This paper discusses the opportunities and challenges of applying blockchain technologies in the education sector. The key blockchain-in-education applications discussed are the digitalization and decentralization of educational certifications and the enhancement and motivation for lifelong learning. Some of the key challenges explored are data protection laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Protection Act, which pose impediments for application developers and scalability challenges that arise because of slow-speed blockchain transactions and the Scaling Trilemma. Additionally, market adoption and innovation challenges highlight that blockchain-in-education is a relatively immature innovation that governance bodies within educational institutions often disregard or perceive cautiously.
Blockchain in education
The challenges of applying blockchain in the education sector
Blockchain has been extensively discussed as the foundation technology behind cryptocurrencies, as shown in Yuan and Wang’s (2018) study, and lately as a data storage opportunity that can generate significant, beneficial impact in previously unexplored industries such as manufacturing (Angrish, et al., 2018), healthcare (Agbo, et al., 2019), and education (Bartolomé, et al., 2017). The goal of this study is to explore the potential opportunities, challenges, and overall implications of implementing blockchain in the education sector. In doing this, the paper will explore two key questions. First, how can blockchain technology improve the performance of educational institutions and their students’ learning? This question will analyze three different segments that may benefit from blockchain solutions: 1) educational organizations (e.g., universities, start-ups, NGOs) that may be looking for ways to enhance the efficiency and security of students’ data storage and management; 2) learners who may benefit from more engaging, reliable, and sustainable ways to accumulate, attest, and share knowledge; 3) employers who are looking for reliable, secure methods to assess the validity of students’ skills and certifications. This paper will discuss the incentives, fears, and overall goals of these three parties and analyze blockchain as a solution that may generate both individual and collective value through educational applications.
The second question explored in this paper is: what are the impediments of blockchain implementation within the education sector? This question will focus on identifying and analyzing the types of challenges that may arise for both private and public education organizations that aim to develop or implement blockchain solutions.
What is blockchain?
As shown in Zheng, et al.’s (2017) overview of blockchain technologies, blockchain is an immutable, decentralized database — a chain of “blocks” which store information such as transactions’ dates, times, amounts, and/or participants (participants on the blockchain are usually not personally identifiable). There are different types of blockchains: public, private, and permissioned.
A pubic blockchain allows anyone to join and contribute to the network (Zheng, et al., 2017). This way, public blockchains are valuable in that they provide truly decentralized, democratized and authority-free operations. Unlike public blockchains, permissioned blockchains only allow verified participants, such as the members of an organization, who are invited and validated before joining the network. The third type of blockchain is private; private and permissioned blockchains are similar, but a difference between them is that private blockchains are owned and maintained by a single organization .
There are multiple mechanisms that ensure the security of a blockchain. For instance, each block within the blockchain stores a hash of the previous block. A hash function takes an input of variable length and produces an output of fixed length. This way, hashing within the blockchain (i.e., hash chain) makes it very difficult to change previous blocks, thus ensuring immutability. Additionally, the miners who add blocks on the blockchain are incentivized to ensure the integrity of the network by disproving any malicious transactions. The nature of such incentives may vary based on the blockchain protocol used, but one of the most popular protocols, Proof of Work (PoW), requires “work” (i.e., computational power) for miners to add blocks to the chain, which incentivizes them to not waste valuable resources by approving malicious transactions/blocks.
Another technical blockchain term worth understanding for the purposes of this paper is that of a smart contract — a computer program on the blockchain, which contains the terms of the agreement between a buyer and a seller, and could be automatically executed by miners (Zheng, et al., 2017). A smart contract thus enforces and facilitates the negotiation and performance of a contract.
The state of blockchain in education research
It is worth noting that the use of blockchain in education is still in its incipient phases, which affects the access to and the quality of available research on the topic. As Alammary, et al. (2019) state, “although the volume of literature on the application of blockchain to education has been increasing in the last few years, it is still fragmented, and no systematic review has yet been conducted on the topic”. Similarly, Thayer (2018) claims that “today’s blockchain technology may not be evolved enough to scale for all use cases. This is a particular concern for the education platform use cases [e.g., blockchain record keeping or digital assets use cases]”. Given that blockchain exploration in the context of the education industry is so recent, many of the currently influential blockchain-in-education initiatives have not yet been widely researched and documented.
To ensure that the scarcity of available research does not negatively impact the quality of this paper, this study expands the number and type of sources used, as shown in the following section.
In response to the key questions mentioned before, this paper combines two approaches: case-based and research-based. As part of the first approach, this study examines educational initiatives that are implementing blockchain solutions. The range of initiatives discussed is broad, going from private to public, national (U.S.) to international, and small to large-scale educational organizations.
