Blockchain Education

How blockchain could change higher education

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If 2017 was the peak of euphoria and enthusiasm for everything crypto and blockchain related, 2018 may have represented the opposite as 1) prices for crytocurrencies declined by over 50 percent during the year, and 2) some high profile blockchain-based projects foundered. Even with the hiccups and obstacles, many of which are to be expected as an emerging technology matures and enters the mainstream conversation, numerous sector applications and use cases continue to develop. Such use cases include food safety, accounting disruption, and the intersection of accounting, technology, and regulation, but another important industry appears situated for disruption and change driven by blockchain applications. In addition to the courses, certificates, and programs offered by colleges and universities, blockchain has the potential to fundamentally change how institutions of higher education interact with current and future students.

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Higher education, regardless of what angle is analyzed, is in the middle of a dramatic change across the globe, and with total revenues of U.S. institutions exceeding $560 billion, this is not a minor issue. Clearly there are several issues driving the changes that have been seen in the higher education landscape; cost, reservations about the earning potential of certain degrees, and the challenge of transferring are merely a few of the challenges buffeting the industry. That said, and realizing that no technology or tool is a cure all for business issues, there are several ways that blockchain can — if leveraged effectively — can help reinvigorate and spur innovation within the higher education space.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways that blockchain can, and already is, driving disruption and innovation throughout the higher education landscape.

Changing the currency of higher education

Higher education is, for lack of a better word, a big business and like most other businesses it has a unit of value unique to itself. Credentials are the currency and language of higher education, and are how individuals and institutions are evaluated, but the current system of recording and communicating these different degrees and credentials can be unwieldy. Establishing a sector-specific platform for storing and transferring this information can remove a major pain point for students, academics, and institutions at large. Either via a colored token system, in which certain tokens indicate certain physical assets, or some alternative tokenization structure, diplomas, certificates, and other credentials can become more readily transferable.

Restarting the research engine of academia

Institutions of higher education have always been drivers of research, advancement, and innovation — many of the breakthrough inventions of the 20th century were a result of public-private-academic collaboration. As intellectual property and assets have become more valuable, however, the sharing of innovative ideas has become more problematic in terms of tracking ownership, etc. Once again, setting up a consortium blockchain would allow individual professors and institutions to share information openly while also having an undisputed track record as to who owns what information. Data and innovation are often cited as the drivers of the modern economy, and increased transparency with blockchain-based solutions is a logical step.

Globalize the higher education experience

One of the most pressing issues in the higher education space, especially in the United States, is that the cost associated with obtaining said education can be prohibitive. Building on the second point, a decentralized consortium allows the sharing of courses, faculty expertise, and institutional resources across a globally accessible platform. Much has been written about the necessity for universities to collaborate, pool resources, and offer an international experience for students, including books penned by both current and recently retired university presidents. A blockchain-based system would enable the sharing and storage of information, much of which is confidential and/or private in nature, across different institutions in a nearly instantaneous manner. There is no monopoly on good or innovative ideas, and the sharing of them is critically important in a globalized economy.

Reducing friction associated with transcripts

Initially this may seem like a minor aspect, but if credentials and diplomas are the currency of higher education, transcripts are the identification requested to gain access to the marketplace. Virtually every professional certification or exam (including the CPA licensure process) and some employers, require prospective applicants to submit transcripts. In addition to the time and effect, which depending on the institution in question can be significant, obtaining transcripts can be difficult if the institution in question has been acquired, changed operating structure, or relocated. Consolidation in the higher education space is already underway, and while that shows little sign of reversing, a blockchain-based transcript system would provide both a permanent institutional record and readily available records for students to access.

Reinvigorate higher education curricula

Higher education is feeling pressure from a variety of different forces, including a declining number of individuals heading to college in the United States. An oft-cited complaint is that many course and curricula do not adequately prepare students for the fast-moving marketplace, including the emerging technology of blockchain. Closer to the traditional role played by institutions of higher education, building and offering course materials and certificate programs will help enable institutions to remain at the cutting edge of innovation and technology.

Combined with the other operational benefits achievable via further blockchain implementation, the integration of emerging into the traditional educational structure can allow institutions of higher education and the faculty employed therein to capitalize on the opportunities generated by blockchain.

Understanding how this tool works, the applications possible via integrating it into organizational operations, and how building it into course programs can benefit students is a responsibility all educators share moving forward. Challenges and obstacles will inevitably arise, but with a systemic plan and strategy these benefits are achievable by every institution.

From time to time, we invite industry thought leaders, academic experts and partners, to share their opinions and insights on current trends in blockchain to the Blockchain Pulse blog. While the opinions in these blog posts are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IBM, this blog strives to welcome all points of view to the conversation.

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Assistant Professor, Lehman College, City University of New York

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