Blockchain: the dig­i­tal ledger in in­deli­ble ink

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE - David.matthews@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Blockchain is the tech­nol­ogy that some think will shake up banking, cur­rency and the very na­ture of com­mer­cial con­tracts.

It can be used to cre­ate a kind of dig­i­tal ledger that tracks buy­ing and sell­ing, who owns what, or even the prove­nance of ob­jects – di­a­monds, for ex­am­ple, to make sure that they are not fund­ing con­flict.

Un­like the cen­tralised data­base of, say, a bank, there are mul­ti­ple ver­sions of this ledger stored on com­put­ers around the world, mean­ing that it is much harder to hack and al­ter. The idea is that this cre­ates se­cu­rity and trust, and cuts out the need for a mid­dle­man to val­i­date trans­ac­tions.

The rel­e­vance of this to uni­ver­si­ties might not be im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. But a hand­ful of aca­demics and in­sti­tu­tions are ex­per­i­ment­ing with ways that blockchain can be used in higher ed­u­ca­tion. At their most mod­est, they see blockchain as a use­ful way of cut­ting ad­min­is­tra­tive costs and mak­ing de­gree records more se­cure.

More am­bi­tiously though, blockchain could has­ten the dis­so­lu­tion of uni­ver­si­ties as in­sti­tu­tions and help to usher in a sys­tem whereby aca­demics val­i­date stu­dents’ knowl­edge di­rectly, they claim.

John Domingue (pic­tured right) is di­rec­tor of the Knowl­edge Me­dia In­sti­tute at the UK’s Open Univer­sity, which spe­cialises in dis­tance learn­ing, and some­thing of an evan­ge­list for blockchain’s po­ten­tial to change higher ed­u­ca­tion.

One idea is to use the tech­nol­ogy to cre­ate a se­cure, pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble ledger of aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions whereby uni­ver­si­ties rat­ify a grad­u­ate’s de­gree on the blockchain, in the­ory mak­ing it un­nec­es­sary for ev­ery com­pany to dou­ble-check that their new em­ploy­ees have not lied on their CVs, he said.

“Ev­ery univer­sity will have a small team deal­ing with em­ployer queries,” said Pro­fes­sor Domingue. But by val­i­dat­ing de­grees on the blockchain, they would no longer be nec­es­sary, he ex­plained.

The UK al­ready has a cen­tralised sys­tem for check­ing whether peo­ple hold the de­grees they claim to – the Higher Ed­u­ca­tion De­gree Dat­acheck ser­vice. The prob­lem of fraud is sig­nif­i­cant, the ser­vice says: the most re­cent data in­di­cate that about one in four CVs will con­tain lies about de­grees.

Al­though this is sup­posed to be more ef­fi­cient than in­di­vid­ual checks by uni­ver­si­ties, it still costs em­ploy­ers £12 per en­quiry, and it can take up to seven days to process. The idea with blockchain is that it is in­stant and free. The costs of check­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions will only grow if peo­ple in­creas­ingly flit be­tween in­sti­tu­tions to build up a port­fo­lio of ed­u­ca­tion, say blockchain ad­vo­cates. In­stead of just check­ing some­one’s un­der­grad­u­ate univer­sity, an em­ployer might have to check with five to 10 dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions, Pro­fes­sor Domingue pointed out.

The tech­nol­ogy can also be use­ful if a univer­sity goes bust, is closed down or is in­ca­pac­i­tated, for ex­am­ple, by war – one of the prob­lems for Syr­ian refugees hop­ing to re­sume their ed­u­ca­tion in Europe has been get­ting ver­i­fi­ca­tion from their con­flict-stricken alma maters. “De­pend­ing on the way in which the blockchain is set up, there is very likely the pos­si­bil­ity that records stored there will per­sist in the face

of lo­cal catas­tro­phes,” said Phillip Long, as­so­ciate vice-provost for learn­ing sciences at the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, another en­thu­si­ast, al­beit not an un­crit­i­cal one, for the tech­nol­ogy. “The val­i­da­tion takes place in a blockchain en­vi­ron­ment by go­ing back to the record in the chain, not nec­es­sar­ily to the is­suer of the record them­selves.”

The blockchain could also thwart politi­cians or other pub­lic fig­ures who lie about their cre­den­tials, Pro­fes­sor Domingue pointed out. In­dia’s prime min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, for ex­am­ple, has faced re­peated ques­tions over his qual­i­fi­ca­tions, with al­lies bran­dish­ing cer­tifi­cates in sup­port, but op­po­nents claim­ing they are false. In the­ory, putting all qual­i­fi­ca­tions on the blockchain would make it pos­si­ble to set­tle these dis­putes im­me­di­ately and defini­tively.

