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A Fresh Look at Blockchain in Higher Ed

Blockchain is advancing in higher education, as it is in all of society, with some interesting new applications and ramifications.

Blockchain is the technology that first gained recognition as the backbone for Bitcoin. It is best described as a distributed ledger system. Each entry is a block that is time-stamped, encrypted and replicated at all of the nodes along the chain. The most-discussed application of the blockchain in higher ed is to enable secure credential dissemination. Blockchain has been used by MIT for certificate dissemination since 2015 and diplomas since 2017.

In the intervening years, more universities have adopted blockchain for dissemination of credentials. This is an important step that affords security and can provide the student with ownership of the transcript. This offers the potential for automatic approval of credit transfer. In addition, it creates the potential for students, rather than the university, to take control of their transcripts. Much like medical records becoming personally available, rather than held only by medical offices and hospitals, many argue that a transcript should be the property of the student. This does not allow the student to alter any credentials, but the student can add credentials such as noncredit courses, internships and other experiences. In this case, the student may provide assessments, endorsements and other validating materials.

As EAB suggests, “Traditional educational routes are increasingly less normal and in this expanding world of providers, the need for verifiable credentials from a number of sources is growing. Producing a form of digitally ‘verifiable CVs’ would limit credential fraud, and significantly reduce organizational workload in credential verification.”

However, blockchain is enabling many more innovative and effective approaches in higher education beyond merely the transcript. One early example is suggested by Kevin Roebuck in Forbes: “Recently, colleges and universities have been creating consortiums to collectively aggregate their resources. One such effort, the Internet 2 Net+ Initiative, provides a range of application, compute, and other cloud-based services that participating universities can access. Blockchain’s peer-to-peer transaction-based model fits perfectly into such consortium efforts.”

Perhaps more importantly, blockchain will facilitate the difficult shift in higher education that we are now navigating. We are moving from a degree-centric environment in which the university is engaged in the life cycle of the student while on campus to one that is more of a supply-chain design providing lifelong learning. In the emerging mode, the university will engage the student prior to their first arrival on campus (or online) through their degree experience and far beyond. Michael Matthews of the Tambellini Executive Advisory Council suggests the magnitude of the impact is akin to other seismic changes we have seen in recent decades:

Just like the iPod, iPad, and smart phone revolutionized the music industry, blockchain technologies will eventually break apart the systems we have been using. The ability to put purchased data such as music in the hands of users eventually changed the systems and devices that were once needed. The whole music industry shifted the way songs were purchased and delivered once the supply chain was created to accommodate the devices.

Translated to higher education, that means a supply-chain approach of delivery of professional, continuing and online education will be made available to students from their teenage years to well into their senior citizen years. The continuous delivery and documentation of learning will be secure, learner owned, documented and certified. That is in stark contrast to the mostly degree-centric, institution controlled and very thinly documented approach of years past. And the movement to a supply-chain approach is one that will transform higher education as certainly and radically as the iPod and its derivatives changed music as well as our mobile society.

IBM suggests that blockchain may become a stimulus for collaboration in research and entrepreneurship across academe: “As intellectual property and assets have become more valuable, however, the sharing of innovative ideas has become more problematic in terms of tracking ownership, etc. … Setting up a consortium blockchain would allow individual professors and institutions to share information openly while also having an undisputed track record as to who owns what information.”

As institutions look to deliver curricula that support students seeking to enter into blockchain fields, universities are finding that they often are best served with cross-disciplinary programs. The new term is “fintech.” It crosses business and technological topics. Hallie Busta of Education Dive summarizes the new field well: “To tap into emerging industries, colleges often have to break through the walls that separate academic disciplines. One of the latest barriers they’re addressing stands between their business and technology programs. The emergence of artificial intelligence, big data, blockchain and cryptocurrency is changing how money moves between people and organizations. That’s created a new industry — financial technology, or fintech — around which colleges are being asked to create new curriculum as employers seek hires with these specific skill sets.”

Opportunities abound in this emerging field. As is so often the case, so too do challenges. Implementing the technology where it solves shortcomings in traditional transcript and documenting collaborations should come rather easily in time. However, leadership is needed in the broad movement from a degree life cycle to a dynamic supply-chain model of providing learning. Who will lead this movement at your university? And who will break down the walls between disciplines to create fintech curricula that will meet the needs of society, employers and students?

Leadership is needed for the institutions that will survive and thrive in the coming few years.

This article originally was published on November 6 in Inside Higher Ed’s Inside Digital Learning blog

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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