Why we need to consider blockchain’s future potential in the education sector

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Throughout the past year, blockchain continually pops up in newsfeeds, Twitter streams and conversations. Even within the past couple days, the new technology has gained coverage from the Huffington Post, Fortune Magazine and Newsweek.

But, while the “super sophisticated distributed ledger” (as Newsweek writes), is gaining attention, the question still remains: could blockchain impact the future of education?

The KnowledgeWorks strategic foresight team is exploring this question and releasing a paper with its findings in June. For now, we turned to KnowledgeWorks Director of Strategic Foresight Jason Swanson for some further insight on the new technology. Here’s what he had to say:

1. First of all, what is blockchain? How long has it been around? What does it do?

The history of blockchain is a bit murky and surrounded by a fair amount intrigue. No one knows for certain who invented it. Sathosi Nakamato first published a paper about bitcoin and blockchain in 2008, but no one actually knows who Nakamato is.

The blockchain is a distributed, encrypted digital ledger technology that tracks and verifies basic transactions. The distributed part is really important. Being distributed, the blockchain does not rely on a trusted third party in the way that centralized systems do.

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Let’s use wiring money as an example. I want to send money internationally so I put an order with a bank, which sends instructions for the transfer to another bank through a secure system. The banks often need some kind of pre-set agreement, they collect fees, and the process can take several days. The process is centralized; I have to go through the bank for the transfer to happen.

Now, let’s use blockchain to wire money. Using blockchain, I send the money by simply opening my digital wallet, selecting the recipient, and hitting “send.” Rather than the bank authorizing the transaction, the network of computers running the blockchain would go into action. Here, the blockchain would:

  • Verify the transaction history
  • Ensure that I have enough funds
  • Confirm that I am authorized to send the money
  • Validate that the instructions for the transfer were correct
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What the blockchain actually does is that it serves as a sort of truth machine. It records the amount of amount of money sent, a time stamp of when the transaction took place, and the participants who were involved. It takes this information and stores it bundling it into blocks that are strung together into chains of transactions. The blocks are secured through a type of encryption called a hash, which renders the information on the blocks into gibberish and has up to this point been impossible to crack. The network runs continuous verifications on the blockchain. All of the computers in the network must continuously agree on the current state of the blockchain ledger and every transaction in it. If anyone attempted to hack or corrupt a transaction, the network would no longer arrive at a consensus and would not incorporate the fraudulent transaction into the blockchain. Once information is verified, it becomes immutable, meaning that the past history cannot be changed or altered. Thus, unlike traditional methods of wiring money, which require a central authority or a trusted third party such as a bank to verify the process, the blockchain’s verification process requires no human intervention, central authority, or third parties.

2. Why have we heard a lot about blockchain in the news lately?

That’s a good question! There are a lot of industries and organizations that are really interested in blockchain right now and range from the financial industry, to governments, to tech startups. Additionally, there are a lot of people working on some really interesting uses for blockchain that include managing wills, escrow accounts, file storage, the Internet of Things, and everyday bank transactions. There are some really influential stakeholders thinking about how to use blockchain.

I think people are interested in having data that is more secure, and with developments, such as the Panama Papers leak, data security is top of mind for a lot of people. I also think that people are reconsidering their relationships with existing institutions, which also happen to be very entrenched in their lives.

We have seen a lot of evidence of a culture and values change, such as the growing open culture movement. We can see evidence of this shift with examples such as people using digital tools to bypass and push the boundaries of traditional institutions, sometimes to such an extent that whole industries are getting reconfigured (such as the taxi industry and Uber), employees advocating for more flexible workplace policies, and the creation of open governance processes. I think this shift in values has led to many people thinking about the role of authority in their lives, which in turn could be contributing to the interest in blockchain.

3. Why did KnowledgeWorks decide to start considering blockchain and the future of learning? What possible implications could it have?

We began tracking blockchain as part of our research for our most recent comprehensive forecast into the future of learning, “The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code.” We saw what a technology like blockchain might mean in terms of issues such as ownership, access, and authority.

As we were tracking blockchain we were really quite surprised as to how quickly it rocketed through what we call the issues curve, or the curve in which something goes from the bottom of the curve, or the level of a random guy on the street talking about something, to the top of the curve where the government creates plans for that same issue. Blockchain rocketed through this curve faster than just about anything I have ever tracked. Based on that, we knew we should consider what the technology could do for learning, and the plans and intentions for blockchain by influential stakeholders we needed to take a deep dive into it.

In terms of blockchain’s impact on learning, there are many possibilities. In general terms, the blockchain could change how we think of educational governance and administration and how we grant credentials, and it could enable new forms of coordination that do not rely on established systems. The implications of these changes could be quite profound. They could cause people to reevaluate their relationships with existing institutions, change how we collect, store and share student data, and even change the way we grant access and permissions, perhaps giving true local control over learning to stakeholders.

4. But blockchain seems really far out for education. Why is important to consider possibilities now?

It is important for educators and other stakeholders to think about how to use emerging technologies in general, not just blockchain. By considering how to utilize these technologies, stakeholders can be given a voice in terms of how these technologies might be developed and employed.

5. Who are the people out there looking to apply it to education?

The first group that jumps to mind is a startup called Teachur. Teachur are using the blockchain to setup platform which uses a competency education-based approach to offering higher-ed degress for about $1,000.

Sony is also exploring blockchain based applications for learning by using the technology to send academic records between two parties.

6. What research process did KnowledgeWorks go through to learn more about blockchain?

We used both primary and secondary research for this project. We knew going in that there was a lot of hype and speculation surrounding blockchain based on the research from our last forecast.

To help manage some of the hype we ran some pretty extensive focus groups that brought together experts in blockchain, big data, and education to have a conversation about what might be possible at the intersection of blockchain and learning. We wanted to be sure that we had as solid an understanding of what the technology could do, what might not be possible, what other technologies might be better suited to certain tasks than blockchain, and to check ourselves in terms of bias and blind spots. We ran three waves of discussion with different sets of experts as part of the primary research. We then took the major findings from the discussions and combined them with our secondary research to create our scenarios imagining how blockchain might be used in learning in the year 2026.

7. What will KnowledgeWorks do with the research?

In June we will be releasing the research as a forecast that explores the future of blockchain and learning. The paper is called “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?” and will be available for free.

The paper consists of four scenarios that imagine how blockchain might be used in learning, explore the uncertainties of hierarchical vs distributed mindsets, and consider mainstream versus non-mainstream adoption of blockchain for learning.

Jason Swanson is the KnowledgeWorks director of strategic foresight. To receive a copy of “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?” when it is released, subscribe here.

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Working to ensure that all students are prepared for college and a meaningful career via personalized learning (@EdPersonalized) and @StriveTogether

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