Researching the Blockchain in EdTech

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The Blockchain in Education: Research Questions

Audrey Watters recently posted a great set of research questions for thinking through the ways blockchain technology might potentially interact with edtech.

I have been keenly watching blockchain technology for a few years now, especially interested in how it could be used to certify student learning, similar to the badgechain project.  I’m planning on participating in the IDEO Bits&Blocks Hackathon in a couple weeks and thought it would be a good exercise to think through some of these excellent questions.




>1. What happens to student privacy if educational records/transactions are available via a public ledger? Will a student have a say over who has access to their records?
>2. What happens if a students wants to correct that educational record or remove transactions, say, because she wants or needs a “fresh start”? The blockchain is uneditable, correct?

When the Past is No Longer Past

The blockchain would in fact contain a record of all previous transactions, even those that have been repeated, corrected, or are otherwise no longer accurate. So it might not be possible to delete an embarrassing grade from the past, but it should be possible to update that grade if the student and the issuing institution agree to do that. The idea would not be to obliterate old, inaccurate, or embarrassing information, but to put it in its proper perspective — as something that happened in the past and that we’re working on fixing.

Modern forms of version control are a great example of this technology in action. It’s clear to see on GitHub or Google Docs which version of a document is the up-to-date version, however it is still possible to search back through the version history to see older drafts, providing greater context. This paper trail is useful when there’s confusion about the accuracy of the current version.


The fact that our past records will persist along with us and will not be completely delete-able is intuitively scary — we have all needed a clean start at one point, and we fear being held captive by our past missteps. However, it’s worth mentioning that we have a choice about how we will use old, outdated, and embarrassing information. To quote myself from Big Data Requires Big Compassion,

I believe this radical expansion of what can be known about us needs to be accompanied by a radical expansion in the compassionate use of data. Traditionally humans have passed snap judgments on one another based on very little information, and now we are awash in a sea of data! There is a persistent habit of people to change their opinion of someone else after learning a troubling fact about them– that they’re less honest, competent, caring, or admirable than you originally thought. Big data technology makes it more likely that others will find unflattering information about us, and it matters a lot what they do with that information. Certainly anyone looking for some dirt on me could find a questionable joke or photo I posted online as evidence of my wickedness. I can only hope they would take a holistic view until they found evidence of my goodness as well.

I don’t think the answer to fixing past missteps is the ability to completely obscure them, but the ability to show more recent progress in making them right.


3. Are organizations using a version of the Bitcoin blockchain? Or are they rolling their own? Are there going to be a bunch of separate edu-related blockchains? Will people gravitate to, say, IBM’s blockchain-as-a-service?

The Blockchain as Database

This video by Joseph Lubin talks specifically about some different ways to deploy blockchains, and he does mention enterprises having their own internal blockchains that can interface with external blockchains (according to the business objectives it’s meant to address). His company does consulting to help clients set up blockchain networks and applications to accomplish business objectives. So that’s a thing.

He describes Bitcoin competitor Ethereum as a “The first world computer”, and goes on to talk about it as if it’s one big system that anyone can securely interact with where the blockchain serves as the database of the system, and where different applications interact with that database according to their intended purpose.

In fact, changing the word “blockchain” in your question with the word “database” illuminates a very familiar picture of our modern tech scene:

Are organizations using a version of the Bitcoin database? Or are they rolling their own? Are there going to be a bunch of separate edu-related databases? Will people gravitate to, say, IBM’s -as-a-service?

Certainly, the applications of blockchain tech in the future will be as varied as database uses are today. Will some institutions use a standard, interoperable database system to make it easier to share data with others, while others use proprietary, purpose-built databases for highly customized use cases? Yep, they do both now, and it makes sense that they’ll continue to do so when the data is stored in the blockchain.


7. When it comes to issues of “trust” and, say, academic certification, who is not trusted here? Is it the problem that folks believe students/employees lie about their credentials? Or is the problem that credential-issuing entities aren’t trustworthy? I mean, why/how would we “trust” the entity issuing blockchained credentials? (What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?


Let’s tease apart a few different definitions of the word “trust” here.
We have #1: “Do we trust that the institution issued the badge?” and we have #2: “Do we trust the institution to be qualified to issue a badge?”

The blockchain should be able to say accurately that “Ted passed ‘Intro to JavaScript’ at FreeCodeCamp.” But can it tell us whetherFreeCodeCamp can be trusted to issue badges in the first place? Can it tell us whether that badge really means that I’m ready to go to work programming professionally?

The transaction of issuing a certification will be verifiable via the blockchain. However, the reputation of the issuing institution will be determined largely the way it is now — by evaluating the quality of the graduates produced by that program. Sure, accreditation is one broad signal of institutional quality, but within that, quality of graduates says a lot.

If a job applicant comes to me with a badgechained certification in web design from a diploma mill but they still can’t build a website, the value of that certification (in my mind) is diminished. I don’t know of a technical way to issue that kind of feedback on the blockchain, but eventually word gets around that graduates of disgraced diploma mill Saint Regis University are not as qualified as MIT grads.

MIT will be able to issue blockchained certifications that are trusted in both ways. The transaction will be verified, and few would question MIT’s authority as an institution that’s qualified to issue badges certifying technical learning.

FreeCodeCamp might be able to issue a “trusted”, verifiable blockchained certification, but it will need to earn a reputation as a “trusted” program for preparing and certifying learners readiness for work.

The end result is that an employer might accept a badgechain from MIT and reject one from Saint Regis U because she’s looked up that school’s reputation on a 3rd party website she trusts and believes that certification doesn’t meet her standards.


##Future Explorations

I skipped some of the questions in Audrey’s list, especially those pertaining to mining of blockchain resources. Her questions about the incentives people will have to take on this energy-intensive, cost-intensive activity are spot on. What incentive would students (or institutions) have to commit server resources to chugging through verifying transactions, if not for some hope of a monetary return? The current paradigm is for a student to pay a few dollars to get a certified transcript sent to employers — would they be willing to take on the expense of running a server to handle what is now a relatively simple task? Of course, free cloud services might offer to do this for students, in exchange for personal data, but it’s exactly this type of data that we’d be least comfortable handing to Google or Facebook to take care of for us.

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Written by

Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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