Do We Really Want Academic Permanent Records to Live Forever on Blockchain?

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In recent years, blockchain technology has become a buzzword in the edtech sector. The system of recording information secures digital data in a way that makes it traceable and difficult to alter. Updates must be validated collectively. The technology can be used to authenticate the identities of people, to determine ownership or to verify data.

The possibilities for applying this type of system in education are extensive. In theory, blockchain could provide a solution for various pressing issues such as fraud, credit transfer and identity management. Blockchain could be used to manage student records and certificates; to track lifelong learning progress; to preserve educational data; or to administer verifiable academic credits. The technology could also allow for a more seamless international exchange of ideas and mobility among students and researchers through effective recognition and certificate management.

Yet as much as unchangeable education records offer new chances, they also create new challenges. Setting personal and academic information in stone may actually counter the mission of education to help people evolve over time. The time to assess the benefits and drawbacks of blockchain technology is right now, before adoption in schools and universities is widespread.

On the opportunities side, data on the blockchain are reliably stored, so if students lose their educational data or certificates, they would still be able to prove their credentials. This feature is particularly relevant for education in conflict zones. If a country’s education record-keeping system collapses, like what happened in Syria, blockchain’s ability to permanently secure degrees will enable displaced people to continue their education or find employment.

Blockchain technology can also be used to store more than formal certification data. Currently, students graduating from college receive a diploma or transcript outlining their courses and credits. On a blockchain, informal learning could also be included and verified, such as information about research experience, individual projects and skills, mentoring or online learning.

The inclusion of these informal learning experiences in a trusted and reliable way has great potential for students and particularly for lifelong and non-traditional learners. Education is more than mere courses completed. Technology that makes alternative learning sharable and verifiable elevates these learning paths. For example, including MOOCs in a student’s education transcript might allow that student to demonstrate achievements and skills gained outside of traditional higher education institutions, especially if data are stored in a decentralized way that is not dependent on the database of a university.

Some colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology already work with blockchain credentials. If students complete their projects at the MIT Media Lab, for instance, they receive a certification stored and accessible on a blockchain network. Initial experiments at MIT have since evolved into efforts to build a reliable infrastructure to share academic credentials.

However, one of the greatest potential benefits of blockchain technology—the ability to store diverse kinds of educational data for perpetuity—is also its biggest potential flaw. If we assume that a university or school implements blockchain technology to store students’ educational data, who decides what kind of information will be recorded? A blockchain would most likely contain exam results or internship data, but is the publication of an article also something that should be stored? What about taking on the mentorship of a younger student in an informal capacity? A privately learned new language? Learning behavior and outcomes? Social information? There will have to be a system for sorting these non-traditional learning opportunities and outcomes. The question of who would create such a system needs to be resolved. It is also worth asking what happens to learning for learning’s sake if every aspect of a student’s education—both formal and informal, official and unofficial—is recorded and quantified.

Education is by principle an area of growth and change. Once on the blockchain, a record is created and stored, theoretically forever. What if students don’t want certain aspects of their learning paths stored now—or if they change their minds later? Will they have the right to chose what will be on their permanent records?

In an essay on blockchain and education, Audrey Watters gives the example of a student wanting a “fresh start,” for instance after gender confirmation surgery, or in order to protect themselves from a stalker. An open, permanent record would make this impossible. Watters, who remains critical about the hype surrounding blockchain technology for higher education, points out the danger of such unchangeable data. Educators and institutions can be prejudicial. Creating a permanent, unchangeable data entry that might solidify these prejudices can be disadvantageous for students. There is also a possibility that records are just plain wrong. How will students contest unfair or wrong information about them?

Is blockchain technology a chance or challenge for students? As it is often the case, it is both. The inclusion of non-traditional learning into verifiable and respected records presents a huge chance for learners to showcase their knowledge and skills to potential employers beyond traditional university credits. A permanent record can also support students from conflict regions who might otherwise have no other proof of their qualifications. Yet, questions of data privacy, of what constitutes learning, of who would have the power to decide what gets stored on a blockchain, and whether an unchangeable record is desirable in education at all remain unresolved.

Currently, only a few education institutions use blockchain technology, with MIT perhaps the only serious higher education contender in the field. This presents a chance to address these questions before wider adoption of the technology and before many unchangeable records are created. Regarding blockchain, we should not only discuss how we can apply the technology, but there also needs to be room for the question of whether it should be used at all.

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