Education have a problem? Put a blockchain on it!
The U.S. Department of Education’s Blockchain Initiative
I started my journey with the U.S. Department of Education through a confusing federal hiring process — by navigating a clunky application website, answering an online skills questionnaire, and uploading numerous official documents, including three school transcripts. This was followed by months of waiting, during which HR specialists verified every bit of the information I provided, contacted my previous employers, conducted criminal background and security checks, and sought additional information needed to determine my salary. At that time I was gainfully employed (at another federal agency!) and fully supported in my job search by family, friends, and even my prospective employers. Despite that, it was frustrating and inconvenient. And. So. Slow.
More than an inconvenience
For many, the inefficiency and slowness of verifying necessary skills, appropriate credentials, or valid licensure is more than an inconvenience. Working learners can face barriers to advancement or pursuit of new career opportunities when it is difficult to verify the skills they have obtained at the workplace or delayed academic progress when prior learning is not credited. Children of immigrants, refugees, or migrant workers can experience delay in critical services and support when their educational attainment from other institutions is not quickly transferred and validated. And for the majority of individuals for whom education is an essential response to the rapidly changing skills needed for today’s workforce, these barriers make the goal of economic stability seem even more unattainable.
The Office of Educational Technology (OET) supports a vision of education that is lifelong and lifewide and available to all learners, regardless of background. In order to do that, we need an infrastructure that can support the success of learners in this changing economy and cultivate a dynamic ecosystem of lifelong and lifewide learning. In the Summer of 2018, we launched a challenge to expand opportunity and to seed development of tools that will ensure all learners, especially low-income students, can draw on a diverse array of educational opportunities that provide them the skills they need to live meaningful and economically stable lives.
Put a [education] blockchain on it
Building on that work, we recently launched the Education Blockchain Initiative to help identify and evaluate ways that distributed ledger technology can improve the flow of data among educational institutions and employers while empowering individuals to translate accomplishments into economic opportunity.
This effort began with two Summits on Education Blockchains, where we invited technologists, educators, and other subject matter experts to help us investigate the ways that blockchains might be used to provide opportunity within our complex education and workforce ecosystems. During these Summits, we discussed questions to guide education stakeholders as they consider the use of blockchain in their context, including:
- What principles should we apply to the design and implementation of blockchain-based credentialing ecosystems to ensure mobility and individual protections, especially for disadvantaged populations?
- How will a distributed infrastructure allow us to strengthen our approach to student privacy, data security, and digital stewardship? What are the technology decisions that will ensure privacy by design and protect against misuse or abuse, especially at this early stage?
- What are the minimum conditions needed to ensure students can access and manage their digital identity and assets across multiple education and workforce platforms?
With these Summits, we are excited that we are expanding this initiative to include three additional components.
Second, we will be creating a set of professional development and technical assistance resources for the education community. These resources will be developed in consultation with a technical working group and provide important information to stakeholders in determining the appropriateness of blockchain-based solutions in their context and how to focus deployment of the technology solution on user success. It is our goal for this project to create opportunity, rather than generating additional barriers.
Finally, we will be working with the American Council on Education to explore how blockchain technology can “break down barriers for opportunity seekers to fully unlock their learning and achievement.” This work will combine research on education blockchain implementations with a competitive challenge that will fund pilot programs for blockchain technologies.
Today, our dynamic postsecondary education ecosystem gives individuals access to learning opportunities ranging from traditional and non-traditional institutions, workforce development providers, workplace and career training, and online learning providers. For many that need it most, translating these options into economic opportunity can be out of reach.
Will blockchains fix everything?
We want to propose a better question: How might blockchain support the educational ecosystem to increase access, provide opportunity, and promote success for all learners? This blog is a part of an ongoing effort to work openly and engage a broader education community conversation. Please follow along as we share findings from our research, reflections from our Summits, and future opportunities to interact with us on relevant topics. Share your feedback with us at email@example.com and keep up to date with our work at tech.ed.gov/blockchain and @OfficeofEdTech.
Sharon Leu is a Sr. Policy Advisor in the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education where she works on issues related to the education and work of the future. Sharon is an aspiring park ranger.