Transforming Nebraska’s Guardianship Identification and Consent Process using Blockchain Technology

Office of Ed Tech
5 min readMar 31, 2022

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Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

This is the first blog in a four-part series which covers blockchain technology applications in education, featuring the winners of the U.S Department of Education’s and American Council on Educations’ Blockchain Innovation Challenge. In this entry, we will discuss the use of blockchain to support guardianship identification and consent for systems-involved students.

Imagine you are a student in Nebraska seeking mental health services. You discover that your school doesn’t offer mental health therapy. Instead, they work with an external agency to provide services to students. Because you are a minor, your school must obtain consent from an authorized adult by having your legal guardian complete and submit several paper forms and documents. Your school attempts to coordinate a meeting with your guardian, verify legal guardianship, and obtain their consent signature. For some students who have engaged support from adults, this process and path for mental health services may be straight forward while other students who are navigating this process independently may face more hurdles and delays to the necessary support.

This is not an unusual scenario. In Nebraska, one-third of K-12 students are involved in multiple educational, judicial, or behavioral health services in different agencies. Guardian consent is a crucial component in delivering public services to students but often, the manual paper-based process of issuing and obtaining consent creates burdens for school personnel and impedes the start of services for students.

The Guardianship & Consent for Nebraska Systems-Involved Students Project

One of the Blockchain Innovation Challenge winners, the Guardianship & Consent for Nebraska Systems-Involved Students project, sought to replace this burdensome process using verifiable digital credentials and blockchain technology. Led by a partnership between Student1 and the Nebraska Department of Education, this project focused on serving systems-involved students, who are most acutely affected by the complexities of guardianship identification and obtaining guardian consent. Systems-involved students include students who are abused, neglected, abandoned, or dependent; students with disabilities; students with behavioral health needs; students in foster, kinship, or congregate care or are awaiting adoption; and students interacting with the criminal justice system. In the Education Blockchain Initiative final report, Matthew Blomstedt, the Nebraska Commissioner of Education, expressed, “If something can solve the needs of our systems-involved students, all Nebraska students will benefit.”

How can blockchain technology solve the problem?

Blockchain technology can support verifiable credentials, and in this case, the Nebraska project team conceived of using verifiable credentials to solve this systems issue and better serve students. This white paper by OET and the U.S. Department of Education’s Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) explains, “Verifiable credentials are statements given to individuals by issuers that assert something about that individual.” Individuals then maintain, access, and manage their credentials in a digital wallet. A verifiable credential could be a digital diploma, comprehensive learner record, record of employment, or a badge for mastery of a skill or participation in a program. The Nebraska project team leveraged blockchain technology to develop verifiable credentials to express legal guardianship identity and enable guardians to share their consent digitally

What did the project accomplish?

Over the course of the Blockchain Innovation Challenge, the project team accomplished the following:

1. They drafted a schema and supporting Trust Framework for using verifiable credentials to express legal guardianship of a minor.

2. They developed a minimum viable product for school systems to issue guardian identity and guardianship verifiable credentials. The Nebraska Department of Education can issue these credentials during the school registration processes, when it receives documented evidence of guardianship.

3. They established a minimum viable product that enables guardians to share their consent in response to service provider requests as a verifiable credential.

The project envisions the following use case workflows for issuing legal guardianship identity and for sharing guardian consent as verifiable credentials:

Guardianship Verifiable Credential Workflow

Image Source: https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Education-Blockchain-Initiative-Final-Report.pdf

Guardian Consent Verifiable Credential Workflow

Image Source: https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Education-Blockchain-Initiative-Final-Report.pdf

What comes next?

Verifiable credentials and blockchain technology are still nascent in their development, and they are continuing to evolve and mature. In developing a schema and supporting Trust Framework for a minor guardianship verifiable credential, this project initiated a first draft for an education industry standard.

As a next step, the project team plans to conduct user testing with schools, service providers, parents, and guardians to adapt the usability of the user interface. In addition, the implementation of verifiable credentials requires a cultural and organizational shift: previously, institutions controlled the identification of guardians and obtaining their consent; in this model, individuals instead control their identification and sharing of their consent credentials. The project team thus plans to undertake user education and organizational adoption processes.

What’s the long-term vision?

Imagine that instead of a manual paper process for verifying guardianship and obtaining guardian consent, your guardian has a digital wallet with their guardianship identification. This identification was issued by the school in the form of a secure and verifiable digital credential, and this credential only needed to be issued once, perhaps during school registration, after your guardian provided the necessary documentation. When you, the student, need services from an external agency, the service provider can request consent from your guardian electronically, and your guardian can give their consent using their secure and verifiable digital credentials. You’re able to access the support you need far more quickly, and the process for obtaining guardian consent is much easier on your school and your guardian. This is the vision of the Guardianship & Consent for Nebraska Systems-Involved Students Project.

The project team foresees other uses for verifiable credentials in the K-12 education ecosystem, which could especially benefit systems-involved students. Verifiable credentials could help ease school transfers by providing guardians with access and control over their students’ academic records. In addition, currently when a student transitions to a new school mid-year, educators must manually contact the student’s previous school to obtain their records, including any individualized education plans and English-learner identification — a process that might take months; verifiable credentials could support learning continuity during in-year transitions by documenting up-to-date instructional information and enabling efficient data sharing with the student’s new school. They could also provide a common infrastructure for collecting evidence of students’ accomplishments in digital wallets for guardians and students.

This project’s vision aligns with the U.S. Department of Education’s priority to meet student social, emotional, and academic needs. Fostering partnerships across government agencies and other organizations and giving students and families greater control of their records facilitates the provision of comprehensive services to meet students’ needs.

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Office of Ed Tech

The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.