits his/her work to the learning platform through his/her unique account, the smart contract running on it will review the student’s performance, and the results will be recorded into blocks. All behaviors during collaboration will be saved into blocks as evidence for evaluation as well. Due to nodes in the blockchain network, students’ opinions would be taken into consideration when assessing them. In this context, blockchain ensures the fairness of the evaluation.

There are great opportunities for changing the profession for teachers as well.  Instruction is sophisticated and artistic, making it difficult to evaluate. The traditional method based on students’ feedback tends to be one-sided, lacking subjectivity and is hardly helpful for the teachers’ improvement. A new assessment system can be constructed based on blockchain networks and smart contracts. First, teachers would submit lesson plans with instructional activities as a smart contract to the school. During the teaching process, all teaching activities will be recorded in the blockchain network, as mentioned above. The smart contract will verify the consistency of the teaching design and practice, which is going to be an important instruction evaluation indicator. This will allow a smart contract between teachers and schools, as well as the one between teachers and students that can be verified and supplemented with each other. Teachers who meet the standards will get digital currency as a reward. It serves as both an appreciation and encouragement for teachers’ teaching skills. Finally, a valid teacher evaluation system!

For more on blockchain benefits in education as well as companies that are top on the implementation list in education, check out this article.

Educational Research Related to Blockchain Technology and Implementation

Several educational institutes have played a vital role in the research and implementation of blockchain technology.  The Maltese government signed a contract in 2017 to have all of the country’s education records stored on a blockchain system. This put Maltese at the forefront of blockchain implementation and research.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been a key player in research and development as well.  They partnered with Learning Machines, Learning Machine, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based software development company.  In 2017, MIT was the first to issue diplomas to students on their smartphones via an app.  The app is called Blockcerts Wallet, and it enables students to quickly and easily get a verifiable, tamper-proof version of their diploma that they can share with employers, schools, family, and friends.  This form of diploma delivery is groundbreaking because it gives students autonomy over their own records.  No more requesting records and hoping the people involved get them where they need to go for that new job or college application!

Many others are on this research and implementation piloting journey as well, including Singapore, Japan, Switzerland, and many other countries.  Major corporations are also jumping on board to partner in these educational pilot programs.  Specifically Sony got involved in the Japanese Foreign Language Proficiency Testing process which utilized Sony’s Global Education blockchain cloud services to record course data and exam results. 

What is Blockchain?

The U.S. Department of Education describes blockchain as a record of chronological transactions, much like a financial ledger. Each new set of transactions, “blocks,” are recorded and cryptographically (by way of coding) linked to the previous record, forming a chain.   Blockchain technology uses a digital ledger to maintain verified information, certified as true or “real” so that it can be trusted.  By adding data from the previous record, or “block”, it is connected or “chained” together to create a ledger.  Key characteristics of a blockchain are: (1) Integrity – records are cryptographically linked, making them nearly impossible to change; (2) Transparency – because every network user has their own copy of the entire blockchain, updates are shared and transparent; (3) Democracy – blockchains enable verification of peer-to-peer transactions to occur without a centralized mediator.

Blockchain technology has proven to be a catalyst for change since the introduction of Bitcoin in 2009.  2021 looks like the year when blockchain technology will cause an upheaval in the education sector. Distributed ledger technology (DLT) has a lot to offer to education, especially this year.

What is Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT)?

Blockchain technology enables everyone involved in a transaction to know with certainty what happened, when it happened, and confirm other parties are seeing the same thing without the need for an intermediary providing assurance, and without a need to reconcile data afterwards. It got its start with bitcoin because of its security.

The two terms “blockchain” and “DLT” are often used interchangeably and to understand blockchain, it’s important to understand Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT).

Investopedia describes DLT as “the technological infrastructure and protocols that allows simultaneous access, validation, and record updating in an immutable manner across a network that’s spread across multiple entities or locations.”

If you are interested in learning more about cryptocurrency or blockchain technology, Pennsylvania University offers a FREE COURSE.

How far away is it from mainstream implementation in education?

This is not some far away concept.  It is already here!  The Office of Educational Technology launched the Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI) in partnership with the American Council on Education in February 2020.  That’s over a year ago now.  The Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI) explores applications of distributed ledger technologies like blockchain to address complex challenges in education.  As part of the Education Blockchain Initiative, the Office of Educational Technology (OET) and the Privacy and Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) have developed a suite of materials to learn more about education blockchains.  You can check out these short videos for more information.

This article from Forbes identifies 26 ways that DLT could be deployed by school districts, networks, postsecondary institutions and community-based organizations to improve learning opportunities.

Although this may all seem like science fiction, I assure you that it is not. Blockchain technology will be appearing in an educational institution near you very soon, if it hasn’t already!

Here’s to keeping you on the cutting EDGE of education with new technologies!  We would love to hear from you, in the comments below, related your thoughts on blockchain technology use in education.