In the Era of Microcredentials, Institutions Look to Blockchain to...

Higher Education

In the Era of Microcredentials, Institutions Look to Blockchain to Verify Learning

By Sydney Johnson     Oct 31, 2017

In the Era of Microcredentials, Institutions Look to Blockchain to Verify Learning

This article is part of the guide: A Lifetime of Back to School: Microcredentials in Higher Education.

Philipp Schmidt began thinking about the potential for blockchain in higher education long before the technology became a buzzword.

Schmidt, who is the director of learning innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, began issuing non-academic credentials for his team around 2013. He was curious about ways to secure those records, and by 2016 the Media Lab collaborated with Learning Machine to test their ideas with blockchain, an open ledger that permanently records transactions on a distributed digital database. Their work got the attention of the registrar at MIT, which recently announced a pilot program that will issue digital diplomas through the blockchain.

But researchers say static diplomas are just the start for blockchain’s potential in higher education, and many are looking at how issuing skills-based certificates—what some have dubbed “microcredentials”—could change the way students prove their learning.

Issuing credentials on blockchain “enables us to rethink how we manage the pieces of our academic achievements that we accrue over a lifetime,” Schmidt tells EdSurge.

Originally designed for the digital currency Bitcoin, blockchain is essentially a public list of records, also known as blocks, that are joined together through cryptography. Each record—let’s say, a microcredential—is a time-stamped transaction between the student and institution. Once a record of the credential lives on the blockchain, it can not be altered (e.g. hacked or replicated) by other users without disrupting the entire blockchain system. In theory, that makes the record virtually impossible to remove or disrupt.

To offer digital diplomas via blockchain, MIT partnered with Learning Machine to develop an open-source app for students called Blockcerts Wallet. On the app, students receive a digital version of their degree certificate which they can directly share access to with potential employers, rather than contacting their college and requesting transcripts be sent on their behalf.

Mary Callahan, a senior associate dean at MIT, says in addition to cutting down the time it takes to contact a college to have transcripts sent, using blockchain could also prevent fake diplomas from passing as the real thing.

Schmidt says other researchers at the Media Lab are looking beyond just replicating how diplomas work in the paper world, and considering credentials more as applications. “Instead of thinking of [credentials] as a fixed, static thing, it’s thinking of them as pieces of software that are more dynamic and you can build on a number of them,” he says.

Over at the University of Texas at Austin, Phil Long, says his team is researching something similar. “The majority of students who attend more than one school,” says Long, who is the chief innovation officer at UT Austin’s innovation initiative, Project 2021. “If your work life is 40 to 60 years, you will need upskilling and training, and that can be scattered in location and time.”

Two blockchain endeavors are underway within the University of Texas: ChainScript, which is housed under the UT system, and another called Badgechain, a project out of UT Austin. Long, who works on both, says his team is researching a way to collect all of a given learner’s academic and professional certifications across multiple institutions. That could include college credits, competencies, microcredentials and other degrees.

It’s “cutting out the middleman” (e.g. the registrar), says Long. However the college would still be in the loop, as the only institution that can create and distribute a digital key so a student can access and share the “official” credential.

Microcredentials and badges have grown in popularity among both universities and other education providers, like Coursea, edX and other providers of MOOCs—and even coding bootcamps. And Long is curious about how blockchain might be used as a way for a learner to curate all of those experiences so they are unique and can be verified.

Chris Jagers, CEO at Learning Machine, argues that the idea is not far-fetched: “Many schools are interested in issuing various types records in a digital format—like badges. Then, the desire is to have these micro-accomplishments add up to a high-level certificate, like a diploma. That is something we can do, along with the additional ability to register these records on a blockchain.”

But the UT professor also envisions a future where those blockchain-based microcredentials can embed a student’s portfolio of work—letting employers see what they actually worked on to get their certificate.

“What matters in the badge isn't the image, it’s the metadata packed in,” he says. “There is an opportunity to say ‘here is the rubric of how I accomplished this badge.’”

Colleges usually charge a fee for transcript requests from students, and issuing credentials on the blockchain could potentially remove that source of revenue. There are ways around that, though. For example, the credentialing system could be designed so that an institution charges a student any time they share their key with an employer. But Long feels that doing so would "defeat the independent notion of the blockchain."

Not all blockchain enthusiasts or experts are sold on how useful blockchain-technology may be in higher education, however.

Joseph Bonneau, a postdoctoral researcher at the Applied Crypto Group at Stanford University, says the blockchain is very good at making sure someone doesn't issue the same transaction twice (e.g. I told you that I gave Carlos $10, but I also told Joe that I gave him the same $10.)

“Are people worrying about people issuing multiple diplomas for the same person? Maybe,” says Bonneau. “I don’t think [credentialing] is very useful application,” of blockchain-technology.

He says a digital signature, a technology that has been around since the 1970s and aims to certify that a document comes from a specific person or organization, could just as easily prevent fraud.

But Schmidt says there are reasons that digital signatures alone may not take off as easily as blockchain verification. “People have tried to use digital signatures for email, and still none of us use encrypted email.” That’s not because the tech doesn’t exist, he says, but because the process for verifying the key requires a complicated set of steps. “No one has managed a consumer-friendly version of that,” he says.

Jagers, Learning Machine’s CEO, also adds that previous methods of verification usually requiring checking with the entity that issued the credential, and that “central authorities can be slow, expensive, corrupt, and/or a single point of failure.”

What Bonneau and Schmidt both agree on is that it may be too soon to tell whether or not blockchain will be the success its advocates hope it might. Schmidt hopes more colleges will try their own experiments and approaches.

This article has been updated to reflect more accurate information about the blockchain initiatives at the University of Texas.

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