Table 1 presents a record of the interviewees that participated in this study, across two key categories: beneficiaries of blockchain-in-education solutions (e.g., universities) and suppliers of blockchain-in-education solutions (e.g., start-ups). The names of the people and the institutions that they represent have not been included, in order to ensure the privacy of the participating parties.
Table 1: Study subjects (interviews). Participant number Institution Area of focus Beneficiary or supplier? 1 Private university
Learning innovation Both 2 Public university
Teaching Beneficiary 3 Public university
IT systems and services Beneficiary 4 Public university
Registrar systems Beneficiary 5 Public university
Continuing education Beneficiary 6 Public university
Digital learning technologies Beneficiary 7 Start-up Learners’ credentials Supplier 8 Start-up Blockchain solutions incubator Supplier 9 Start-up Democratization of higher education Supplier
Additionally, Table 2 lists questions asked in the interviews. The questions have varied, based on the type of interviewee (beneficiary or supplier of blockchain-in-education solution).
Table 2: Interview questions. Beneficiaries Suppliers 1. Why did your school decide to join this blockchain solution? What inspired you to build this blockchain solution? 2. What is the progress that you have had since you implemented this blockchain solution? What is the role of blockchain within your organization? 3. What are the key challenges faced so far while implementing and scaling this blockchain solution? What is the traction that you have had so far with your organization? 4. What are some impediments faced by universities and other educational organizations when they explore implementing blockchain solutions? What are some of the key challenges that you have faced so far as a blockchain-in-education entrepreneur? 5. What are some market trends that you envision for blockchain in education? What is the vision of your organization for the short term and long term?
In parallel, this paper discusses available research studies in order to offer broader insights into opportunities and challenges of implementing blockchain in the education sector.
Overall, the research studies discussed in this paper focus both on the perspectives of educational institutions (providers of knowledge) and of learners (knowledge beneficiaries). Combined with the breadth of insights coming from interviewing technologists, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, and professors who implement blockchain-powered education solutions, this study builds a comprehensive, substantial depiction of the opportunities and challenges that arise when blockchain is applied in the education sector.
Blockchain in education
Before starting to explore the two research questions highlighted above, it is worth addressing a fundamental question: should blockchain be implemented in education? In response to this, this study refers to Tapscott and Kaplan (2019). Tapscott and Kaplan claim that by using blockchain, the processes of teaching and learning can be improved across key dimensions.
Empowerment for learners (self-sovereignty)
Through blockchain, data (e.g., credentials, skills learned, etc.) associated with students’ identity is not owed by a central administrator such as a university, but by the student. Students have an opportunity to store their lifelong learning data (both from inside and outside of classroom), fully own it and control who has access to it (e.g., employers). This way, learners can prove that the credentials in their resumes are accurate and have more control over what can be accessed by their employers.
It is worth noting that even when students benefit from blockchain “wallets” where they can store all their learning data and share it with diverse parties (students being complete owners of their identity-related data), they still benefit from the support of their professors, thus not being alone in their learning journeys.
Security and efficiency enhancement for educational institutions, businesses, and learners
Blockchain has the potential to ensure the identity, privacy, and security of students’ data. As shown earlier in this paper, blockchain offers security and validity by ensuring immutability through its hash chain. For instance, students cannot alter past educational certification stored on the blockchain, while they may easily do that with paper records. Additionally, privacy is ensured through blockchain not storing the data, but rather a hash of the data. Optionally, the data may also be encrypted before being stored on the blockchain.
In terms of efficiency, Thayer (2018) highlights diverse blockchain-powered efficiency applications that include record-keeping uses such as digital credentials and intellectual property management, streamlining of diploma verification and fast and reliable student payments. These applications save money and time not only for educational institutions, but also for employers and individual learners.
Trust and transparency integration
Blockchain ensures that students cannot alter their grades, degrees, and certification, thus offering employers the guarantee that the job applicants indeed have the necessary skills to succeed in the workplace. Thus, blockchain becomes a “trust anchor of one truth for credentials” (Tapscott and Kaplan, 2019). Additionally, this anchor also offers the opportunity to create better matches between job seekers and employers. More broadly, as distributed ledger technologies support learning and secure academic records, they enhance the relationships among “colleges, universities, employers, and their relationships to society” through the integration of trust and transparency in the skills transactions and sharing processes .
