Blockchain for ‘Lifelong Learning Certification’: Yay or Nay?

Mirjam Neelen

First, two disclaimers:

Disclaimer 1: This is my (Mirjam’s) blog only. In Paul’s own words: “I know absolutely nothing about blockchain and as far as I know, I’m not suffering from the expertise generalisation syndrome”.

Disclaimer 2: I’m by no means a blockchain expert. I’d like to think I’m not suffering from the expertise generalisation syndrome either, but let’s find out 😊. I’d still like to discuss (broadly) what it is and explore if there are any useful application in the education and/or learning space yet. Why? Well, there’s a lot of talk about blockchain being ‘transformational’. I’m just curious and decided to give it go and see if I can explain my view on its usefulness in an educational context, based on current research.

For example, the annual ‘Innovating Pedagogy’ report from 2016 states that potential impact is high, and the timescale is long (4+ years). We’re 2 years in now, so to what extent is blockchain proving to be actually ‘transformational?

Donald Clark points out in this blog that blockchain is quite an opaque concept and I agree. Kennisnet (2018) provides some structure in their recently published Dutch report, which is titled (translated to English) ‘An exploration of blockchain technology in education’. They provide questions that help to determine if blockchain is the right solution for an educational challenge. I’ll start by briefly explaining some blockchain basics and then I move on to explore the value of existing use cases to find out if it’s a yay or a nay.

What is Blockchain?

Well, it’s complicated and I’m not going to explain it in detail. I’ll focus on important principles that distinguish blockchain from other database technologies and I’ll give a simple example to get the basics across. Blockchain provides a decentralised database (aka digital ledger) and uses cryptography to keep exchanges secure. You can compare it with a database, including a list in which transactions or data are kept in chronological order; like a register. Everyone who participates on the blockchain, has an exact copy of the register. Each participant can add transactions to the register as well. These transactions are then copied over to all the participants’ registers after the transaction has been verified. Kennisnet explains that there’s ONE unique ‘blockchain feature’, namely that it only adds new transactions at the bottom of the list. So, again, it’s in chronological order. Also notable is that it’s impossible to adjust something in earlier transactions. This automatically means that you can never delete something from the register. New ‘rules’ (transactions that are added to the register) are bundled in a block and together, these blocks form a chain. Hence… blockchain. The figure below gives a simple illustration of how blockchain works.

blockchain 1

To understand for what kind of challenges Blockchain is an appropriate solution, Kennisnet has developed a checklist with ten questions. The more ‘yes’s, the more likely it is that blockchain is indeed a good solution for the problem you’re trying to solve.

Kennisnet’s questions:

  1. Is there more than one party involved?
  2. Is there any distrust between the parties involved?
  3. Are there several independent parties for verification?
  4. Is there no third trustworthy party available?
  5. Is the amount of data that needs to be processed limited?
  6. Is it OK that transactions are processed at a low speed?
  7. Is it necessary and allowed to save data permanently?
  8. Is there no link required with physical objects?

Grech and Camilleri (2017) discuss the various use cases in education. Examples are issuing certificates, storing a verified portfolio, and managing intellectual property. One popular idea (see for example Sharples and colleagues (2016) and Gräther, Kolvenbach, Ruland, Schütte, Ferreira Torres, and Wendland (2018)) is that people, as ‘lifelong learners’ should have their own individual learning records that they can build throughout life. As an example, Masie Learning 2018 recently announced “Learning BlockChain is Coming”, introducing an “open collaboration of learning systems, resources, data systems, badging, CLO/HR/Talent leaders and others – creating a trusted BlockChain for the widest learning fields (from K-12 to Workplace and Beyond).” No lack of ambition, that’s for sure! 😊

It could look something like this (from Grech & Camilleri, 2017):

blockchain 2

Donald Clark (2011) writes in one of his blogs: “An army of researchers, academics and vendors have been touting the idea that everyone should have a shoebox of ‘stuff’ which they fill up as they go through life as ‘reflective’ lifelong learners.” (note the cynical tone). Hm, let’s think about that. What would it mean to have ONE place where you, as an individual can store all your ‘learning achievements’? Let’s take a step back and ask what the problem is we’re trying to solve?

What’s the problem?

