Inspiring “Tour d’Horizon”
Blockchain in Education 2017: Inspiring “Tour d’Horizon”
On September 5, 2017, a fully packed programme on the subject of blockchain in education brought together more than 250 people in Groningen. Attendees were representatives of education institutions, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, other government agencies such as DUO, IT companies and consultancy firms, and blockchain experts not only from the Netherlands, but also from Belgium, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. More than 30 speakers shared their experiences, knowledge and views on blockchain, an innovative and powerful technology which allows easy and safe access to distributed data, processes and transactions. They presented the unique opportunities of educational applications based on blockchain, for instance the ability to manage (academic) credentials, to support lifelong learning and to provide more trusted and secure student services and student data.
The Academy building of the University of Groningen, one of the most iconic historic buildings of the city, was the backdrop of the conference. Vice-chair of the board of the University of Groningen, Jan de Jeu, called the conference a ‘tour d’horizon’ of the opportunities and challenges blockchain will provide to the educational sector. The day started with seven speakers illustrating the importance of blockchain in education from a local, regional, national, European and global perspective.
City of talent
Joost van Keulen, alderman and deputy mayor of the city of Groningen, explained why his city is a ‘city of talent’. “The first female doctor, Aletta Jacobs, studied in Groningen, the first battery-powered electric car was developed here and last year chemistry scientist Bernard Feringa won a Nobel prize for the development of the nano motor. He is the third Nobel Prize laureate from the University of Groningen.” Groningen embraces innovation in general and in blockchain in particular, said Van Keulen. “Whenever possible we try to contribute to technological developments. We see it as our role to facilitate and unite.” The city of Groningen therefore hosted the Dutch Blockchain Hackathon last February and has already implemented concrete blockchain applications, such as the ‘Stadjerspas’, a discount scheme for low income citizens.
The next speaker was Hans Schutte, director general of DUO. This Dutch agency collects and manages educational data for the Ministry of Education and also executes regulations for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. “Our new capital is human capital, and therefore Dutch education logically conceives of lifelong learning as being a natural part of its mission”, Schutte explained. Globalisation is another important trend DUO has to accommodate. Therefore in 2012, the Groningen Declaration Network was established to best serve academic and professional mobility needs of citizens worldwide. One example is the ability to share educational data (such as diplomas) anywhere, anytime and anyplace. Blockchain is an enabler of the ambitions of the Groningen Declaration Network, according to Schutte. “I see possibilities for sharing student credits and open badges, thereby facilitating their careers.” Scalability, privacy, integration and acceptance by students, schools, universities and governments are challenges to be overcome.
“Blockchain may be a game changing technology, which will lead to a programmable, self-driving economy”, said Ad Kroft from the Dutch Digital Delta. “But we still have to do a lot of hard work to get there.” Therefore, the Dutch Blockchain Coalition brings together initiatives from companies, government and the science sector to create the conditions for reliable and socially acceptable applications. In Krofts opinion, digital identity is the biggest hurdle to take. “Identifiers and identity processes are needed for safe and secure blockchain applications: whom am I dealing with, and is this person authorised to do what he wants to do?”
For successful implementation of blockchain, the Dutch Blockchain Coalition has identified three action lines: building the necessary components; creating the conditions for implementing blockchain such as educating stakeholders and building social acceptance; and last but not least, creating a human capital agenda together with the institutions of higher education. The Dutch Blockchain Coalition also supports twelve blockchain field labs in the Netherlands. These fieldlabs work on implementations for specific sectors, which could then function as blueprints all over the world. This way, the Netherlands will hopefully become known as the ‘Blockchain Delta’.
Peter Schouwstra and Hans Popken from the economic department of the province of Groningen explained that the province wants to make the most of this digital revolution. “We want to be the region of next generation innovations. Luckily, we have a powerful starting position,” said Schouwstra. “We have the digital infrastructure, a very good knowledge infrastructure and IT sector, and a strong position in the areas of health, energy and mobility.”
In order to stimulate companies to design blockchain solutions and work on the challenges that need to be faced, the province started a blockchain competition together with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. “We are specifically looking for usable applications in health, energy and government,” Popken explained. “We are very happy that as many as 38 proposals were submitted. The Top 5 will soon be announced.” The best of these will receive financial support for a feasibility study and the subsequent development of prototypes.