Applications of blockchain in education
In their systematic review of blockchain-based applications in education, Alammary, et al. (2019) highlight twelve categories of applications. While their list is comprehensive, the authors do not go into details about each type of application. Therefore, this paper will use their list as a framework, but discuss other researchers and entrepreneurs’ work to detail several major applications of blockchain in education separately.
1. Certificates and identity management
Devine (2015) argues that through blockchain, students’ academic records become public and easily shareable with employers and universities for further personal development opportunities. This way, “the accredited educational timeline could be used to make projections of future potential based upon individual student learning histories” . This application benefits students, by offering them an empowering tool to track and share their academic progress, but also employers, who can rely on accurate, true representations of students’ potential based on academic achievement (trusted verification).
A key academic initiative that aims to build an international infrastructure for digital academic credentials is the Digital Credentials Consortium (https://digitalcredentials.mit.edu), founded in 2018 and led through a partnership among top global universities. Their mission is to build a trusted infrastructure for academic digital credentials. According to interview #3, which is a representative of one of the European higher education institutions involved in the Digital Credentials Consortium, throughout the upcoming five years, the partners hope to form a large network of global educational institutions and an ecosystem of companies (i.e., employers) that use the standard they defined. In this context, some of the key benefits for learners on the Digital Credentials Consortium platform will be: holding a verified, lifelong record of learning achievements to share with employers, obtaining credentials digitally in a secure way, not having to ask or pay their universities for copies of their transcripts, and curating credentials received from multiple universities. On the other side of the spectrum, educational institutions benefit by managing and sharing students records in a price efficient, secure way, removing the risks of identity fraud, and having access to a streamlined process to issue multiple credentials to one learner source. Lastly, as mentioned before, companies would benefit by easily accessing verified academic credentials of potential employees.
One of the educational institutions leading the Digital Credentials Consortium, MIT, has historically developed other blockchain applications to streamline the educational accreditations process. For instance, MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine’s Blockcerts (https://www.blockcerts.org) is an open standard for blockchain credentials, a platform that allows educational institutions to implement blockchain accreditations within their programs. The journey for learners on the Blockcerts platform is short and simple: users download the Blockcerts app and are offered a private pass phrase to ensure ownership; afterwards, they add credential issuers to their apps; lastly, they receive, manage, and distribute credentials. Blockcerts is a “remarkable case as an initiative based on [blockchain] for certification”, as claimed by Bartolomé, et al. (2017). Bartolomé, et al. discuss blockchain solutions to the problem of formal academic qualifications failing to guarantee skills within a subject (depth) or to describe an individual’s knowledge coming from non-formal/informal sources (breadth). Additionally, the MIT Media Lab started adding digital certificates to blockchain to reward community members for their contributions to the Lab’s work (Tapscott and Kaplan, 2019).
Other examples of certificates and identity management blockchain applications implemented by educational institutions include University of Nicosia’s offering of accredited courses through verifiable certificates on the blockchain (Bartolomé, et al., 2017) and Southern New Hampshire University issuing its College for America students their bachelor’s or associate degrees in a digital format on the blockchain, alongside a traditional paper format.
Additionally, Open Source University (https://os.university) claims to be “The World’s Academic and Career Development Ledger”, which seeks to “provide authentication for students’ academic credentials on a single ledger that prospective employers and other educational institutions can rely upon as verified truth”. Open Source University claims that their matching algorithm will help businesses seek out qualified candidates using the platform, while users’ degree credits will be leveraged to help them view potential, suggested career options. Additionally, the platform also contains a teaching component, and all payments to learning content providers are executed using smart contracts. Similarly to the Digital Credentials Consortium model, Open Source University aims to use blockchain to benefit all three key stakeholders in the education process: learners, academia, and businesses.
It is worth highlighting that partnerships between enterprises and universities have been formed as well. For instance, IBM and Northeastern University have partnered to allow IBM employees, customers, and members of the public to use IBM-issued badge credentials towards the completion of a Northeastern professional Master’s degree. “This partnership recognizes that learning can occur everywhere and that skill mastery should be transferable from work to university” . As the Tapscott and Kaplan highlight, “if a student learns a new skill, collaborates to finish a task, or manages others at work, then those skills and experience could go on the learning transcript, too” . Therefore, credentials management blockchain applications in education go beyond academic achievement, expanding into aspects of learning that take place outside of the classroom.
Beyond universities’ implementations, there are large number of privately owned start-ups using blockchain for learning certification purposes. For instance, BCDiploma (https://www.bcdiploma.com/) is an influential European start-up that “dematerializes and automates the issuance of certified diplomas and certificates”. They do that by securely storing data on the Ethereum blockchain and having an open source application that has forgery-proof issuer identity certified by smart contracts. Their solution offers issuers 90 percent cost savings and has been widely used by universities around Europe. According to Langard (2019), the decentralized service is based on the Ethereum Blockchain Certified Data Token, using a patented one-click technology to access certified compliant data. In the process, a graduate student receives a URL link through which to prove the authenticity of diplomas.
