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Edtech: Blockchain in Technology

February 1, 2017

This month our focus is on the new possibilities in education and training that are being opened up by blockchain technology. What exactly is blockchain? Take a deep breath. Blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of ordered records called blocks. Previously, individuals and businesses transacted using traditional institutions like banks. Banks have acted effectively as intermediaries in a transaction for hundreds of years. But the recent prevalence of cyber-attacks hitting banks, businesses and even governments, prompted a need for a radical new rethink.

Blockchain envisages multiple computers maintaining a decentralised database; all computers in the chain must approve the ‘block’ before it is allowed to be transacted to its recipient. If you think that’s confusing, try to also grasp that each ‘block’ is time-stamped, containing a link to a previous block. Linking and timestamping blocks means the potential for fraud is significantly reduced. Put simply, value cannot be transferred twice because all computers in the chain monitor every transaction. Indeed, fraudsters attempting to transfer counterfeit transactions using blockchain are confronted by an ironic problem; in blockchain transactions there’s no counterfeit money to transfer. The value only exists as the unspent outcome of a transaction within the blockchain itself.

If that’s giving you a headache, you’ll be pleased to know that you can still take advantage of blockchain in the emerging digital economy without understanding all of the science. Just think about blockchaining as an example of digitalisation as opposed to digitisation. Digitisation is the simple, traditional process of converting hardcopy information into digital form; the 1s and 0s in computer coding used as placeholders for real-world values being transacted. But blockchaining creates new and unique values out of interactions between different datasets. This digitalisation of values will be essential to maximising the rate of transactions for businesses in the 21st century. Maybe that’s why major transnational companies such as Microsoft, IBM and PwC are all heading towards implementation of blockchain technologies.

Have You Checked Their Credentials?

In the education context, blockchains could be the new mechanism by which education institutions securely transfer certified qualifications. Leading tech analysts see the potential for so-called ‘microcredentials’ — discrete and tangible skills that students can demonstrate during the course of their learning — as being an education ‘currency’ similar to Bitcoin itself. For example, does the student have a competent understanding of delivering cardiopulmonary resuscitation? A microcredential might establish to the world that she does.

The University of Nicosia, in Cyprus uses a digital transfer algorithm based on bitcoin to verify transaction of credentials. Their efforts so far are labor-intensive and require advanced IT divisions. And while the transfer of microcredentials was found to be accessible, trustworthy and durable, there was no guarantee the blockchain could verify the actual credential itself. This means that specific standards — establishing the reputation of the education provider — must still be developed in order to make interoperability across the blockchain a meaningful enterprise.

Other education providers employ business partners to implement blockchain-technology for them, and this will likely be a lucrative business venture in the 21st century. But before the technology becomes commonplace in education, it will be vital to establish standards between institutions and employers that render credentials and microcredentials as legible, consistent and reliable. It is likely that we will see more developments in “open badge technology” — rewarding worthy students with a digital accreditation that contains metadata. For example, a student who has successfully completed the online component of a training course will be awarded with an open badge that is capable of being securely transferred using blockchain technology. Essentially, the moment a student graduates, his or her graduation could be instantly delivered to every university and employer in the world, all instantaneously, and could never be forged.

And yes, that even makes our brains hurt, just a little bit.

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