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Universities urged to monitor developments in blockchain in other sectors

ANALYSIS: Universities should monitor innovations in the way blockchain technology is applied in other sectors to learn lessons about how they might use the technology themselves.19 Jan 2018

There are a number of ways that blockchain could be utilised by education providers. Examples are contained in a paper (136-page / 3.71MB PDF) published by the European Commission's science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre. They include as a tool for universities to share intellectual property and for improving the way the institutions manage student data.

However, as the paper has highlighted, projects within the education sector looking into blockchain's potential are at early stages. Success stories, such as those emerging in the financial services sector, could help inform how the technology is applied in future.

Blockchain and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework

Applying blockchain technology has the potential to improve the way universities perform against the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework.

The framework is used to measure learning and teaching standards across the UK's higher education sector. It complements the Research Excellence Framework.

Providers are assessed on a range of different aspects of teaching including student satisfaction, retention and the future job prospects of graduates. The assessment is based on data and not actual inspections of teaching.

Using blockchain technology, universities could build up a richer set of data about students and use that information to link students to new job opportunities with the aiming of increasing graduate employment rates.

In one possible use case, universities could use the blockchain as a platform for storing and managing student records, and students themselves could be given access to ensure their data is up-to-date. Information about skills gathered, qualifications obtained and work experiences gained, for example, could be married to job opportunities at prospective employers. Consent mechanisms could also be developed to allow employers access to the data themselves to identify candidates for the jobs directly.

Efficiency enabled by blockchain

Being able to update the information digitally and in real-time, and give students control of that data too, are advantages that blockchain could deliver. It could eliminate paper-based processes or other inefficient electronic data management systems, delivering cost savings to universities continually challenged by budget constraints.

Blockchain technology also offers universities the potential to streamline processes around verification of student data.

Employers often want to check that graduates who apply for jobs with them have the qualifications they say they do in their CV. Universities that have the data to hand on a platform underpinned by blockchain technology can access and potentially share that data more readily in a secure way than might be the case with other records management systems.

This potential application of blockchain is specifically referenced in the Joint Research Centre's report.

"Since certificates issued on the blockchain can be automatically verified, educational organisations will no longer need to commit resources to this task, significantly reducing their administrative load, and practically eliminating the ‘after-sales support’ they need to provide to learners following the end of courses," the report said. "However, since many organisations also offer this service at a profit, it may also mean that institutions will need to adapt their business models accordingly."

Challenges

Blockchain is still a fairly nascent technology. It is mostly referenced in the context of the financial services sector, but its potential as a game-changer for supporting financial trading and payments, for example, has yet to fully materialise.

The Joint Research Centre's report identifies a number of steps that need to be taken to enable blockchain to come into mainstream use in Europe's education sector.

The report's authors recommended the creation of "digital meta-data standards for educational records" and warned that the benefits of blockchain technology in the sector would only be delivered through "open implementation".

"Only ‘fully-open’ blockchain implementations can reach the real goals and promise of blockchain in education," the report said. "By this, we mean solutions whose fundamental components include: recipient ownership; vendor independence and 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."

There are also challenges to overcome in terms of applying blockchain in a way which complies with data protection laws. The authors, though, say that creating "self-sovereign identities" through the blockchain can help facilitate compliance.

"European law imposes significant obligations on organisations which are custodians of personal data – obliging them to control who has access to it within an organisation and to ensure its safe storage within the organisation," the report said." The more people have access to the data, the more complex the management, the higher the costs and the higher the risks of a data breach or abuse."

"Self-sovereign identities effectively create a secure identity card which can be held by a student, and which can be biometrically linked to them – allowing the student to identify themselves without actually handing over any data, and without the need to cross data with a database held by the institution. The institution will be able to identify the student without actually holding and retaining their data. This significantly reduces the administrative overhead, as well as reducing the potential ‘footprint’ for a data breach or abuse," it said.

Get data protection right, and there are potential innovations in the way student data could be used. That is a further conclusion reached in the report.

"Learners’ data is a critical component of many applications including human resource management systems, e-portfolios and professional social networks," it said. "Blockchain technology allows all these systems to automatically validate certificates from any issuer in any (metadata) format. This ability to store verified claims rather than mere claims, should significantly enhance the usefulness of such systems to their various stakeholders."

"We may well imagine applications that: automatically verify CVs and shortlist candidates with appropriate qualifications; and other applications that would automatically place employees into a higher-earnings bracket based on evidence of completed training and professional networks that would use verified professional certificates as the requirement for subscription. Countless other ideas are likely to be imagined by start-ups and established companies working in the field," it said.

Universities should be excited about the potential of blockchain and look to other sectors to see how some of the challenges the technology raises are addressed.

Joanne McIntosh is an expert in technology contracts in the education sector at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.