Currently, certificates confirming achievement of certain learning outcomes are usually issued on paper or other physical or digital formats. Also, a certificate or other type of ‘proof of achievement’ usually include various statements, such as type of qualification, academic title, name and address of issuer organisation, name and signature of the certifier, etcetera. This paper format has obvious limitations. For example, when you’re applying for a job, somehow your potential employer needs to manually verify the certificate through a third party. Grech and Camilleri (2017) also explain that digital documents are also often issued in ways that institutions without the correct software may not be able to read or verify them. Even when they’re able to read or verify them, the verification process can be tedious and uncertain. There is also the potential risk of fake degrees or fraud. According to Gräther and colleagues (2018), there’s a billion-dollar industry behind it. There are other challenges as well, so it seems fair to conclude that this is indeed a problem that needs to be solved.

Let’s assume for now that it would be better for learners if they could have their own personal and verified learning record store so that they have all their learning achievements in one place and anyone who needs to check on those can do so. Now, let’s use Kennisnet’s ten questions to explore if blockchain would be the right solution for this challenge.

Is blockchain the right solution?

Is there more than one party involved? – Yes, see the image below from Grech and Camilleri (2017), who illustrate the potential stakeholders for blockchain in education.

blockchain 3

If we truly want to think ‘blue sky’ (like Masie suggesting a blockchain for K-12 to workplace and beyond), we end up with countless parties. After all, people need to be able to freely choose where and when they want to learn and that means the blockchain ecosystem needs to include EACH AND EVERY ‘learning provider’ AROUND THE WORLD. Feasible? Not so much. As soon as you limit the blockchain partners, the learner is disadvantaged as their choice of which certificate they want to pursue is limited to the blockchain ecosystem partners.

Is there any distrust between the parties involved? Probably so… after all, how do we know exactly what the quality of each institution is? What exactly is the ‘achievement’ worth? However, blockchain is not going to solve this matter. Kennisnet explains that blockchain can’t take over the role of these accrediting bodies. It’s only the result that will be verified (accredited or not accredited). So, if there’s no trust that an accrediting party judges correctly if an organisation meets the criteria for accreditation, well, then a blockchain might only cause more issues. After all, as soon as a blockchain transaction is verified, it can never be changed. This means, that, if you find out later that an accrediting body is fraudulent, well, too bad! Interestingly, Gräther and colleagues acknowledge that certification authorities need a means to revoke certificates in case of plagiarism or misconduct of the certified learner. So, from what Kennisnet explains, we need to doubt if blockchain is the right solution if such a ‘revoking’ option is required?

Are there several independent parties for verification? Not really. Certifications are usually handed out by the educational institution where the learner has completed a curriculum or, in primary education, an annual report is created by the teacher, probably ‘verified’ by the principal of that school. By the way, note that we keep talking about ‘certification’ and ‘institutions’. This in itself is a problem when we even consider blockchain in a lifelong learning context. Lifelong learning is NOT just about ‘courses’, or ‘diplomas’ or ‘certificates’. People learn in many different ways. Gräther and colleagues suggest digital certificates that are cryptographically signed. However, they point out that that’s not enough. More effort is needed to secure the registry for certificates, and an open standard for digital signatures has to be used. Without those, the global verification of digital certificates isn’t possible. This is all rather complicated of course and, to add to the complexity, Donald Clark (2018) points out that “Serious problems have emerged with the technology… The hackless future that was promised turned out to be a bit of a dystopian Westworld. This should worry those who want it used in the public sector.”

Is there no third trustworthy party available? Well, that probably depends on the country. Kennisnet explains that in the Netherlands there are definitely parties that are trustworthy and if there are challenges with security and/or trust, these can usually be solved with less complicated technology (for those interested in such technology: examples are advanced encryption or a distributed database). Grech and Camilleri (2017) also explain that, even when the answer to this question is ‘yes’, we need to understand that, if people join a public blockchain (which in theory allows any person to join and participate directly in creating and verifying entries on the chain), there are significant technical, knowledge and resource barriers to participation. In practice, people only interact with blockchains through companies which specialise in blockchain technology. This means, to put it simply, that all the disadvantages of dependence upon a central authority is re-introduced in a different form.

Is the amount of data that needs to be processed limited? Something that’s highly underexposed, is that transactions consume a LOT of energy. Learning data is not necessarily ‘big’ so from that point of view, blockchain could work. However, Kennisnet also points out that images, videos, or anything ‘digital portfolio’ are not appropriate for blockchain. This is interesting, because Sharples and colleagues (2016) suggest the opposite (that blockchain can reliably store many kinds of educational ‘records’, including videos, essays, etcetera).

