Blockchain technology agreement handshake

Blockchain technology: latest technology in higher ed or overhyped?


Supporters say blockchain technology has several applications in higher education, but what are they?

Blockchain technology has garnered much attention in recent years, but technology leaders seem split over its future–some say the hype will be short-lived, but blockchain start-ups are growing and hiring.

What does that mean for blockchain technology’s uses in higher education?

According to Don and Alex Tapscott, authors of Blockchain Revolution, blockchain “is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.” Information on a blockchain isn’t stored in a single location, and this means its records are public and easy to verify.

Supporters say blockchain technology has several applications in higher education, including in credentialing and security. Others caution that the technology may be too expensive or complicated to implement, or that the space between understanding and implementation is too large to bridge.

Here’s a look at some of the latest potential uses for blockchain technology, as well as where industry leaders think the technology might take higher education in the future. (Check out this visual explanation of how blockchain works.)

1. Blockchain curricula: Distributed-ledger currency exchange company Ripple launched a five-year, multimillion-dollar initiative focused on blockchain technology research, organizational activities, and course development. Twelve academic institutions worldwide are participating, including the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, Wharton, MIT, Princeton, Berkeley Haas, the University of Oregon, the University of Waterloo, University College London, Korea University, the University of Luxembourg, and the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Virginia Tech is using a $3 million investment to create a blockchain curriculum, to which all computer science students in the university will have access. The investment from blockchain software publisher Block.one gives Virginia Tech the impetus for its first venture into the technology, and the university’s blockchain curriculum is set for fall 2018 implementation.

2. Credentialing: “The implications for the industry are huge: Using blockchain means we can now offer credentials that are unhackable and unfakeable,” contends Alan Heppenstall, co-founder and CTO of the digital credentialing platform Accredible.

And “instead of providing paper certificates that are hard to verify, blockchain could help students to compile a complete digital record of all the training courses they’ve completed and certificates they’ve obtained that would exist in the public domain and be accessible on demand,” says Jami Morshed, vice president of global higher education at Unit4.

3. Simplifying acquisition of academic records: “Blockchain technologies could greatly simplify this process by creating a common, trusted digital platform for storing academic records for employment purposes and to support better student mobility between universities/country borders,” Unit4’s Morshed says. Blockchain technology also could encourage student ownership of their academic and extracurricular accomplishments “and would allow them to instantly produce secure and comprehensive credentials to any institute or employer requesting them, including information about a student’s performance on standardized tests, degree requirements, extracurricular activities, and other learning activities.”

Southern New Hampshire University has issued bachelor’s and associate’s degrees to its Spring 2018 College for America graduates as both paper diplomas and as Blockcerts–digital documents anchored to the blockchain for instant verifiability anywhere in the world. Blockcerts can be issued immediately upon graduation, meaning students leave with a record of achievement they can use right away to apply for jobs, promotions, or grad school. Employers, governments, and schools can see immediately who issued the diploma, to whom, and ensure the credential is still valid and has not been altered. “In some ways, this is piloting what a modern transcript would be: digital, portable, owned by the student, can be verified using the encrypted assets. Employers … don’t need to call up SNHU and verify that information, it’s self-verified,” says Colin Van Ostern, the school’s vice president of workforce initiatives.

4. Projects could slow down: Not everyone is staying on the blockchain train. Data and analytics company GlobalData predicts that blockchain technology projects will be put on hold in 2018 as the hype fades due to the cost and complexity of implementing blockchain solutions. There will be a place for blockchain, and it can certainly add values to some areas, but the across-the-board hype will die down, says Gary Barnett, chief analyst of technology thematic research at GlobalData.

Laura Ascione