Blockchain might become a big part of the future for secondary education credentials.

The buzz about blockchain

It seems like everyone is talking about blockchain, but what’s the use case in K-12 education?

Dr Peter Thomas (then writing as founding director of HaileyburyX), with Lauren Sayer (former director of Digital Learning at Haileybury and now Executive Director, Digital Learning, Research and Innovation at Melbourne Girls Grammar) look at why blockchain might be a big part of the future for secondary education credentials.

Unless you have been hiding somewhere, you can’t have missed the buzz about blockchain. From financial services to freight forwarding, it seems like everything can be on the blockchain.

In industries like education, which has on the whole been slow to digitally transform, it might seem that applications of a digital ledger made up of linked, secure records resistant to unauthorised changes is more remote.

However, developments at credentialling platform Credly, along with others such as Learning Machine and at Concentric Sky, the developers of the Badgr platform, indicate that blockchain may be entering prime time in education. The focus is on how to make credentials — one of the core parts of any formal education experience — more trustworthy, verifiable and secure.

If you are comfortable with blockchain basics, read on; if not, see this primer before you do.

Microcreds

Credentials — records of verified learning of the type provided by schools, universities and colleges in the form of the Australian ATAR at secondary school level, degrees and diplomas in higher education, are increasingly being supplemented by microcredentials or microcreds.

These are smaller, often co-curricular, competency-based pieces of learning accompanied by a digital badge with embedded data about skills and achievements, together broadly known as digital credentials. For an explanation of digital badges, read this article.

The number of credentials is vast, but the number of microcredentials is set to explode, as governments and educational institutions recognise that employers and learners are demanding more than the terminal credential represented by the ATAR or the degree.

More than half of students entering primary school now do not know the roles they will have when they enter the workforce, and some of the jobs they will have do not yet exist. Driven by technology and the industry 4.0 revolution, the half-life of skills is plummeting. Learning for this world needs to be precisely targeted, rapidly developed, delivered on-demand and just-in-time and forward-looking. It needs to take less time, it needs to be delivered online, and it needs to be easily sharable with future employers or education institutions.

The Lumina Foundation estimates the total number of credentials in the US alone — including traditional and microcredentials — to be 700,000. Worldwide that number may be in the millions. Lumina says that there is a need to bring order to what they call the ‘Learn-And-Work Ecosystem’. Some of the projects they are working on include an online credential engine to allow learners to search credentials and a unified, comprehensive and standardised learner record that can capture, record, and communicate when and where learning happened.

Given the volume of microcredentials sitting alongside formal credentialled learning, there is also an almost infinite number of ways that a student can combine them. More so when you include those microcredentials — like at Haileybury — that sit alongside the school curriculum; and even more so when you count microcredentials that come from organisations outside of the education system — from employers or volunteer or community organisations. All of these microcredentials count and have to be accounted for, too.

The future for Australia may or may not be the ATAR — or the ATAR as it is now — but it will be a future in which students also graduate with many microcredentials representing a range of knowledge, skills and competencies, all of which will be necessary to allow students to flourish.

And here is the problem.

That there are a vast number of credentials to earn is good. But it’s hard to manage the data behind those microcredentials: who awarded them, what students did to earn one and how it was assessed. And easy for inaccuracies, accidental or otherwise, to creep in.

And for something so critical as evidencing and verifying learning, the stakes are high.

Microcreds on the blockchain

Managing massive amounts of data securely, eliminating points of failure, ensuring integrity and removing opportunities for error and falsification is what blockchain claims to be able to do.

It’s a claim because there isn’t yet enough evidence to tell. Blockchain is still relatively new, and industries are just getting to grips with it.

And there may be some problems with the fundamental nature of blockchain. If the networks that blockchains sit on become clogged, it might take a long time to validate transactions; there have been cases where hackers have penetrated public blockchains to reverse transactions; networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum may not function when it becomes unprofitable to mine their coins; and, quantum computing — which will allow vastly more computation to happen in a much shorter time — may render blockchains vulnerable. As Concentric Sky says:

“claims that public, currency-based blockchains are suitable for the long-term validation of “high stakes” credentials are highly questionable, if not fundamentally flawed.”