Is it OK that transactions are processed at a low speed? Because the verification process is complicated, the speed with which transactions can be verified, is limited. In educational contexts, this isn’t a problem. Registration of marks or certificates aren’t in a rush to be processed (compared to, for example, stock exchange, where speed is critical). Do we have our first ‘yes’ here?

Is it necessary and allowed to save data permanently? If data that are impossible to be removed, this clashes with the right to be forgotten. So, in educational contexts this is tricky. After all, students leave institutions and at that point, it needs to be possible to remove them from the system. Also, there needs to be an option to remove certificates or other results that turn out to be fake or fraudulent. Again, within a blockchain, that’s impossible. Interestingly, Gräther and colleagues (2018) seem to have a slightly different view on this. They claim that the blockchain technology supports counterfeit protection of certificates, easy verification of certificates even if the certification authority no longer exists and automation of monitoring processes for certificates with a time-limited validity. So, they seem to believe that it’s OK that transactions continue to exist, even when an authority no longer exists.

Is there no link required with physical objects? Blockchain only works if data are purely digital. There’s no way to verify with a blockchain if something in the real world has changed (e.g., Kennisnet argues that trading diamonds is not a good use case for blockchain). In the educational context, this means we’d definitely need to move away from paper certificates or other ‘physical’ evidence of achievement.

Based on the ten questions, the conclusion is that for now, blockchain isn’t a good solution to create a lifelong learning record for individuals.

In general, Kennisnet concludes that there are currently no mature applications that are relevant for Dutch education. This is confirmed in a broader context, by Grech et al.., (2017) who state that

There continues to be a widening gap between the claims being made about potential distributed ledger technology applications and the actual roll-out of such applications (p 101).

They also conclude that only ‘fully-open’ blockchain implementations can reach the real goals and promise of blockchain in education. By this, we mean solutions whose fundamental components include: a) recipient ownership; b) vendor independence and c) decentralised verification. If those aren’t all being achieved, using a blockchain is likely to be a waste of effort and resources for all stakeholders (p 101).

Will we ever be ready for that? And if so, do we WANT to approach lifelong learning like that? Apart from the huge energy consumption and storage and bandwidth needs for blockchain (again, elements that are terribly under acknowledged – see Clark, 2018), there’s something else to consider. Clark (2011) states that “human nature mitigates against us having our life in a shoebox”. And to be honest, I agree. The risk with Blockchain is that it will give us an overcooked and institutionalised form of lifelong learning. For now, for me, the answer to the question if blockchain is a good solution for ‘lifelong learning certification’ in education, is nay.

 

References

Clark, D., (2011). E-portfolios – 10 reasons why I don’t want my life in a shoebox [blog]. Retrieved from https://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/search?q=shoebox

Clark, D., (2018). Blockchain looking more and more like a ball and chain [blog]. Retrieved from http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/2018/10/blockchain-emperor-has-no-clothes-in.html

Clark, D., (2018). Blockchain – got married on it but fell out of love with it… [blog]. Retrieved from https://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/search?q=Blockchain+–+got+married+on+it+but+fell+out+of+love+with+it….

Gräther, W., Kolvenbach, S., Ruland, R., Schütte, J., Torres, C., & Wendland, F. (2018). Blockchain for Education: Lifelong Learning Passport. In Proceedings of 1st ERCIM Blockchain Workshop 2018. European Society for Socially Embedded Technologies (EUSSET). Retrieved from https://dl.eusset.eu/bitstream/20.500.12015/3163/1/blockchain2018_07.pdf

Grech, A., & Camilleri, A. F. (2017). Blockchain in education. Retrieved from https://www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2018/15013/pdf/Grech_Camilleri_2017_Blockchain_in_Education.pdf

Kennisnet, (2018). Een verkenning van blockchaintechnologie in het onderwijs. Retrieved from https://www.kennisnet.nl/artikel/is-blockchaintechnologie-geschikt-voor-het-onderwijs/

Sharples, M., et al., (2016). Innovating pedagogy 2016: Open University innovation report 5. Retrieved from https://repository.nie.edu.sg/bitstream/10497/18319/3/IP_2016_OUIR5.pdf

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