Overall, there are numerous universities, large enterprises, and start-ups that aim to enhance and facilitate the process of providing learners with lifelong digital credentials to recognize and ensure the authenticity of achievements both inside the classroom (e.g., academic degrees) and outside (e.g., MOOCs or massive open online courses), other online courses), through blockchain technologies.
2. Enhancing and motivating lifelong learning
Blockchain also has multiple applications within the educational process — making teaching and learning more engaging and fun.
In this context, Devine (2015) claims that students and teachers show “frustration with many of the standard online learning tools”, which fail to effectively engage learners . Therefore, he explores blockchain’s OpenSource framework as a potential tool that may “provide improvements or enhancements to the existing online teaching and learning experience” . Inspired by Melanie Swan’s Blockchain: Blueprint for a new economy (Sebastopol, Calif.: O’Reilly, 2015), Devine defines blockchain learning as decentralized learning contracts/exchanges focused on students’ personal development.
In parallel, Thayer and Yanckello (2019) claim that most administrative systems within educational institutions perform poorly on the key metric of engagement not only within the learning process, but also across multiple levels: recruitment, enrollment, retention, and alumni advancement. Thus, they recommend CRM technologies combined with analytics and blockchain, to offer personalized services to students throughout the entire educational cycle.
In this context, multiple start-ups aim to enhance the learning process through blockchain instances, mostly focused on out-of-classroom education (e.g., lifelong personal development). For instance, BitDegree (https://www.bitdegree.org/) is a gamified online education platform that provides users learning incentives such as tokenized scholarships for completing tech courses or reaching learning milestones on BitDegree. The BitDegree team claims that the BDG token will track educational achievement data and will reward the parties engaged within the platform (e.g., learners, course providers, community contributors). In this context, the BitDegree Studio helps course creators build gamified, engaging, data-driven course experiences, which are subsequently offered to learners through the BitDegree Marketplace.
Another influential start-up in the learner engagement area is ODEM.io (https://odem.cloud). Within the platform, by using the ODEM token (ODE), students interact with academic professionals who offer personalized learning experiences. The ODEM Trust Network offers solutions for students/professionals, educators, employers, and educational organizations, connecting these parties by taking out any intermediaries. More specifically, students can find work on the ODEM Employment Network, discover education opportunities tailored to their skills and interests, or store their credentials securely. Educators create programs, teach, and are rewarded through ODE tokens on the ODEM Marketplace, which is administered through smart contracts secured on the blockchain. Employers can verify candidates’ credentials (e.g., skills, previous employers, and educators) in an easy and reliable way. Lastly, educational organizations can manage and deliver accreditations for their students by using the ODEM platform. Overall, ODEM.io makes learning, teaching, and employing more engaging and effective by using blockchain.
In conclusion, many private initiatives aim to make the learning and teaching processes for learners and content providers more effective and engaging through blockchain (e.g., using educational tokens as rewards, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and bureaucracy), as summarized in Table 3. This shows that blockchain-powered tokens offer the opportunity to substantially enhance the motivation and engagement of learners within non-formal and informal educational platforms such as online courses and MOOCs. However, it is worth noticing that very few projects (if any) highlight the efforts made by universities to enhance and motivate formal education through blockchain. This is a relevant insight that is explored in the next section. What are the challenges that stop universities from using blockchain to make learning and teaching more effective?
Table 3: Summary of blockchain-in-education applications. Value proposition Examples discussed
1. Certificates and identity management Digital Credentials Consortium
Open Source University
2. Enhancing and motivating lifelong learning BitDegree
The challenges of applying blockchain in the education sector
This section will explore some of the key impediments faced by organizations and institutions that aim to integrate blockchain within the educational process. In this context, two types of challenges will be discussed — those faced by start-ups/organizations that implement and distribute educational blockchain solutions and those faced by universities/institutions that aim to adopt such solutions. Thus, this section will discuss the challenges faced by both blockchain-in-education solutions suppliers and clients.
