Blockchain is most commonly associated with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. Data entered on a blockchain is stored in blocks that are linked together in chronological order, making tracing the data’s origins and verifying its authenticity relatively easy.
These features, in addition to its decentralized nature, have led to the technology being embraced across several industries, most notably the financial sector. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), worldwide spending on blockchain technology across all industries is projected to grow from more than $4 billion in 2020 to more than $14 billion by 2023.
One industry where blockchain is just beginning to make a mark is education. The use of blockchain in education is still in its infancy, with only a handful of institutions adopting the technology. A 2019 survey by the research firm Gartner revealed that only 2% of higher education institutions were using blockchain, while another 18% planned to do so over the next two years.
Currently, the institutions that have adopted blockchain primarily use it to store and share academic records and credentials. However, researchers believe that the technology could revolutionize education in a number of ways: enhancing opportunities for lifelong learning, creating greater efficiencies for educators through smart contracts, and offering students ownership of their academic records, among other benefits. While the possibilities are promising, issues such as data security, scalability, and cost all present challenges to the widespread adoption of blockchain in the education sector.
As the technology continues to evolve, blockchain is likely to play a larger role in the field of education. A bachelor’s degree in computer science can help individuals understand the many ways blockchain can be applied to education and other industries.
How is blockchain used to keep student records?
One widespread use of blockchain in education is record keeping. The number of student records is virtually endless, and verifying academic credentials can be time-consuming, with lots of paper documentation and case-by-case checking. According to a 2019 analysis conducted by Credential Engine, more than 738,000 unique credentials documenting learning can be counted, including degrees, certificates, digital badges, and apprenticeships.
Blockchain can eliminate much of the overhead associated with this process and streamline verification procedures, saving educators and administrators time when it comes to things like transfers between schools or states. Using blockchain, an institution accepting a transfer student could verify their record and the courses they took with a few simple clicks. The same concept applies to record sharing with an employer.
A digital transcript can be highly detailed, containing information about attendance, courses taken, and even the results of specific exams or papers. Those with access to the student’s transcript — other schools or potential employers, for example — can see how they performed on certain assessments. This technology holds value not only for higher education; it could also be useful in primary and secondary education.
Blockchain, and particularly the concept of a permanent digital transcript, also holds great value for lifelong learners. With lifelong learning, education is more borderless and individuals are continuously learning new skills and refining old ones, whether that’s by earning a degree or attaining a certificate or digital badge. Lifelong learning is poised to become increasingly vital in a world marked by technological dynamism, and, as a result, the need for blockchain-based credentialing may also increase.
Blockchain appeals to educators as well, because its very nature makes it resistant to fraud. In blockchain, information is recorded and stored sequentially and given an exact time stamp when it is added to the chain. Previous information entered on the chain — an educational certification, for example — can’t be altered, only amended by adding a new block. This makes tampering with a transcript or falsifying an academic record hard to do. However, the immutability of blockchain can be a double-edged sword, as it also eliminates the possibility of modifying a student’s record for legitimate reasons.
Blockchain and a digital student diploma
A college diploma is perhaps the most valuable of all student records. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2019 college graduates with a bachelor’s degree earned on average about $500 more per week than those with only a high school diploma, and the unemployment rate for degree holders was 2.2%, compared to 3.7% for those who only completed high school.
In the last few years, digital diplomas have become the foremost examples of how blockchain can be used in education. In 2019, Maryville University became one of the first institutions to implement blockchain transcripts and diplomas, empowering students and alumni to own their academic credentials. Students are now able to manage their digital credentials via the smartphone app Blockcerts Wallet. Using blockchain technology, the app provides a verifiable, tamper-proof diploma that can be easily shared with potential employers and other schools.
Because of the inherent permanence, convenience, and security associated with blockchain, using this technology to store and share academic credentials, particularly diplomas, benefits students, institutions, and employers.
