What blockchain could mean for higher ed

Jami Morshed at Unit4 explains the growing blockchain phenomenon and the various ways in which it can be of use to the HE sector

We’ve all heard of bitcoin and how cryptocurrencies could revolutionise the way we conduct business online. You’ve probably seen the topic buzzing around on LinkedIn feeds or in any recent article touting future technology predictions. While many of us may not be making important purchases in bitcoin in the near future, the tech behind bitcoin – called blockchain – has the potential to influence our daily lives in more ways than one might think, including in higher education.

What is blockchain?

You’re not alone if your head starts to spin when you hear the term blockchain. Despite being around for about a decade, many institutions are still struggling to grasp just what blockchain is – and what it can mean to higher education.

At the most basic level, blockchain is a database or digital ledger. The data in the ledger is arranged in batches known as blocks, with each block storing data about a specific transaction. The blocks are linked together using cryptographic validation to form an unbroken and unbreakable chain – hence the name blockchain. As it relates to bitcoin, the blocks are monetary units, and the chain includes information about all past transactions of that monetary unit.

Importantly, the database (i.e., the series of blocks) is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers, meaning that it has no one central repository. This not only means that the records are truly public, but also that there is no centralised version of the data for a hacker to corrupt. In order to make changes to the ledger, consensus between all members of the group must be obtained, further adding to the system’s security.

The future of credentialing

For HE – and even for our professional lives after graduation – blockchain has the potential to drastically impact the future of credentialing. With today’s technologies, graduates and prospective employers must go through a tedious process to obtain student transcripts or diplomas, and this complexity is compounded when these credentials are spread across multiple institutions. Not only that, but these transcripts can take days or weeks to produce and send, and usually require a small fee be paid to the institution.

While many of us may not be making important purchases in bitcoin in the near future, the tech behind bitcoin – called blockchain – has the potential to influence our daily lives in more ways than one might think, including in higher education.

This reality is in fact closer than you might think, as various companies are currently working on such a system of record. One of the most well-known is called “BlockCert,” which is an open standard created by MIT Media Lab and which the institute hopes will help drive the adoption of blockchain credentialing. MIT not only has begun issuing digital certificates to students in the Media Lab, but envisions that such a system could help to digitally represent our professional lives as well. For example, imagine the role that LinkedIn or a similar platform could play in the distribution of such content. Beyond verification of university records, LinkedIn could become a platform for sharing verified work history and resumes as well, making the job application process far simpler.

Of course, as such a system would have complete control over our professional representation in the digital space, we must think long and hard about the best ways to create and employ such a system, as well as the regulatory bodies that would need to be put in place to govern its existence.

Blockchain’s financial implications and student debt

While most of us likely wouldn’t know how to go about making a transaction using bitcoin, it’s actually more common than we think. In fact, fifteen percent of banks are expected to be using blockchain in 2017, and by 2020, this forecast jumps to sixty-six percent, according to a report from IBM.

So how could blockchain chain influence student finances? For starters, financial aid and grants could be tied to student success. Instead of students and universities having to send over regular progress reports on a recipient’s performance, automatic updates to a student’s digital record would ensure that benchmarks were being met – and open up new opportunities for institutions looking to offer merit-based grants. Overall, the technology could also help provide a better way of centrally managing scholarship and government financial aid.

Electronic tuition payments and money transfers could also simplify the tuition process. This is an especially appealing option for international students, as bitcoin’s interchangeable nature and lack of special fees for international transfers makes it a simpler and more cost-effective payment method. While only a couple of schools have adopted the technology so far, with the currency’s growing acceptance among banks worldwide, it’s likely that these numbers will increase in coming years. 

Blockchain is more than just hype

While we are still very much in the early days of blockchain adoption, there’s no doubt that the technology is making waves across many industries. Whether it be the acceptance of bitcoin at higher ed institutions or the development of blockchain-enabled credentialing, changes are likely coming to the higher ed landscape. These are just a few tangible examples of blockchain’s potential and as the technology gains mainstream adoption, additional use cases are likely to present themselves – and there is no telling what other changes the higher ed space could learn from the bitcoin / blockchain movement.

I welcome further discussion on the topic. What other changes are you expecting or preparing for at your institution?

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