1. The legal challenge: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA)
According to the European Parliament’s study on the compliance of blockchain with the GDPR law:
“The GDPR’s objective is essentially two-fold. On the one hand, it seeks to facilitate the free movement of personal data between the EU’s various Member States. On the other hand, it establishes a framework of fundamental rights protection, based on the right to data protection in Article 8 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The legal framework creates a number of obligations resting on data controllers, which are the entities determining the means and purposes of data processing. It also allocates a number of rights to data subjects — the natural persons to whom personal data relates — that can be enforced via-à-vis data controllers.” (Finck, 2019)
The study, which looks into blockchain and data developments completed up to March 2019, mentions two key GDPR assumptions that are relevant when discussing blockchain technologies. The first claims that “in relation to each personal data point there is at least one natural or legal person — the data controller — whom data subjects can address to enforce their rights under EU data protection law. These data controllers must comply with the GDPR’s obligations.” . However, there is a claim that blockchain aims to achieve decentralization, which may complicate how “controllership out to be defined” and “hampers the allocation of responsibility and accountability” when it comes to GDPR obligations . Thus, it seems that the EU perceives blockchain as a potential threat to citizens’ data ownership rights and responsibilities. The second assumption behind GDPR is that “data can be modified or erased where necessary to comply with legal requirements such as Articles 16 [personal data must be amended in specific circumstances] and 17 GDPR [personal data must be erased in specific circumstances].” . In this case, the tension comes as a result of blockchain hardly allowing any data modifications in order to ensure data integrity and trust.
These key tensions that arise when assessing blockchain’s compliance with the GDPR lead to multiple debates, one of them being whether the data on a distributed ledger (e.g., encrypted, hashed data) qualifies as personal data or not . If such data qualifies as personal data, then European data protection law must apply. Another similar debate is whether data can be sufficiently anonymized to meet the GDPR “threshold of anonymization” .
Given the multitude of challenges and complications, Finck (2019) reaches two conclusions. First, blockchain applications’ technical implications and governance design may make it hard to ensure compliance with the GDPR. Thus, “blockchain architects need to be aware of this from the outset and make sure that they design their respective use cases in a manner that allows compliance with European data protection law” . Second, the cause of the relative absence of legal certainty on how blockchain can be designed such that it complies with GDPR requirements goes beyond just blockchain — there are multiple concepts and “conceptual uncertainties” of the GDPR law itself that complicate the current matter .
Going beyond the EU data protection regulations, the U.S. has multiple data privacy laws (though no federal data protection framework) such as the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA). Shah, et al. (2019) claim that “California enacted the most comprehensive and stringent state-level data protection law in the US to date with the CCPA. The new protections for California residents begin January 1, 2020.”  In this context, Shah, et al. highlight tensions that arise when ensuring that blockchain solutions will comply with the CCPA. Similarly to the GDPR challenges, the distributed network architecture and the data immutability may be at odds with CCPA’s “traditional notion of centralized controller-based data processing.”  This makes it hard to identify and hold accountable data controllers and processors within the blockchain. The CCPA comprehensive perspective on personal information includes: “online identifiers,” without specific definition, and unique identifiers that encompass “persistent or probabilistic identifiers that can be used to identify a particular consumer or device”.  This law contributes to tensions and challenges in ensuring that blockchain complies with the CCPA.
Overall, it can be seen that blockchain-in-education suppliers (e.g., start-ups, organizations) face multiple challenges when it comes to ensuring that their products comply with data protection laws such as the GDPR and the CCPA. Some of these challenges are out of the control of suppliers (e.g., vague legislation, legislators’ traditional perception of centralized data systems and inconsideration of decentralized innovative systems), which makes it even harder to overcome legal issues. However, there are some ways in which start-ups and organization can enhance the probability of developing data protection law-compliant blockchain solutions. For instance, they can limit or even avoid storing personal data on the blockchain, carefully evaluate whether blockchain is indeed necessary to fulfill a specific business or social need, or use permissioned blockchains with stricter usage rules .
2. The scalability challenge
Alammary, et al. (2019) define the scalability challenge as the “slow speed blockchain transactions” challenge. Educational systems have large amounts of data collected on many students, which leads to an increase in blocks sizes. As the number of blocks becomes larger, transactions on the blockchain require more time given that each transaction requires peer-to-peer verification (e.g., Bitcoin technology can only handle three to seven transactions per second) . Thus, scalability may be a significant impediment when blockchain-in-education solutions are explored and potentially adopted on a wide scale.