Benefits for students
Storing diplomas on a blockchain allows students to own and manage their academic achievements, providing them with the ability to share them when and where they choose. Historically, universities have owned and controlled student records, leaving students to rely on institutions to access and share their academic history and achievements.
This model has obvious flaws. Physical records can be lost or destroyed, students may be required to pay fees to access them, and graduates of defunct institutions may struggle to find an authority to verify their academic achievement. In 2016, the for-profit ITT Technical Institute abruptly closed the doors of its 130 campuses across 38 states, stranding students and graduates without access to their records until the Department of Education stepped in.
Blockchain gives students ownership of their personal records, allowing them to control their academic identity. This makes proving the accuracy of the credentials on their resumes much easier for graduates who are job hunting, for example, and gives them more control over what an employer can access.
Benefits for institutions
Using blockchain to issue diplomas streamlines the verification process for higher education institutions, saving them time and money. A recent study by the University of Rome revealed that the process of verifying diplomas cost the university nearly 19,000 euros — more than $20,000 — annually, corresponding to about 36 weeks of work. Because they are virtually tamper-proof, blockchain-issued diplomas also make verifying a student’s academic record much easier for graduate schools.
Benefits for employers
Using blockchain for digital diplomas makes the hiring process easier for employers, too. Instead of asking the issuing institution to certify a paper copy of a potential hire’s diploma, employers only need a link to a digital version. Because of the added security that comes with storing records on a blockchain, it is harder for applicants to falsify their academic credentials, assuring employers that new hires have the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace.
Using blockchain for university curricula
The impact of blockchain in education goes beyond record keeping. The technology also has the potential to transform the management of university curricula. For one thing, blockchain offers secure storage capabilities for digital syllabi and coursework. Institutions do rely on hard drives for this, but the risk of the drives being damaged or compromised is a concern. Cloud storage is another option, but may prove too expensive for some institutions.
Blockchains could also make educators’ jobs easier via the use of smart contracts. A smart contract consists of lines of code programmed into a blockchain that automatically execute when certain conditions are met. For example, a teacher could program lessons and courses into a blockchain, setting up tasks for students, and the blockchain’s smart contract would automatically verify the completion of each task and then provide the student with the next task, until all tasks are complete.
Teachers could also use the same smart contract technology to assist with grading. Educators could program entire exams — including questions, answers, and scoring parameters — into a blockchain and have students take the exams using computers or tablets. The blockchain then takes care of grading, giving teachers more time for other academic endeavors, and the student’s score becomes a part of their permanent academic record, stored securely on the blockchain.
Blockchain can also improve the quality of online education by enhancing the accreditation process. The convenience of online education can occasionally lead to unaccredited or uncertified institutions operating on a seemingly level playing field with reputable institutions, posing a risk to online learners. Recording accreditations using blockchain provides transparency and security.
Blockchain can also be used as a decentralized platform for institutions to share information about online courses and programs and for students to share ratings of online offerings, helping other students find accredited programs that will help them further their education.
Blockchain’s role in lowering education costs
Blockchain has the potential to transform the education landscape by opening up new, more affordable pathways to learning and disrupting the existing relationship between schools and students. Managing student tuition payments is a labor-intensive process that involves multiple parties — students, parents, scholarship foundations, private loan companies, federal and state institutions, and the often-massive bureaucracy of university financial departments. Blockchain can streamline this process, reducing administrative overhead and potentially lowering tuition costs as a result.
The technology has already been used for pay-as-you-go courses and other types of open learning scenarios, relying on the deployment of smart contracts and using cryptocurrency as a payment method. (Several universities in the U.S. and abroad have begun accepting cryptocurrency as tuition payment as well.) Given that student loan debt now totals more than $1.7 trillion in the U.S., according to the Federal Reserve, millions of people may be interested in options that make a college education more accessible and affordable.
Speaking to its potential to fuel lifelong learning, blockchain technology could also be used to provide widespread access to open educational resources, defined as teaching and learning materials that exist in the public domain and are free to use and redistribute, such as books, podcasts, and videos. Blockchain allows these resources to be shared cheaply and securely in a public network.
