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The Blockchain Future of Higher Ed

The pressure is on to provide a mechanism to enable students to control their own record of lifelong learning that recognizes both in-class and real-world experiences.

September 18, 2020
 

As higher education slowly adapts to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), spurred by the COVID crisis, students and industry are recognizing the need for a technologically supported way to document the full array of learning in the classroom and beyond. Soon to disappear will be the notarized paper transcripts that are controlled by the university. In the past, these 19th-century-type documents have been subject to withholding for unpaid fines and fees. They have been slowly processed before sending via sluggish snail mail. They do not include details of noncredit learning outside the classroom. Even learning within classes is not defined and documented. This leads to confusion as to exactly what knowledge and skills students have learned.

Blockchain, originally used as the backbone of ledgering digital currencies such as Bitcoin, is not new to academe as a validation system for learning. It has been used to support secure dissemination of academic credentials since 2015. The director of learning innovation at the MIT Media Lab, Philipp Schmidt, began issuing nonacademic digital certificates in that year:

Schmidt had realized that, despite the rise of decentralized, informal online learning opportunities, there was no digital way to track and manage these accomplishments. He says he became interested in finding a “more modular credentialing environment, where you would get some kind of recognition for lots of things you did throughout your life.” Soon, Learning Machine and Schmidt’s team at the Media Lab discovered they had a mutual interest in developing secure official records and began to collaborate. Throughout 2016, using Schmidt’s team’s prototypes, they developed an open-source toolkit called Blockcerts, which any developer or school can use to issue and verify blockchain-based educational credentials.

Following the model of the early Blockcert tool kit offered by MIT, a growing number of universities have begun offering secure, detailed credentials via blockchain. Among the many advantages are:

  • Credentials are digitally secure
  • Students can “own” their earned credentials, instantly sharing them when and where they choose
  • Digital badges can provide a model starting point for integrating entries into the blockchain
  • Details are stored on the ledger by the institution, so entries are more than a course name and number -- they can include topics mastered and even examples of work
  • Credentials are expandable: noncredit activities and accomplishments, such as internships, can be certified and stored on the student’s credentials

Clearly, this is the 21st-century approach to documenting learning. Employers can access submitted credentials and utilize AI technologies to swiftly assess and compare the detailed credentials from a large number of applicants to determine the best prospects to interview. HR professionals will no longer be forced to sort through mountains of letters and transcripts to select those prospects who appear to make the best case on paper in an incomplete and nonstandardized format, lacking supporting documentation and noncredit learning details that are embedded in the new blockchain format.

The American Council on Education has recognized the need to support this move to electronic credentialing and ledger dissemination. They have announced a $900,000 Blockchain Innovation Challenge with applications due Oct. 30.

This challenge invites teams to articulate a vision and design pilots that address the following themes:

  • Empower all learners: How can learners exercise agency over their digital identities, including all records of learning, so they can share them in a secure, validated and machine-readable way?
  • Unlock lifelong learning: How can learning be better documented, validated and shared no matter where it occurs? How can control or ownership of learning records improve the way underserved learners connect and unlock disparate learning opportunities?
  • Improve economic mobility: How can blockchain support learners to find in-demand education in employment-relevant skills to advance economic mobility and to fulfill the promise of higher education?

As Andrew Singer writes, “In the post-pandemic world, individuals will need to seize ownership and control of their educational credentials -- documents like degrees and transcripts -- from schools, universities and governments.” Over the next two to three years, this will become the standard of credential dissemination. Those institutions that lag in supporting the growing blockchain model of credential documentation risk jeopardizing opportunities for their students, graduates and noncredit credential holders to be fully considered for employment.

This will become a key competitive advantage for attracting students to your university. Is your institution already on the blockchain? Who is leading the initiative to provide digital credentials to all of your students? Should you take the lead in advancing this effort to more fully support your students as they transition to the workforce?

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