What Every College Leader Should Know About Blockchain

Amid the hype, the technology really does have major implications for higher education research, accountability and credentials, Daniel Pianko writes.

September 5, 2018
 
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Blockchain is at the steep end of higher education’s hype cycle. Institutional leaders and pundits alike are intrigued by blockchain’s potential but often know little about the technology beyond its central role in stories about initial coin offerings or Bitcoin University.

So how does the advent of blockchain square with the aspirations of higher education? And why might institutional leaders take note of its potential? What should university leaders know about the technology’s origins and application to real-world challenges and opportunities on campus?

What Is Blockchain and Why Does It Matter?

Blockchain is the underlying technological innovation behind Bitcoin -- the rise of digital currency. The technology itself solves one of the great problems of society: how to create a system where many people keep verified, trusted information. Today, for example, the record of who owns a plot of land is kept at the town hall. Imagine if every town hall was linked so that every town hall had a copy of a land title?

As Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon recently wrote, “In the same way people dismissed early smartphones because they traded off computing power and screen size for portability and new sensors,” many will view Bitcoin as a fad but ignore just how truly revolutionary blockchain will be for every industry including higher education.

Think of blockchain as akin to online learning during the early 2000s. Most college presidents pooh-poohed the quality and efficacy of the digital revolution, while some entrepreneurial presidents like Michael Crow at Arizona State University and Paul LeBlanc at Southern New Hampshire University have built powerful online learning networks that catapult them to the forefront of the higher education ecosystem.

Blockchain Is Driving Job Growth

It won’t be long before the blockchain “skills gap” jumps the shark. Already, the single most in-demand skill for freelancers is blockchain. LinkedIn postings for blockchain jobs are up 6,000 percent year over year, and starting developer salaries are over $100,000, with hourly billing rates frequently surpassing $100. There are more than 14 job postings for every skilled developer.

If your university is not equipped to introduce courses and concepts rooted in the application and potential of blockchain, now is the time to start. Your students will expect it. Blockchain presents a rare opportunity for differentiation, more than the latest fad. Every major financial services company has announced a blockchain initiative, while whole countries like Malta have initiated efforts to move their identification systems to the blockchain -- throw away that pesky driver’s license; your PGP key will suffice. There are, as yet, no standout institutions in the era of blockchain. But early pioneers are clamoring for the title. Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology is among a growing few, along with MIT’s recently unveiled course on blockchain and money.

If you don’t have a blockchain course, begin with a certificate and develop a degree program over time. It’s not just about the technical skills, either -- an education in the basics of blockchain has implications in product design and business strategy that will support students across a range of careers.

Research Matters

Blockchain research is multidisciplinary by nature and could touch on virtually every department of the university. Even classicists will be pleased to note that the technology’s core innovation is frequently called the Byzantine General’s problem.

Research dollars and opportunities will soon abound. Savvy institutions will build capacity by launching blockchain working groups that cut across departments like mathematics, political science, finance and others.

As you pull together your research team, think about creating a specific center of excellence for your research -- blockchain will revolutionize everything from currency trading to issues of digital identity, and is likely too broad a field for even the largest university to cover every topic.

Accountability Implications

Fundamental aspects of university life, like teaching and learning or faculty governance, are unlikely to be transformed by blockchain in the near term. But blockchain will have significant implications for other facets and functions within higher education.

The federal government and private lenders could base the payment of financial aid dollars on course completion, as opposed to seat time. Universities may put student portfolios or other work on the blockchain to enable discovery by employers or other partners.

The blockchain might enable micropayments or easier identifications on college campuses that create the next set of radical innovations in student identification and payment. Each university president should start by exploring just a few areas (e.g., financial aid) where blockchain can create new efficiencies or transform back-office functionality.

Beyond the Transcript

Blockchain is likely the death knell for the embossed transcript. Records will be kept in distributed ledgers. Students will be able to share much more granular information about their learning to future employers, friends and partners.

Right now, the only way to know if someone graduated from your university is to call the registrar. What if individual faculty or programs could play the role of “authorized credential issuers,” time-stamping accomplishments on the blockchain that can be validated instantaneously? In short order, blockchain can help to solve one of higher education’s most vexing challenges: making the case for a system where many people keep verified, trusted information.

This isn’t the stuff of science fiction. Blockchain already allows millions of computers to securely store the information of who graduated from which university, rather than keeping those records within a single registrar’s office. In addition to hosting the largest MOOC on digital currency, the first such degree program in the world, the University of Nicosia has announced a blockchain-enabled credential to give students a more secure way of verifying their skills online, which is now employed at multiple universities.

Technology innovation and disruption tends to come to education late in the cycle. Newspapers found their business model disrupted by the internet well before higher education did. With blockchain, it appears that the venture capitalists and other financial intermediaries will be disrupted first (there have been over $6 billion in initial coin offerings already this year). However, it is only a matter of time before blockchain technology disrupts the operations of virtually every university -- and institutional leaders should be prepared.

A decade from now, which reader of this column will lay claim to being the Michael Crow or Paul LeBlanc of the blockchain era?

Bio

Daniel Pianko is managing director of University Ventures, an investment firm focused on global higher education.

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