Blockchain in university research
The twin goals of higher education are to pass on knowledge to the next generation of students and to increase current knowledge with new research. Professors spend much of their time conducting original research and publishing their findings, pushing the boundaries of their fields and illuminating areas of research that will lead us into the future. Crucially, the spread and influence of those publications can affect professors’ ability to secure important grants to fund future work.
Authors have a vested interest in monitoring how their research is used and protecting it against outright piracy. Blockchain would enable researchers to publish without restrictions, but in a way that would allow them to monitor their research’s reuse, including how often a work is cited and used as teaching materials, thereby tracking its influence in the field — important since that can translate into accolades and future funding.
Challenges to using blockchain in education
Despite the potential benefits of blockchain, adoption is still relatively limited in the field. Nearly 50% of higher education respondents in the Gartner survey cited a lack of interest in using blockchain. Much of this reluctance may stem from the challenges associated with implementing the technology, including issues of security, scalability, adoption rate, and cost.
Though security is one of blockchain’s defining features, that doesn’t mean it is invulnerable. Because of the sensitivity of the information stored on the blockchain — students’ educational records and academic credentials — institutions must be mindful about what data they store and how they choose to store it. Complying with state and federal data protection laws can also present challenges. Universities may need to implement stronger privacy measures by using private or permissioned blockchains, or encrypting data on the blockchain.
Educational institutions possess a vast amount of data on their students and alumni, which can make scalability an issue for blockchain use. As the scope of data involved expands, the number of blocks required increases, which slows down the speed of transactions occurring on the blockchain, as each transaction requires peer-to-peer verification. When adopted on a wide scale, this can be a significant impediment. On the bright side, permissioned blockchains have a higher rate of transactions per second compared to permissionless blockchains.
Like other technologies before it, blockchain only works when enough institutions and employers come to rely on it; graduates only benefit from ownership of their credentials if the schools or companies they are applying to accept their validity. But with hundreds of schools already issuing and accepting blockchain credentials and a network of employment sites like Upwork and ZipRecruiter promoting their adoption, they may soon be the rule rather than the exception.
Although it can lead to savings in other areas, adopting and implementing any new technology can be quite costly. Costs related to computing power and changing existing infrastructure can add up. Additionally, many institutions may lack the knowledge and skills necessary to manage student data on a blockchain platform, so they may need to invest in educating school administrators on how to use the technology, which costs both money and time.
Exploring the role of blockchain in education
Despite these many challenges, programs like the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Blockchain Action Network and the American Council on Education’s Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI) are actively exploring the use of blockchain in education and how it can potentially revolutionize the field. The Education Blockchain Action Network brings together educators, administrators, students, and technology developers to collaborate in examining how blockchain could shape the future of education. A “shared, community-driven, action-oriented space” for discussion and open-source project development, the network serves as a hub for stakeholders in the blockchain sphere.
Meanwhile, the EBI’s primary focus is examining how blockchain can facilitate record sharing between institutions and employers. In promoting the use of blockchain to give ownership of academic credentials to students instead of institutions, the EBI hopes to empower individuals with control over their digital identities, supporting lifelong learning opportunities and improving economic mobility. The EBI recently awarded $900,000 in grants to organizations such as Student1, which provides Nebraska K-12 students with comprehensive and transferrable educational records, and UnBlocked, which is creating an open exchange to simplify college credit transfers.
A way to streamline education
Blockchain is already changing the financial industry via cryptocurrencies. This technology could have a transformative effect on education as well, streamlining record keeping and sharing, enhancing security and improving trust, simplifying the hiring process, and giving students ownership of their academic records for life.
Individuals interested in exploring the future of blockchain in education can pursue a degree such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. Learn more about the program’s blockchain concentration — with dedicated courses focused on practical applications of blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies, and the ethical and legal aspects of using blockchain — and how the curriculum can give students the foundation of knowledge they need to succeed in this field.