Blockchain, the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, is now a buzzword in nearly every industry ranging from financing to healthcare. And lately, the topic has made its way into discussions around digital credentials in higher education.
At an EdSurge meetup hosted on February 7 in Berkeley, three panelists gave their thoughts on how blockchain might be implemented in higher-ed, and shared the risks that those experimenting in the space must prepare for. Joining us were Phil Komarny, VP of innovation at Salesforce; Aparna Krishnan, a UC Berkeley student and a leader of the Blockchain at Berkeley student group; and Roberto Santana, advisor to product and strategy at BitDegree.
What’s the hype?
Komarny, formerly the Chief Digital Office at the University of Texas, kicked off the event explaining why some higher-ed leaders are thinking of applying blockchain technology to credentialing. He said that currently, most degree-awarding systems are structured in a way that assumes students stay at one institution before graduation, when in-fact many transfer, making it difficult for them to keep track of different records.
In addition, there has been a growing trend in higher ed around microcredentials, or short-term graduate and certificate programs. As EdSurge reported in October 2017, those programs are now creating a situation where learners are accumulating more credentials from different providers.
Blockchain, Komarny explained, could offer one way of verifying those credentials, as well as allowing students to “own” their proof of learning, as opposed to a college’s registrar. A person’s records are at hand whenever he or she is, for example, looking for a new job.
Krishnan added that another area of interest in blockchain and credentials is that the technology offers a platform of immutability.
Santana said in Venezuela, where he grew up, the main obstacle people face when trying to complete school is not availability or accessibility, but affordability. Now with blockchain and the tokenization of different initiatives, he thinks there’s an opportunity to pay people to learn and offer students financial incentives for their studies.
What are the risks?
Still, Komarny admitted that not all universities are eager to implement blockchain technology.
He said he is glad to see some of the backlash on technology that has happened in Silicon Valley, and cautioned the audience.
“We have an opportunity to make something really interesting, or make something super evil, he said.”
Concern over fraud, such as someone photoshopping a college degree, is another concern that some proponents have cited around a use case for blockchain in higher ed. Moderator Sydney Johnson asked the panelists how serious that concern actually is, and if there’s any measure that it’s something registrars are struggling with.
Komarny answered that fraud is serious problem in countries such as China, but that it frequently is a challenge in the U.S. as well. He pointed out that anyone may put false information—like a degree or digital badge—on their LinkedIn profile.
Santana said that “it’s a lot harder to forge” a credential on blockchain, because the technology requires a process of verification.
Another potential risk brought up was what might happen if someone doesn’t want their record or information on blockchain. Krishnan responded that it depends on the implementation, and that laws like the right to be forgotten put blockchain technology in a legal “gray area.” She added that “clever cryptography” can hide certain data on the blockchain—so the data isn’t necessarily forgotten, but hidden from the world together.
Komarny said that issue can be avoided, however, and that a blockchain credential project he worked on at the University of Texas looked into this specifically. For example, he said, if someone forged a paper and got an A, but a year later, the forgery was discovered, there’s a way to write something to another chain that references that data.
Among concerns brought up was whether or not students themselves have any interest in “owning” credentials or issuing them on the blockchain. Krishnan said she thinks students are keen on the idea. She explained that Blockchain at Berkeley is developing a MOOC about blockchain technology and that students have expressed they want the course’s certification to be verified via blockchain.
“Students kind of understand the immutable nature of blockchain and want a way to prove that they’ve been certified… and for them to prove to a potential future employer that they actually have this knowledge basis, it’s quite important for them,” Krishnan said. Her biggest concern, however, is what might happen if blockchain technology doesn’t survive. Stored certification data could become unusable in the future, she warned.
Santana said that ultimately, the value derived from credentials depends on how employers recognize it.
For those curious about starting a company in this space, Santana shared that there have been cases of fraud and abuse in the industry.
Komarny’s view was that the biggest risk is not experimenting with this technology. Blockchain will “really reinvent” the way business is done, he said.
“Experiment, be wrong first, it’s just like being right.”
If you’d like to listen to the conversation in full, you can do so here.