Qin and Gervais (n.d.) argue that scaling permissioned blockchains, which are “closed and typically governed by consortia blockchains”, are cheaper and easier to scale than permissionless blockchains, which are “freely accessible blockchain where anyone with sufficient capital can choose to join and become a writer of the ledger” . However, they also highlight that 70 percent of the current blockchain market share is held by permissionless blockchains run by PoW (Proof of Work defined as allowing “someone with sufficient capital to solve a computationally hard problem in order to validate blockchain transactions and write them to the blockchain”) . This highlights that a key factor that defines the value of blockchain on the current market is the open, transparent, and overall permissionless nature of it. However, permissionless blockchains can only execute approximately 10 transactions per second, while permissioned blockchains are much faster, because “existing consensus protocols for closed sets are naturally much faster, than an open and permissionless network” .
In this context, Qin and Gervais (n.d.) introduce “The Scaling Trilemma”, which claims that “blockchains can have at most two of the three properties: (i) decentralization, (ii) scalability and (iii) security (no single point of control)” . The reasoning behind the Scalability Trilemma is the following: scalability is significantly influenced by “block time interval and the block size” and reducing the time may enhance performance but may reduce security by increasing the chance of blockchain forks (“a fork refers to the point that a blockchain is split into different versions”) occurring . Additionally, a larger block size may lead to more transaction carried but to slower network propagation and reduced security . Thus, Qin and Gervais claim that “blind modification of the said parameters might make the whole system vulnerable to a variety of attacks, such as selfish mining and double spending” . Their results were powered by an open-source blockchain simulator that tested how diverse network parameters affect the blockchain system and by a mathematical model that evaluated security . However, as solutions are being considered to this scalability challenge, Qin and Gervais discovered that “by appropriately adjusting some parameters, a scalability factor of 10 can be achieved, without sacrificing security. Namely, Bitcoin could increase the current transaction throughput by ten-fold, with one simple parameter change, and without sacrificing security” . While Bitcoin is just one of the instances of blockchain that has not been covered in this paper, the same solution (enhancing transaction throughput without decreasing security) can be applied to blockchain instances within the education sector.
Another potential challenge that may arise with scalability is that Proof of Work (PoW), the popular consensus protocol, wastes significant amounts of electricity energy, as highlighted by Zheng, et al. (2017). For instance, it is widely known that within one year, the Bitcoin PoW takes the amount of electricity needed to power a country like Switzerland.
It is worth highlighting that a key, first step that must be taken when analyzing the challenge of blockchain scalability within education is deeply understanding the nature (e.g., technical implications, market adoption aspects) of each blockchain-in-education solution. Once this is accomplished, suppliers of such solutions may decide whether scalability is indeed an issue or not, based on the type of educational application they develop. For instance, for credentialing, the volume of transactions on the blockchain may be low and thus scaling may be a minor issue in such a context. However, in the context of transacting educational tokens to motivate lifelong learning or paying for tuition fees on the blockchain, scalability may be more of an issue, given the relatively low number of transactions per second currently enabled.
3. Data privacy and security
Chowdhury, et al. (2018) highlight in their critical analysis of blockchain versus databases the popular misconception that the data on the blockchain is encrypted . While the data is digitally signed by the transacting parties, it is not encrypted by default. As Chowdhury, et al. claim, “it is an open ledger system, where anybody can join and verify any transaction in the network”, while the privacy of the parties involved is ensured through public key cryptography . Educational institutions may need to implement stronger privacy measures by using private or permissioned blockchains, or using protocols such as the Zero Knowledge proof.
As Alammary, et al. (2019) highlight, ensuring privacy while providing security on the blockchain is very difficult to achieve, yet it is crucial especially when a student’s career may be at risk (educational credentials and certificates) . Beyond the challenge of guaranteeing transactional privacy through public and private keys, the problem of having transactions visible to everyone who has access to the blockchain should also be considered, since this data may be collected and made public elsewhere. However, in order to overcome these issues, data may be kept on the blockchain in encrypted form. Another option would be to keep the data off the blockchain and only store a hash of that data on the blockchain.
4. The market adoption challenge
This section will discuss the market adoption of blockchain-in-education solutions by exploring the view of potential beneficiaries (e.g., governance stakeholders in schools, governments) towards such applications (e.g., fears, concerns) and the key parties that may influence such adoptions. The insights are gathered not only from available research, but also from multiple interviews led with higher education institutions and blockchain education start-ups in the United States and Europe.
