This post originally appeared in EDUCAUSE Review in January 2019.
With the proliferation of blockchain solutions in the education marketplace, it is incumbent upon decision makers to understand what they are buying. Yet, far too often blockchain solutions are used as a way for institutions and vendors to “check the box,” with no exploration of the long-term ramifications of using the technology.
The origins of blockchain are shrouded in mystery. On October 31, 2008, a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” was published by an unknown party using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, and on January 3, 2009, the Bitcoin blockchain came into existence with the mining of the its first block, known as the genesis block. Since that time, there has been much speculation around the inventor’s identity, and several individuals have attempted to claim the inventorship mantle. None so far has been able to provide convincing proof. To this day, the actual creator or creators of blockchain remain anonymous.
Regardless of the curious nature of blockchain’s origins, it seems clear that the technology has the potential to change the world, if only because distributed ledgers are well suited to solving problems of trust. As the technology gains steam, and as the boundaries between regulation and technology are solidified, we may start to see entire industries of middlemen become obsolete.
Blockchain-based decentralization allows us to design systems without a single point of failure, systems that eliminate data bottlenecks, and, perhaps more importantly, systems that survive the rise and fall of individual technology companies. This makes the technology ideal to disrupt a wide range of existing business models, at least in theory.
Yet, for all its promise, blockchain technology is not without its drawbacks. It’s slow—perhaps too slow to support massive adoption. If a blockchain network becomes clogged, it could take days to validate transactions. Despite the claims of some supporters, it isn’t impenetrable—a recent successful “51% attack” on a major public blockchain allowed hackers to reverse transactions and transfer ownership of blocks. Because of this structural vulnerability, currency-based blockchains such as Bitcoin and Ethereum maintain their integrity only so long as it is profitable to mine their coins. How long will that be?
Perhaps the greatest risk comes from yet another hot new technology, quantum computing, which could render the cryptographic foundations of blockchain obsolete in as little as ten years. Since the initial release of Bitcoin, several new models of blockchain design have been developed that aim to address these limitations, each with varying degrees of success. However, the question remains: Are these the only vulnerabilities in major public blockchain models? The fact is, we simply don’t know.
Credentials, Not Currency
Despite the significant uncertainties surrounding the use of public blockchains, numerous vendors have begun to write education records such as credentials to the Bitcoin and Ethereum blockchains. Market forces, structural vulnerabilities, and new technologies, however, make it clear that no vendor can guarantee the long-term integrity of such records. By design, the integrity of the records is outside of any vendor’s control. Therefore, vendor claims that public, currency-based blockchains are suitable for the long term validation of “high stakes” credentials are highly questionable, if not fundamentally flawed.
This is not to say that using blockchains to store educational records is in itself a poor use of the technology. Instead, what is needed is an open technology ecosystem that combines public blockchains, private blockchains, and off-chain storage, combining the strengths of each technology to create a decentralized storage mechanism whose verification incentives are not tied to currency markets. This approach offers all the benefits of blockchain-powered record verification without the worry that external economic factors or new technologies might render education records corruptible—and without the need to trust in the continued existence of any single technology company.
In early 2018, Concentric Sky and partners BrightHive and the DXtera Institute proposed such a blockchain ecosystem, called EdRec. EdRec is a learner-centric, open standards approach to learning record storage “on the blockchain,” with self-sovereignty of learner data as its key design principle. The project’s goal is to create a privacy-focused open technology standard that any company can implement in their products.
The proposal was a winner of the US Department of Education’s Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge, and since then, the project has begun to attract numerous institutions and large employers that see the value of a vendor-independent, machine-readable lifelong learning profile based on open technology standards.
Look Before You Leap
When considering the application of blockchain technology in education, it’s important to keep in mind your organization’s long-term objectives. Blockchain technology is a hot topic, but you’re not going to miss the boat just because you don’t jump in first. It will take time for these technologies to reach the maturity, scale, and reliability needed for enterprise deployment in education. If you do decide to jump in now, make sure you understand the risks.