“Is blockchain really a thing?” That’s probably the most common question I hear about a technology that, up until quite recently, was mostly and closely associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. “Do I need to pay attention to blockchain?” many folks working in ed-tech are asking. “Do I really need to understand it?” Or, like other over-hyped and over-promised technologies, will it always be “on the horizon”? Or will it simply fade away?

I haven’t included blockchain or bitcoin in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. I’m still not sure there’s a “there” there. But with news this week that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain and that IBM plans to offer “blockchain-as-a-service,” I thought it might be time to do some research, write a clear explanation/analysis of what blockchain is, one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away important questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most important IT invention of our age,” that it will open up “new possibilities,” “revolutionizing services of all kinds,” and so on.

So buzz and bullshit aside, what – if anything – can blockchain offer education technology? And more generally, how does blockchain work? (And then again, specifically how does it work in an educational setting?) What problems does blockchain solve? What are its benefits? What are its drawbacks? Who’s developing and who’s investing in the technology? To what end?

This is still very much a work-in-progress. But for those interested in reading up on their own, I have posted a list of resources and reading materials here.

I also have a list of questions that, despite spending the last few days learning about cryptocurrencies and “decentralized trust,” I still have about blockchain’s applicability to education. (I’m cross-posting these questions to my site as that’s the scratchpad for a lot of my thinking and, unlike Hack Education, you can leave a comment there.)

  1. What happens to student privacy if educational records/transactions are available via a public ledger? Will a student have a say over who has access to their records?
  2. What happens if a students wants to correct that educational record or remove transactions, say, because she wants or needs a “fresh start”? The blockchain is uneditable, correct?
  3. Are organizations using a version of the Bitcoin blockchain? Or are they rolling their own? Are there going to be a bunch of separate edu-related blockchains? Will people gravitate to, say, IBM’s blockchain-as-a-service?
  4. What sort of infrastructure is required to run this technology (a wallet, the full blockchain database, a mining node, etc)? I mean, how “decentralized” and “distributed” and “open” is this really? If there end up being multiple, competing blockchain-as-a-service offerings, what will data interoperability look like?
  5. For non-Bitcoin-related blockchain efforts, is there still “mining”? If so, what does that look like? Is there a financial incentive to participate as a “miner”? As a node? Are there transaction fees? If there is no “mining,” is this non-Bitcoin-related blockchain secure? Is this going to require as earth-hatingly much power (computing power, electricity) as the Bitcoin ecosystem does? What makes this more efficient (cheaper, better, faster) than processes currently in place?
  6. When it comes to issues of “trust” and, say, academic certification, who is not trusted here? Is it the problem that folks believe students/employees lie about their credentials? Or is the problem that credential-issuing entities aren’t trustworthy? I mean, why/how would we “trust” the entity issuing blockchained credentials? (What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

More soon…

Image credits: The Noun Project

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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