Blockchain technology provides a universally secure and accessible ledger for personal data and credentials
Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent years, you’ve heard the term blockchain spreading like wildfire. The use cases for blockchain outside of cryptocurrency range from the revolutionary to the ridiculous. Public blockchains are revolutionizing how data is stored and accessed by providing a global ledger for record management. Applying this technology to education can foster greater inclusivity with an industry standard and provide improved data security. Here, we discuss the use cases for public blockchains, and how it can empower individuals.
Standardization is required among industry organizations to determine what success looks like. This is for the benefit of students, educators and administrators and set expectations for how data should be secured and accessed. There’s a real need for a unified approach to tracking and managing student certificates from educational institutions, professional societies, trade associations, state examination boards and corporations. A single database that’s easily and digitally accessed from anywhere in the world creates a standard for verified credentials, providing a universal method for storing, retrieving and sharing data.
But what’s better about blockchain technology than a centralized database? A blockchain, or a decentralized ledger, provides two advantages; immutability and network uptime.
Data stored on a public blockchain is simultaneously stored on every computer node on the network, which are geographically scattered across the globe. If one computer on the network was tampered with, or went down, the ledger wouldn’t be affected, as it would if the ledger was centralized. Additionally, if a bad actor were to successfully tamper with data, the data would affect the cryptographic hashing of the block, thus breaking the hash between blocks -- the ‘chain.’ This breach would be broadcast to the entire network, and the damaged block would be rejected from the chain. This provides blockchain-based records with valuable immutability. In contrast, we know that centralized databases are far less secure, and prone to breaches.
Because public blockchains, like Ethereum, are comprised of many computers that each store the same updated ledger, users can access the data from any node in the network. If one computer were to go down, many other nodes would be ready and available to supply data. A centralized institution routinely can’t guarantee this level of uptime -- something we have all experienced with corporations who digitally store our private data.
Blockchains require a standardized language for record keeping. Several organizations, notably The Open Badge initiative, are developing common standards for defining blockchain based education records. Sony and IBM are also supporting education technology (edtech), but are securing educational data on a blockchain and providing access to this network as a service.
Blockchain technology leverages cryptography for the security and verification of data. Cryptography allows instant verification of a student’s education records, matching a public and private key for public access and private ownership authentication. This method of encryption is called public key infrastructure (PKI), and protects user data from theft and tampering. But record security doesn’t need to be confined to education records like university degrees; any type of personal data or records can be stored on a digital ledger.
Educational institutions and school districts face unique challenges with the management of student identities. At a large university or school district, you might have thousands of students graduating each year, only to be replaced by a similar number of incoming students. This can make the manual determination of access to information technology services and individual permission levels a real challenge.
Here lies another use case for blockchain in education: a student’s identity data can be stored on a secure, public blockchain and instantly provided to their educational institution. The use of public/private key cryptography methods ensure that a user’s identity information remains confidential on the blockchain and can only be decrypted when a user provides an institution with their private key.
This solution can be integrated with the other use cases featured below. Some public blockchains are interoperable, meaning they can ‘talk’ to each other and securely share a user’s data at the user’s request. This technology can significantly streamline many of the manual processes currently in use to share data and verify sources. In this way, blockchain can also help new platforms deliver educational programs with a decentralized marketplace and better track student achievements..
Transparent and Decentralized Records
If you’ve ever made the effort to obtain a copy of your personal education transcript from a university or college, then you’re familiar with the unfortunate headache that’s involved. Many forms are required, sometimes needing to be physically mailed, payment made via old fashioned check, with an open-ended wait period for receiving your transcript and no guarantee of success. In a worst case scenario, your educational data could be lost or misfiled and be gone for good.
While blockchain technology does face some of its own developmental issues, like scaling, the great benefit of storing data on the blockchain is that the data is instantly and universally accessible. Many organizations, like ODEM, are leveraging file storing solutions, like the Interplanetary Filing System (IPFS), which supports storing and sharing in a distributed file system. This technology allows for easy peer-to-peer data sharing and content-addressing thus reducing the size of data files stored on the blockchain.
Storing data across many computers also ensures that educational data can’t be modified without validated permissions. Changes can only be applied to data when the owner provides their cryptographic keys to the network. This ensures that data remains incorruptible and immutable.
Credentials Beyond University Degrees
Perhaps the greatest advantage of blockchain in education is that it facilitates inclusion. Anyone who has their educational data stored on a blockchain can instantly provide proof of their education credentials. But when we talk about inclusion, this doesn’t need to be limited to degrees from major universities.
This application of blockchain in education expands beyond just storage for public or private educational institutions. Records secured on-chain could include industry certifications, vocational and apprenticeship records, corporate training records and certifications from professional societies.
Further, it helps to resolve the issue faced by non-traditional educational organizations like edtech companies looking to record and track continuing professional development (CPD) data. Current CPD management technologies like SCORM are outdated and don’t offer the wide-reaching advantages of a decentralized ledger. With ongoing decentralized application (DApp) development and global access, blockchain technology presents a far more inclusive approach to global data management. This doesn’t just serve each organization with improved efficiency, it can align an entire industry on a shared system with broad accessibility.
A good example that illustrates how blockchain is already used to issue and verify education credentials can be found with the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. In a pilot program, this Canadian polytechnic university is offering blockchain-based certificates to graduates. A version of the Ethereum blockchain is used to track and verify certificates issued to students that complete courses. Encryption and two-factor authentication are used to create and store the certificate on the blockchain. This allows fake certificates to be easily identified and real certificates to be easily verified.
With all the excitement around blockchain, it can be difficult to separate the hype from reality. Used appropriately, blockchains bring significant value outside of digital assets. Adopting blockchain in education has the potential to solve real problems and deliver better outcomes for students.