What blockchain technology could mean for universities

Advocates say that the technology will cut out degree fraud – but could it actually help to fracture universities?

August 31, 2017
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Blockchain is the technology that some think will shake up banking, currency and the very nature of commercial contracts.

It can be used to create a kind of digital ledger that tracks buying and selling, who owns what, or even the provenance of objects – diamonds, for example, to make sure that they are not funding conflict.

Unlike the centralised database of, say, a bank, there are multiple versions of this ledger stored on computers around the world, meaning that it is much harder to hack and alter. The idea is that this creates security and trust, and cuts out the need for a middleman to validate transactions.

The relevance of this to universities might not be immediately obvious. But a handful of academics and institutions are experimenting with ways that blockchain can be used in higher education. At their most modest, they see blockchain as a useful way of cutting administrative costs and making degree records more secure.

More ambitiously though, blockchain could hasten the dissolution of universities as institutions and help to usher in a system whereby academics validate students’ knowledge directly, they claim.

John Domingue is director of the Knowledge Media Institute at the UK’s Open University, which specialises in distance learning, and something of an evangelist for blockchain’s potential to change higher education.

One idea is to use the technology to create a secure, publicly accessible ledger of academic qualifications whereby universities ratify a graduate’s degree on the blockchain, in theory making it unnecessary for every company to double-check that their new employees have not lied on their CVs, he said.

“Every university will have a small team dealing with employer queries,” said Professor Domingue. But by validating degrees on the blockchain, they would no longer be necessary, he explained.

The UK already has a centralised system for checking whether people hold the degrees they claim to – the Higher Education Degree Datacheck service. The problem of fraud is significant, the service says: the most recent data indicate that about one in four CVs will contain lies about degrees.

Although this is supposed to be more efficient than individual checks by universities, it still costs employers £12 per enquiry, and it can take up to seven days to process. The idea with blockchain is that it is instant and free.

The costs of checking qualifications will only grow if people increasingly flit between institutions to build up a portfolio of education, say blockchain advocates. Instead of just checking someone’s undergraduate university, an employer might have to check with five to 10 different institutions, Professor Domingue pointed out.

The technology can also be useful if a university is incapacitated, for example, by war – one of the problems for Syrian refugees hoping to resume their education in Europe has been getting verification from their conflict-stricken alma maters – goes bust, or is closed down.

“Depending on the way in which the blockchain is set up, there is very likely the possibility that records stored there will persist in the face of local catastrophes,” said Phillip Long, associate vice-provost for learning sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, another enthusiast, albeit not an uncritical one, for the technology. “The validation takes place in a blockchain environment by going back to the record in the chain, not necessarily to the issuer of the record themselves.”

The blockchain could also thwart politicians or other public figures who lie about their credentials, Professor Domingue pointed out. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, for example, has faced repeated questions over his qualifications, with allies brandishing certificates in support, but opponents claiming they are false. In theory, putting all qualifications on the blockchain would make it possible to settle these disputes immediately and definitively.

But one concern over such an open system is privacy – do you really want your diploma in applied BDSM studies to be available for all to see on the blockchain? There are solutions, Professor Domingue argued. Your qualifications could be encrypted and employers given a time-limited key to view them.

Professor Domingue’s ambitions for blockchain go much further than simply making it easier for employers to verify a new recruit’s degree. He sees it potentially transforming the entire hiring process, at least in areas where necessary qualifications are clearly defined – data science, for example.

If enough people put their qualifications on to the blockchain, employers could simply filter candidates who have studied the desired subjects, or taken certain massive open online courses, and flagged themselves as wanting a new role (although the system would somehow have to keep your desire for a new job secret from your current employer). Advertising the position, and filtering out candidates by reading endless CVs – which can take days of managers’ time – would no longer be necessary.

In a way, this system would be a bit like LinkedIn, where companies can find potential candidates by filtering their qualifications and skills. Making CVs public reduces fraud, Professor Domingue said, but blockchain hopes to eliminate the problem entirely.

Dr Long is a little more circumspect about the prospect of blockchain upending recruitment. “It will take some time, if ever, for CVs to completely go away,” he said. “But the prospect of the record of achievement that represents the history of formal education being provided by blockchain-sourced data is likely to increase.”

Even more ambitiously, the “real difference” that blockchain can make to higher education is to allow us to “move beyond the current structure of universities”, argued Professor Domingue.

Individual academics could verify on the blockchain that students have passed online modules, with no university needed, he said, something he calls “the university of one”. Blockchain cuts out the middleman – the university. “If you've done a course by Tim Berners-Lee on the internet, that's going to mean something,” he said. Or one academic could do the teaching, and another academic (or private company perhaps) could mark an exam, Professor Domingue suggested.

This is, of course, technically possible already without blockchain, and there have been a few signs of this model catching on. But the big advantage of the new technology is that it “implements trust”, Professor Domingue argued. Everyone in the system can check what a student has learned – which certificates they have accumulated – rather than having to rely on a particular institution to store these data, he said.

So who is actually using blockchain in higher education? Last year, Sony announced that it had developed a system that uses the technology to keep track of and share educational progress records. However, the Japanese company currently offers only a handful of robotics and maths courses online, largely aimed at children.

In October last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab released Blockcerts, software that it hopes will underpin the issuing of academic certificates on the blockchain. It is grappling with some of the technological problems this throws up, such as how to disclose only a selection of qualifications that are relevant to the job people are applying for.

Meanwhile, Professor Domingue’s mission is to get all UK universities to put their qualifications on the blockchain. So far he has talked to University College London and Imperial College London, and both have expressed an interest, he said.

Or it might be the private sector that makes blockchain-based qualification verification mainstream. Gradbase is a London-based start-up that gives graduates a QR code to put on their CV, which employers can scan to verify their qualifications. The company stores degree records on a blockchain, meaning there is “no downtime, nor any single point of failure in the network”.

“It’s very early days, but the possibility that you’ll have your lifetime learning record on a portable device you carry with you is real,” said Dr Long. “That's very exciting.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com


How blockchain is being used already

Currency: The most well-known use of blockchain so far is to underpin the digital currency bitcoin. Created in 2009, the price per bitcoin – each unit is in effect a unique number that requires tremendous computing power to create, which makes it scarce and thus preserves its value – has now exceeded £3,000, although there is no shortage of analysts predicting a crash. Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a blockchain, meaning that bitcoin is out of the control of any national government or bank. As such, it is seen as a cheaper, fee-free way of transferring money around the world.

Banking: In some ways, blockchain technology could be seen as a threat to banks as it removes the need for a trusted middleman to handle transactions – one of the key roles of a bank. People who are not accepted for a bank account could still carry out digital transactions, using a currency like bitcoin, for example. However, banks have taken a keen interest in the new technology to see how they can use it themselves. Earlier this year, IBM announced it was building a blockchain system for a consortium of seven banks to make it easier for small businesses to trade internationally. Others hope that by reducing the cost of sending money online, blockchain will allow tiny payments, allowing readers to pay a few pence to read a newspaper article, for example.

Crime: Blockchain also allows users a certain degree of anonymity when using bitcoins to buy things, meaning it has been associated with criminal activity online. It was one of the ways that users bought drugs from the Silk Road, a kind of eBay for banned items, before the site was shut down in 2013 after the arrest of its founder. On the flip side, others see it as a tool that could help combat money laundering, as it creates a public, permanent record of transactions that regulators can investigate for discrepancies with relative ease.

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Print headline: Is the virtual campus just blocks away? 

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