Multiple educational institutions remain reluctant towards adopting blockchain technologies. Some of the reasons behind this lack of trust may consist of the lack of necessary knowledge and skills on how to manage students’ data on a blockchain platform. For instance, interview participant #4 from a public university in North America claimed that the reason for joining the Digital Credentials Consortium was to enhance the university governance and staff’s limited knowledge on how to integrate and manage such an innovative technology successfully, in the long term. This shows that the first step in successfully integrating blockchain solutions within educational institutions may be educating school administrators on how to apply and maintain such applications internally. The importance of this step should not be underestimated, as highlighted by interview respondent #9, a supplier (start-up founder) of blockchain-in-education solutions that aims to democratize higher education. He claimed that the key party that ultimately decided whether a university adopts a blockchain solution was the school’s administration, not its professors, students, researchers, or business partners (such as key employers of the school’s graduates). Thus, raising awareness and educating academic governance bodies about the benefits, implementation, and maintenance of blockchain-in-education solutions is a key first step in generating market adoption in the higher education globally. A number of the interviewees complained about this process, claiming that governance stakeholders in universities recognized the benefits of blockchain-in-education solutions, but did not have incentives to implement such solutions. That is, they were more concerned about daily academic performance of the student body and competing with regional education institutions.
It is important to note that another key party that may significantly influence market adoption of blockchain within the education sector is the government. As interviewee #9 highlighted, in countries such as India, approximately 20 million at university enrollment level are annually excluded from educational opportunities because the classical higher education system cannot support this demand. Thus, open education online is a key affordable opportunity for those who are excluded. A big challenge with online education is the formal recognition of skills by businesses. Employers in developing economies value traditional degrees at the expense of online and more informal educational methods. In such a context, blockchain credentialing could potentially infuse more trust for all parties involved, by ensuring the validity (issuance, existence) of credentials gained through non-traditional education methods. According to interviewee #9, a key partner that may help blockchain credentials suppliers provide viable solutions may be the government. Thus, it is worth noting that the adoption of blockchain-in-education solutions at scale may be more easily ensured through partnerships and collaborations with government and university governance stakeholders.
As interviewee #1 highlighted, another issue for the public adoption of key blockchain-in-education applications, such as digital credentialing, was real demand from employers. In order for institutions to be encouraged to adopt these solutions, more demand must come from businesses. While employers recognize the importance of skills and credentials validation through blockchain, they often lack the necessary expertise, infrastructure, and funding to alter recruitment practices to integrate new applications.
Overall, these issues prove that multiple parties (governments, academia, businesses) must collaborate and overcome multiple challenges (lack of incentives, funding, expertize) in order to ensure a successful and sustainable integration of blockchain-in-education solutions around the world.
5. The innovation challenge
Thayer (2018) claimed that the blockchain technology is immature and rapidly changing, which often causes blockchain projects to be “prone to failure and abandonment with upward of 90 percent never coming to fruition” . One of the implications is that “the realization of these benefits and disruptions is likely to take a longer time than the current hype would suggest” . Because of that, researchers often claim that the mentality when approaching blockchain-in-education solutions should be one of a pilot mindset; all the parties involved in the blockchain education process should carry careful risk analysis on an ongoing basis.
Similarly, Kandaswamy and Furlonger (2018) discussed the current scope of blockchain transformation and its evolution and impact within diverse industries. In this context, Kandaswamy and Furlonger claimed that today’s blockchain technology offerings (trust mechanisms, digital assets) are attractive yet immature innovations, leading to a high likelihood of failure . As a result, there are a few successful blockchain applications. Indeed, there should be a focus on specific business problems and desired outcomes rather than blockchain technology solutions. Thus, there is a key question that potential beneficiaries should ask: “Could blockchain solve this problem or is there any other solution that may be quicker, safer, or more affordable?” Interestingly, Kandaswamy and Furlonger (2018) argued that currently blockchain’s potential is overestimated as the result of irrational exuberance (2018–2021), which will be continued by a second phase of targeted large investments and multiple successful business models powered by blockchain (2022–2026), followed by a global value-add ($US3 trillion +) led by blockchain technologies (2027–2030). Within the second phase (2022–2026), Kandaswamy and Furlonger claim that the effects of blockchain will expand beyond its effects in the financial services, into supply chains, education, healthcare, and government . These are relevant insights for potential blockchain-in-education beneficiaries and suppliers who are exploring the right timing to scale or adopt such solutions.
Overall, the market adoption challenge is essential to overcome in order to ensure that blockchain-in-education solutions scale worldwide and sustainably. This requires governments, educational institutions, and innovators to come together and promote blockchain-in-education solutions (e.g., passing policies and legislature that support such innovations, offering funding to enhance research and development in the field, raising awareness about the benefits of blockchain-in-education solutions).