Human capital agenda
Steven Dhondt, professor at the University of Leuven and senior researcher at TNO, presented his perspective on blockchain and the human capital agenda. “In a global and digital society, it is important that individuals can control their own information, in this case their certifications and degrees. It allows them to prove their competences.” Developments such as Blockcerts are very helpful, Dhondt said. Blockcerts is an open standard for creating, issuing, viewing, and verifying blockchain-based certificates, thereby enabling individuals to possess and share their own official education records. However, according to Dhondt, it still has some drawbacks, for instance how to time-stamp diploma’s if they are meant to be valid for only a certain period of time, or when yearly certification is needed, for instance in the medical profession. On the subject of human capital development in the Netherlands, the aim is a bigger influx of technical students. “There is a need for more smart workers and a better use of human capital. Blockchain technology offers unforeseen possibilities to achieve this.”
At the European level, a first investigation into the potential of blockchain for education has been carried out. Andreia Inamorato dos Santos from the Joint Research Center of the European Commission explained that the report, which will be published in November 2017, is meant to inform EC policymakers about the main concepts of blockchain and the state of the art in Europe especially. Use cases that have been investigated in the report include the open University in the UK, the University of Groningen, the Estonian Ministry of Education and the US startup LearningMachine. The report, entitled ‘Blockchain in Education: a study on the digital accreditation of personal and academic learning’ will touch upon key issues and challenges: self-sovereignty and identity, trust, transparency, and collaboration, to name but a few. Inamorato dos Santos remarks: “Since current implementations are all in a piloting phase, blockchain is still in its very early days. However, our research shows that blockchain has the potential to disrupt the market in student information systems because it will loosen the control current players have in this market.”
Open standard Blockcerts
The open standard Blockcerts was co-developed by the US start-up LearningMachine and MIT. “Vendor lock-in is always a big problem with new technology. An open standard prevents that from happening,” explained Natalie Smolenski. Any vendor, university and government can use Blockcerts.
“The whole promise of blockchain is that you directly own your own assets, whether that is crypto-currency (virtual money such as Bitcoin), land titles or academic credentials. We developed the mobile app Blockcerts Wallet, which is based on the Blockcerts standard, to easily receive and share official records in a format that is cryptographically signed and independently verifiable, using blockchain.” The app makes sure that the certificate in the wallet matches the one that was issued by the educational institution and checks whether a certificate is revoked or expired. A web view of a certificate can be shared through a link with employers or on social media. For educational institutions, a portal is developed to manage issued certificates.
MIT issued its first batches of blockchain credentials to students in the summer of 2017. A second example is the Republic of Malta, were a pilot will soon start with the Maltese Ministry of Education and Employment, aiming for easily portable credentials from education to the workforce. As a third use case, Smolenski mentioned the US Federation of State Medical Boards, who do credential verification for physicians. “They are interested in the verification of previous medical education and the validity of state medical licenses.”
Potential of blockchain in education
As to the potential of blockchain, specifically in higher education, Allan Third of the Open University in the UK was very outspoken. Third, who is a member of the Blockchain Research Group of the Knowledge Media Institute, started his presentation by explaining the capabilities of blockchain. “Verifiability, for instance of the authenticity of academic qualifications, is a very important capability: blockchain enables you to check that a record was genuinely made by who it says that it was made, and that its content has not been tampered with. Another capability is that it is a ‘multi-write database’: it allows records to be added by different parties who do not necessarily trust each other. These parties should also be interested in the same data.” Third’s caveat was that if an application does not require these capabilities, you don’t have to use blockchains. “To be honest, blockchains are very often not appropriate, but if they are, they can be incredibly useful.”
The first educational institution to issue academic certificates whose authenticity can be verified through blockchain was the University of Nicosia (Cyprus). Sony also sees the potential of blockchain for verifying academic achievements. As an adult education institution, the Open University is particularly interested because it often has students with very different backgrounds. “We would like to recognise their achievements and give them credit for evening classes and short courses. Blockchain can be helpful here.”
Employers and recruitment companies can also benefit, said Third. The Open University has been working with several start-ups, such as APPII and Gradbase, who are working on platforms for online verification, career management, and recruitment. Another interesting development is recognition of ongoing informal learning. “Badges can be a token of recognition. We have implemented the representation of badges based on blockchain in the OpenLearn platform we use, so that anyone can verify whether a badge was in fact issued to that student. Currently we are piloting this.”
In short, Third summarised the benefits of blockchain as inbuilt identity management, data ownership and control residing with students, increased transparency, reduced risk of fraud, lowered process costs and the enablement of collaboration. (Open University demos of blockchain can be found here.)
Dutch Blockchain Hackathon
The last speaker of the morning programme was Rutger van Zuidam, the founder of the first Dutch Blockchain Hackathon last February in Groningen, which was the world’s biggest blockchain hackathon so far. The hackathon hosted 55 teams and 450 participants from over 10 countries, and in 3 days 55 new, tangible prototypes were built, explained Zuidam. “These teams did not compete for money, but want to have impact on the lives of millions of people.” One of the winners was the Refugee E-dentity team, which came up with a solution to solve the refugee problem both from a refugee and government perspective. They did this by using a combination of a secure authentication passport based on local biometric data, and storing this data in a blockchain.
