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Blockchain technology and Micro-credentials (aka Digital Badges)

Integrating Technology Colleagues,

Have you heard of blockchain technology? If so, it's most likely in connection with an online currency called Bitcoin. However, blockhain technology has other applications, including for authenticating, recording tracking and sharing a record of attainment of micro-credentials, also known as digital badges.

According to this Bostonomix article by Asma Khalid, “What Blockchain Is, And Why Some Experts Say It's As Revolutionary As The Internet,” it’s a technology to which we all should be paying close attention,  that “Tech experts say it's the next major revolution that could change our lives as drastically as the internet once did.” Of course, that remains to be seen, but I wonder if I am the only person in this group watching its development. Are you? If so, what do you think? Is blockchain technology useful for our field, for the development of a secure system of digital micro-credentials leading to authenticated and secure credentials?

What is a “blockchain”?

“If you've ever tried to run a business, you're probably familiar with the idea of a ledger -- a written list of transactions (think Excel or an old-school balance sheet in a binder). Essentially every multinational corporation or small Mom and Pop business uses ledgers to track sales and expenses. In the most basic form, a blockchain refers to a shared digital ledger.”

Why is it important?

“It's a global ledger that can record any transaction, and it'll keep that transaction and all the details associated with that transaction secure," explained Jalak Jobanputra, who runs Future Perfect Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund that focuses on investments in blockchain technology.”

“And by having this system digital and public, blockchain advocates say it makes it easier to prove, track, trust and audit transactions.”

How does this apply to the education world, and specifically to adult basic skills education?

In a June 3, 2016 Learning Machine Blog Article, Chris Jagers wrote,  “The world needs a new system to record, house, curate, secure, and distribute evidence of learning. That new system is the global blockchain and every individual is a lifelong registrar.”

Jagers describes an MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine project “for issuing official records to recipients, and anchoring them onto the Bitcoin blockchain.” He wrote that it  “allows education providers, employers, and others to issue official certificates that supply proof of membership, completion, or achievement. These certificates can be collected by individuals and shared directly with anyone who requires official documents.” In the article he provides an example of how the verification process works.

Jagers also describes why this is needed in education, and several of these reasons apply to adult lifelong learning including adult basic skills:

  • “Students don’t have easy access to their official records and typically have to pay money to have them shared with others.
  • Lifelong learners have no meaningful way to insert the wider array of experiences and achievements into their official academic record.
  • Displaced peoples (refugees) can lose their history and have no way of proving who they are (i.e. doctors or lawyers).
  • Employers have given up asking for transcripts to be sent (too difficult, slow, and increasingly less relevant).
  • Colleges and Universities wait too long for official documents to arrive during admissions and spend too much effort trying to connect them with the right application.

I am interested to hear from others who are tracking how blockchain technology may develop a secure system for authenticating and recording attainment of education and industry-related training credentials. Please share with us your understanding and experience with blockchain technology.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Integrating Technology


Edward Latham's picture
One hundred

With a name like Blockchain, one gets the impression of an inmate chained by the ankle to a huge granite block.  devil

I have had much interest in this type of technology for some time because it impacts so many potential areas. For years countries have been fighting over currencies and currency exchange rates. If there is one system of currency, all digitally tracked, some people feel the world would be better for it. In medical fields we all know the labor of having to fill out mountains of paperwork for every medical organization because there is no one central bank that doctors can look at to get instant info or medical history on us. The Blockchain technologies can fix that if medical people and their lawyers can ever come to agreement on the particulars. 

In both of the above examples, there is a little subjectivity but most of the determination to make those credential systems work is based on hard data. I think that one of the biggest challenges in the credentialing of educational achievements is the level of subjectivity and inconsistency in the academic evaluation systems. If you gather 100 teachers in a room and hand out the same essay and ask the teachers to evaluate that essay, I would suggest that there is almost no chance of consensus. Throw in a rubric or criteria checklist and the odds of consensus increase quite a bit, but I would still imagine quite a variance until the 100 started learning how the group approaches the evaluation. Even then our group of 100 teachers may have established norms that a different set of 100 teachers may not have.

In medicine, doctors have a fairly established protocol for evaluating many of the possible conditions they are presented. Education is sorely lacking that level of consistent evaluation. Any digital credentialing system can be helpful for tracking individual needs, but if the data going into that system varies wildly in consistency much confusion and erroneous assumptions can occur. 

Remember also that this whole system was designed to cut out the middle man. Who would that be in educational terms. Could a home school parent or organization simply state "proof" that a child is now ready for college, bypassing diplomas? Would a teacher really be able to academically report a student earned a 35 without the systemic pressure to pad or inflate that number to 55 to make everyone feel better? Would a group of teachers be able to deem a student "graduated" and ready for the individual to engage in his or her future before a set number of artificially constructed seat hours have been attained? I can see colleges immediately objecting to such a digital system that may threaten their individual flavor or focus of their campus or in even worse cases make their institution irrelevant because equivalent credentials could then be established by either for-profit or maybe even volunteer organizations. 

There are some positives and negatives of cutting out the middle man, but I am not certain who or what that middle man might be in educational terms. I noticed, David, that you concentrated on the tracking part and I agree with the needs you shared and how well a system like this would meet those needs. I don't trust that educational systems have enough consistency between them for such an application to be practically useful yet. Our profession really needs to continue discussions about what individual's academic success looks like and how that is evaluated and recorded. Without more clarity and consistency, it would be impossible to program in parameters into the blockchain systems that would be functional for all adult education programs. Perhaps the growth of the technology options can help push the field into discussions and progress in developing more consistency and better define what that individual academic success is and how it is measured. Blockchain technologies can easily track credits, seat hours and grades. Sadly, credits, seat hours, and subjective numbers or letters hardly share with me how prepared this new student is when entering my classroom or even a place of work where the student is looking to be hired by me.