But one con­cern over such an open sys­tem is pri­vacy – do you re­ally want your diploma in ap­plied BDSM stud­ies to be avail­able for all to see on the blockchain? There are so­lu­tions, Pro­fes­sor Domingue ar­gued. Your qual­i­fi­ca­tions could be en­crypted and em­ploy­ers given a time-lim­ited key to view them.

Pro­fes­sor Domingue’s am­bi­tions for blockchain go much fur­ther than sim­ply mak­ing it eas­ier for em­ploy­ers to ver­ify a new re­cruit’s de­gree. He sees it po­ten­tially trans­form­ing the en­tire hir­ing process, at least in ar­eas where nec­es­sary qual­i­fi­ca­tions are clearly de­fined – data science, for ex­am­ple.

If enough peo­ple put their qual­i­fi­ca­tions on to the blockchain, em­ploy­ers could sim­ply fil­ter can­di­dates who have stud­ied the de­sired sub­jects, or taken cer­tain mas­sive open on­line cour­ses, and flagged them­selves as want­ing a new role (al­though the sys­tem would some­how have to keep your de­sire for a new job secret from your cur­rent em­ployer). Ad­ver­tis­ing the po­si­tion, and fil­ter­ing out can­di­dates by read­ing end­less CVs – which can take days of man­agers’ time – would no longer be nec­es­sary.

In a way, this sys­tem would be a bit like LinkedIn, where com­pa­nies can find po­ten­tial can­di­dates by fil­ter­ing their qual­i­fi­ca­tions and skills. Mak­ing CVs pub­lic re­duces fraud, Pro­fes­sor Domingue said, but blockchain hopes to elim­i­nate the prob­lem en­tirely.

Dr Long is a little more cir­cum­spect about the prospect of blockchain up­end­ing re­cruit­ment. “It will take some time, if ever, for CVs to com­pletely go away,” he said. “But the prospect of the record of achieve­ment that rep­re­sents the his­tory of for­mal ed­u­ca­tion be­ing pro­vided by blockchain-sourced data is likely to in­crease.”

The ‘univer­sity of one’

Even more am­bi­tiously, the “real dif­fer­ence” that blockchain can make to higher ed­u­ca­tion is to al­low us to “move be­yond the cur­rent struc­ture of uni­ver­si­ties”, ar­gued Pro­fes­sor Domingue.

In­di­vid­ual aca­demics could ver­ify on the blockchain that stu­dents have passed on­line mod­ules, with no univer­sity needed, he said, some­thing he calls “the univer­sity of one”. Blockchain cuts out the mid­dle­man – the univer­sity. “If you’ve done a course by Tim Bern­ers-Lee on the in­ter­net, that’s go­ing to mean some­thing,” he said. Or one aca­demic could do the teach­ing, and another aca­demic (or pri­vate com­pany per­haps) could mark an exam, Pro­fes­sor Domingue sug­gested.

This is, of course, tech­ni­cally pos­si­ble al­ready with­out blockchain,

and there have been a few signs of this model catch­ing on. But the big ad­van­tage of the new tech­nol­ogy is that it “im­ple­ments trust”, Pro­fes­sor Domingue ar­gued. Every­one in the sys­tem can check what a stu­dent has learned – which cer­tifi­cates they have ac­cu­mu­lated – rather than hav­ing to rely on a par­tic­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion to store these data, he said.

So who is ac­tu­ally us­ing blockchain in higher ed­u­ca­tion? Last year, Sony an­nounced that it had de­vel­oped a sys­tem that uses the tech­nol­ogy to keep track of and share ed­u­ca­tional progress records. How­ever, the Ja­panese com­pany cur­rently of­fers only a hand­ful of ro­bot­ics and maths cour­ses on­line, largely aimed at chil­dren.

In Oc­to­ber last year, the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Me­dia Lab re­leased Block­certs, soft­ware that it hopes will un­der­pin the is­su­ing of aca­demic cer­tifi­cates on the blockchain. It is grap­pling with some of the tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lems this throws up, such as how to dis- close only a se­lec­tion of qual­i­fi­ca­tions that are rel­e­vant to the job peo­ple are ap­ply­ing for.

Mean­while, Pro­fes­sor Domingue’s mis­sion is to get all UK uni­ver­si­ties to put their qual­i­fi­ca­tions on the blockchain. So far, he has talked to Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don and Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, and both have ex­pressed an in­ter­est, he said.

Or it might be the pri­vate sec­tor that makes blockchain-based qual­i­fi­ca­tion ver­i­fi­ca­tion main­stream. Grad­base is a Lon­don-based startup that gives grad­u­ates a QR code to put on their CV, which em­ploy­ers can scan to ver­ify their qual­i­fi­ca­tions.

The com­pany stores de­gree records on a blockchain, mean­ing there is “no down­time, nor any sin­gle point of fail­ure in the net­work”.

“It’s very early days, but the pos­si­bil­ity that you’ll have your life­time learn­ing record on a portable de­vice you carry with you is real,” Dr Long said. “That’s very ex­cit­ing.”

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