The next Dutch Blockchain Hackathon will be in April 2018.
The morning sessions were wrapped up with a short panel discussion. One of the subjects that came up was the possibility for cost savings using blockchain in education. “Cost saving is just part of the story,” Zuidam reacted. “We should be looking at the new possibilities, which are much bigger.” Another topic was the pace of development, which is quite high according to Dhondt (KU Leuven). However, many technological issues are not yet solved. Another big challenge is the involvement of stakeholders at all levels, including policymakers and institutional managers. “It is much more than a technical discussion”, said Inamorato dos Santos (EU). Smolenski (LearningMachine) made the observation that people often ask how we can be sure that blockchain will still exist in 50 years. “I think we can compare the current status of blockchain with the Internet in the early 90s. It is a new network infrastructure, which the majority of people do not understand. However, from LearningMachine’s perspective, the Bitcoin blockchain is a safe bet, because it was architected to be the most secure way of storing data and it is being adopted at a furious rate.”
In the afternoon, the attendees of the conference were given the opportunity to choose sessions which fitted their interests, such as the legal aspects of using blockchain in education, credentials and open badges, and privacy and identity.
Apart from these, two other sessions gave the attendees ample opportunity to discuss the role blockchain can play in enhancing the learning experience and storing learning outcomes with several speakers of the morning sessions. Tim Jansen, a blockchain specialist working at 216Lab, started by telling his personal experiences as a recent graduate. “Although I finished my academic work in March 2014, I received my certificate five months later. During that period of time, there was no way I could prove to a future employer that I had earned my degree, which made it hard for me to start working and earn a salary based on my Master degree.” The problem, according to Jansen, was that although all of his results were available in Blackboard, this e-education platform is not a trusted source of information. “Using blockchain, it would have been possible to prove my degree by showing a kind of badge which proved I passed all my exams. I could even have shown additional competencies and skills, such as international courses or charity work.” Taking it one step further, blockchain technology could also reduce bureaucracy and optimise the process to prevent student loan fraud. It could make life easier for recent graduates by automatically canceling all kinds of services they are allowed to use as a student, but not after graduation (such as student loans, student public transportation cards, and health care benefits).
One of the attendees asked how endorsements on LinkedIn differ from a system showing your reputation based on blockchain. Jansen: “On LinkedIn, recommendations are generally from friends, whereas in a blockchain based system, credentials can only be given by persons you really worked for.” “We should also look at the difference in trust between formal and informal education,” another attendee observed. “Formal education has a system in place with accreditations, so therefore the topic of trust is dealt with,” said Third (OU). “Informal education is much more fuzzy and therefore challenging.” But even then, the risk of fraud will stay. “These problems don’t magically go away because we use blockchain.”
Another topic that came up was the possible paradigm shift in how we learn, and how the government should relate to this. “Since with blockchain there is no need for governance or a centralised authority, what should government’s role be?” Several attendees emphasised this is a far too simple way to look at things. The role of the government is and should stay about trust, validation, and protection of the weak. “We simply can’t leave everything to the private sector.” Inamorato dos Santos (EU) added: “We see, for instance in open education, that the most successful countries are countries where ministries work with the private sector as partners, providing infrastructure – whether it is funding, or policies, or platforms.”
The attendees agreed that in order to maximize the benefits blockchain has to offer, a new way of thinking is necessary and organisational processes will need to change. Blockchain was compared to enterprise level software, which also takes a while for large institutions to decide whether to use it. Smolenski (LearningMachine): “The Republic of Malta is leading the way. They are currently articulating a national blockchain strategy, seeing blockchain as a citizen centred infrastructure, where everything from identification, travel documents, birth and death certificates can be managed.” Blockchain will also change the field of higher education, she said. “In the US, a university diploma is no guarantee anymore for a certain type of income or high social status. Skills-based assessment is getting more important, but it is far too soon to say whether skill certification programs will be viewed on the same level as a university degree.” Third (OU) added: “Obviously, blockchain creates new opportunities for communicating or showing credentials.”
Communicating and showing credentials is exactly the aim of the research project Study Bytes. This project will be the first of the ‘Blockchain Field Lab Education’ initiative, which was announced at the conference. The Field Lab will act as an IT laboratory for inventing, producing and trying out blockchain applications in education. It will bring together the necessary regional, national and international experts and expertise, as well as the University of Groningen, the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Education, Culture and Science and the Dutch Blockchain Coalition. With Study Bytes, everyone can store their diplomas, certificates and other information from national registers through blockchain technology. Stakeholders from the education sector, employers and mediators will be able to access this information through blockchain technology.