Table 4: Summary of challenges faced while implementing blockchain-in-education solutions. Challenge Description Legal EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 (CCPA) may impose limitations on how personal data is transacted on the blockchain. Definitions of “personal data” also remain vague in legislation. Scalability The relatively slow speed of blockchain transactions may impose bottlenecks when it comes to scaling blockchain-in-education solutions worldwide. Data privacy and security Ensuring privacy while providing security on the blockchain may be very difficult to achieve. Market adoption Lack of trust in the technology and lack of knowledge on how to harness the potential of blockchain-in-education solutions may lead to a slow market adoption of such innovations. Innovation The relative immaturity of blockchain technologies may influence the success rate of blockchain-in-education solutions.
A vision for the future
It is hard to predict how and whether blockchain will have a significant, sustainable impact in education. Some of the blockchain-in-education beneficiaries interviewed for the purpose of this paper (e.g., interview respondent #3) claim that in five years, academic digital credentials may become extinct unless large multinationals and/or governments start to use and value digital credentials in the near future. Others (e.g., interview respondent #4) claim that the concept of lifelong education, or continuously learning new skills and updating old knowledge, will drive the need for a trusted, immutable record of learning accreditations. Thus, given that lifelong education is becoming increasingly necessary in a world driven by fast-paced technological progress, the need for blockchain-backed credentialing may increase as well.
On the other side, suppliers of blockchain-in-education solutions such as the Digital Credentials Partnership aim to build ecosystems of educational institutions that use standards that they define. However, they are also aware of the necessity, yet difficulty, of building sustainable business models and market adoption strategies in order to ensure that their visions come to life.
Overall, the world has transitioned from perceiving blockchain as the key technology behind cryptocurrencies to a technology that has potential in new industries such as healthcare and education. While the technology has seen some successes in fields such as supply chain (Tribis, et al., 2018), it is still in an incipient, “prototyping” phase in the education industry (Alammary, et al., 2019). In order for blockchain-in-education solutions to generate beneficial impact at scale, the private sector (multinational employers) and the public sector (educational institutions, government) must unite and ideally coordinate their efforts to test, research, develop, implement, and fund such innovations.
Additionally, it is worth noticing that blockchain should not be perceived as a threat or replacement for educational institutions, but rather as an innovative technology that can provide value across a wide range of educational processes — making learning more engaging and effective, cutting down costs, improving trust, and providing enhanced security and privacy.
This study aims to respond two key research questions. First, how can blockchain technology improve the performance of educational institutions and student learning? Second, what are the impediments of blockchain implementation within the education sector? In this context, this paper discussed key benefits of applying blockchain in education, such as empowering learners (self-sovereignty), enhancing security and efficiency for educational institutions, businesses, and students, and generally integrating more trust and transparency within transactions in our society. While analyzing applications of blockchain in education, the study focused on certification and identity management initiatives (Digital Credentials Consortium, Open Source University, BCDiploma) and applications that motivate lifelong learning (BitDegree, Odem.io). In parallel, challenges were discussed across a wide range of areas: legal, scalability, data privacy and security, market adoption, and innovation.
While analyzing these topics, this paper highlighted two key parties involved in the blockchain-in-education ecosystem: beneficiaries (universities) and providers (start-ups, organizations) of such solutions. Furthermore, two research approaches were used, in order to offer a comprehensive and diverse analysis: case-based and research-based. As part of the first approach, this work used interviews and research on private and public higher education institutions implementing blockchain solutions. As part of the second approach, this study presented summaries of research studies by education, legal, and technology experts.
The goal of this paper was to compile useful insights that may guide those who try to answer an essential question. Can blockchain improve the educational process? This is a broad, tough, and intimidating question to answer, but this analysis provided some guidance in treating this fundamental query.
About the author
Mara-Florina Steiu is a Class of 2020 Suma Cum Laude graduate from Babson College, where she studied business analytics and information technology, and an incoming Program Manager at Microsoft. Mara is the recipient of the Babson College Global Scholarship, a prestigious scholarship offered to approximately 10 international students each year, and is one of the Babson Class of 2020 Honors students, due to her academic performance. Mara is passionate about ways in which technology can revolutionize education systems around the world; therefore, as part of her Class of 2020 Honors thesis, she researched how blockchain technologies can positively influence the education sector (i.e., teaching, learning, and educational institutions’ administration).
E-mail: msteiu1 [at] babson [dot] edu
I am grateful for Professor Steven Gordon’s ongoing support and advice while writing this paper and for all the valuable insights offered by the education experts interviewed for this study.
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Received 20 May 2020; revised 5 June 2020; accepted 7 June 2020.
Copyright © 2020, Mara-Florina Steiu. All Rights Reserved.
Blockchain in education: Opportunities, applications, and challenges
by Mara-Florina Steiu.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 9 - 7 September 2020