Despite this, Learning Machine, a digital credential platform, has implemented blockchain (along with Credly and others listed here). They use the blockcerts standard for creating, issuing, viewing, and verifying blockchain-based certificates and badges. Because these digital records are registered on a blockchain, they should be cryptographically signed, tamper-proof, and shareable. Learning Machine says:

“Our goal is to help create an entirely new environment where individuals are the custodians of their official records and can easily share those records with others.”

In the example here, Learning Machine shows the process of verification of this digital certificate.

Ax example of digital credential validation from Learning Machine.

Partly through the take-up of the Learning Machine platform, blockchain credentials are gaining pace, certainly in higher education — as in an example, you can read here about Central New Mexico Community College (CNM).

Pathways for learning

The sheer volume of digital credentials and how to verify them is one of the drivers of blockchain as a solution.

But there are other drivers in the form of the many and varied ways that a student can combine microcredentials. These are the pathways that learners very soon may take through the digital credential landscape.

Learners will collect many digital credentials, both inside and outside of formal education, and a pathway through them might take many forms. An education institution can construct a pathway as progress toward a final credential in the form of a prescriptive pathway saying what learns have to do. Or they can be co-constructed with learners — or directed entirely by the learner — to provide a personalised education experience that reflects their aspirations, goals or interests in the form of a descriptive pathway.

The structure and form of pathways, like the structure and form of each student’s skills, competencies, interests, goals and career aspirations, can be complex. They may be short or long, simple and linear or complex and interconnected, contiguous or noncontiguous.

Pathways not only bring choice — they also bring transparency. Pathways don’t just provide a snapshot for the learner of exactly where they are and what they can do next, but can also include learning that is done outside of the formal curriculum — or even outside of any single formal education institution if their digital credentials share the same standards, such as the Open Badges standard.

As Badgr, who have implemented pathways, say

“With pathways, badges from any Open Badges compliant platform can be stacked together […] Learners have an easy-to-understand map view of where they are in a curriculum. And just like they can share badges, learners can share their pathway progress — including the steps that they have not yet completed. This allows a learner to share the directionality of their journey, not simply the credentials they already have.”

And because the building blocks of a pathway are microcredentials, it becomes possible to see at any moment exactly what has been learned and what evidence there is of learning in a way that, for the rapidly changing world our students are entering, is essential. As the Foundation for Young Australians says:

“To effectively prepare young people for the future of work, the skills to manage and navigate career are critical. We must shift the mindset away from thinking there is only a single career pathway.”

Wrapping up: certs, blocks, paths and where next

The modern learning ecosystem is changing.

The rise of microcredentials, the pathways that learners can take through them and ways to securely store this information in the form of blockchains are part of the change — and we think an important one.

The platforms we use now and how we use them — such as the Canvas LMS and the constellation of surrounding applications in use at Haileybury — will adapt, change and evolve to create new ways of learning, ending up, in all probability, in a Netflix-like learning playlist that blurs terms like course out of all recognition.

So, what can schools like Haileybury do to face forward?

We don’t have any sage advice but can share our response: learn, experiment, test, refine and apply.

One way we are doing this is to build and credential — using tools like Badgr, Credly and Learning Machine — new forms of co-curricular learning experiences, such as our Curious Minds STEM and LEAP innovation and entrepreneurship programmes.

This real-life application allows us to test and learn about the technology so that it best serves the needs of our students. Digital badging, microcredentials, blockchain and pathways are all in focus for us in this programme, as they are in our HaileyburyX project that extends the boundaries of Haileybury learning to students anywhere in the world.

Our experience is that we have to be open-minded, curious and willing to identify what we don’t know — and learn about it.

Perhaps the biggest thing we have learned is that challenge is not technological — even in the face of complex and rapidly evolving so-called ‘exponential’ technologies such as blockchain, APIs, or the emerging field of self-sovereign identity that provides a digital, lifetime, portable identity that does not depend on a centralised authority. It is seeing these technologies in the context of effective teaching and learning.

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