The unbearable lightness of Blockchain

Alex Grech
May 12, 2018 · 12 min read

How the future of Credentials will depend on the Activation of Human Networks

In five days’ time, a bunch of people from far-flung places will convene in Malta for a conference on the Blockchain, Credentials and Connected Learning. In the momentary lull before the final mad rush that will resonate with anyone who has ever had to organise a public event, I blink into this screen and two questions loom up in the rear-view mirror of my head, like some old Talking Heads track:

Where are you going with this blockchain credentials roller-coaster?
how on earth did you get here?

I start with a fuzzy picture.

In the hall that leads to my father’s kitchen, you will find two framed certificates.

One is for my PhD in Internet Studies, the other is my brother’s PhD in Poverty and Disability Studies. My parents had little formal education and not a single formal credential between them. Those certificates are a fair representation of my parents’ social capital — or my father’s middle finger at the world.

In my twenties, in troubled times, I became a chartered accountant and used that credential as a passport out of my country and to the UK. In the mid-80s and early-90s, when mainframe computers ruled the day, I learnt strategy through praxis and international trouble-shooting for Reuters and Hitachi Data Systems — not MBA schools. The arrival of the internet meant diving into ICT start-ups and telecoms. Despite all the hoohah about digital natives, my tribe intuitively learnt how to activate remote social networks, join dots, empower nodes and get things done with the doors which were occasionally opened, and we did this without people noticing. I’d argue that we are the generation of digital natives as we arrived at work one day to find our paper-strewn cubicles inhabited by the first personal computers. We just had to fathom out how to use them; no formal or informal training provided.

Sometimes, you need to invent a mid-life crisis.

In 2009, I put my consultancy business on the back-burner and checked myself into a PhD research programme at the University of Hull. Social media was becoming part of the vernacular, and I had a gut feeling that new media was going to have a long-lasting impact on old systems of power. At around the same time, a moment of Twitter serendipity threw me into the cohort of thinkers, academics, activists and geeks assembled around Howard Rheingold, just as he was working on Net Smart and exploring alternatives to online universities.

In early 2013, with a freshly-minted PhD on blogging as a disruption of hegemony, I assumed my next move would be to go and shake academic trees in some red-brick university. A phone call from my old English school teacher and newly-elected Minister for Education & Employment in Malta threw that plan out of the window. “Come put your strategic brain to good use and help change systems of education. Operate at scale. Neither of us are getting any younger.”

Public policy consultancy is about striking quick alliances and empowering others — but also about knowing when you have to strike out on your own.

Pathways are never linear. You seize whatever window of opportunity you manage to open to impact public policy and get things done. I wrote the National Lifelong Learning Strategy, chaired a commission on the future of post-secondary education, brokered the establishment of the National Skills Council, and set up new media strategy and literacy courses at the University of Malta. Increasingly disenchanted with the hegemony of social media by platform capitalism, PPC and native advertising, I had gravitated towards a mild form of OER activism, preparing the groundwork for what would become the Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning.

Serendipity led me to the blockchain.

On 31 May 2016, Dan Hughes from Learning Machine called me from a car park in Cambridge, Boston, and told me his company was working with the MIT Media Lab to create an open standard for blockchain credentials. I heard the word ‘credentials’ and asked if the blockchain — whatever it was — could facilitate my latest project, to develop a resilient framework for the accreditation of portable, digital learning. Dan suggested we should lock a date in our diaries in the fall so I could meet his partner Chris Jagers, who had moved to Boston to work alongside Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning Innovation at the Media Lab. The three of us spent a sparkling blue October day in 2016 at the MIT Media Lab, with the conversation meandering from cryptographic hash functions and the need for open standard protocols to the reconstruction of refugee credentials and the disruption of the 20th century education system through modular, portable plug and play models. Somewhere along the line, we discussed the opportunity the blockchain provided to nation states amenable to the idea of open education and emerging technologies as a fast-track to learner empowerment.

For me, the blockchain was never about cryptocurrencies and tokens.

It was the notion of distributed ledgers and disintermediation of power systems that got me going, along with a hunch that an EdTech project which would provide young people with ownership of their credentials and transcripts would resonate with policy makers in my country.

Things started to snow-ball. In January 2017, during an EU conference I chaired on Digital Education, the Ministry for Education & Employment in Malta signed an MOU with Learning Machine to explore the feasibility of blockchain credential pilots. In May, I was at the ASU GSV Summit talking about nation-state pilots. By September 2017, we had identified four tangible, nation-state pilots in Malta that would result in credentials being notarised on the blockchain using the Blockcerts open standard — and we got to work.

As I write, all graduates from the state VET university and the Institute for Tourism studies have their certificates and transcripts notarised on the blockchain. In the next months, the same will apply to school-leaving certificates, competence certificates for disadvantaged groups (such as refugees) and licences for institutions accredited by the National Commission for Further and Higher Education.

In November 2017, a report I co-wrote on the Blockchain in Education with Anthony F. Camilleri as a primer for policy-makers was published in collaboration with the European Commission: it has since been downloaded many times.

If I had to hazard a snapshot of where we are, and where we may be going, with the blockchain and the old business of learning , this is what you’d get.

Ten Anecdotes, based on what I’ve learned, and unlearned so far, in my journey as a connector and coordinator of a nation-state blockchain in education pilot.

A Blockchain in Education Manifesto, of sorts

1.Education is not currently high on the agenda of most countries with national blockchain initiatives. Yet there are rich pickings for those intent on starting with projects that will resonate with ordinary citizens. It’s a no-brainer that an entire gamut of standard education processes are ripe for disruption — from the award of qualifications, licensing and accreditation of courses and institutions, management of student records and databases, intellectual property management — all the way to student payments and potential solutions to credentials fraud. Smart contracts may be used to automate the award, recognition and transfer of credits, or even to store and verify a complete record of formal and non-formal achievements throughout lifelong learning. There are people working to create a blockchain university right now. The corollary is that the benefits of blockchain technology, and the incorporation of the principles behind the technology still have to be translated into digital competence education for educators and learners.

2. Blockchain certificates for learning — formal, professional and informal — tick all the social enterprise boxes. Moving records to the blockchain promises six inter-related advantages over current practices:

  • Self-sovereignty, for users to identify themselves while at the same time maintaining control over how and where their personal data is stored and managed;
  • Trust, in a technical infrastructure that should give people enough confidence in its operations to carry through with transactions such as payments or the issue of certificates;
  • Transparency & Provenance, for users to conduct transactions in knowledge that each party has the capacity to enter into that transaction;
  • Immutability, for records to be written and stored permanently, without the possibility of modification;
  • Disintermediation, by removing the need for a central controlling authority to manage transactions or keep records;
  • Collaboration, by enabling parties to transact directly with each other without the need for mediating third parties.

3. There is beauty in rethinking the mundane. The blockchain will accelerate the end of the predominantly paper-based system for certificates of qualifications and records of achievement issued by educational organisations. Qualifications and records of achievement can be permanently and reliably secured and verified using blockchain technology — without the need to contact the organisation that originally issued them. Think of how the Europass can be repurposed. Central authorities, such as those managing intellectual property management databases, or quality assurance bodies could be rendered more efficient, ethical — or even totally automated.

4. We are all stakeholders in putting the blockchain to mindful use in education. Yet it is easy to fall into generalisations and assume that the ‘common good’ principle will resonate with ‘stakeholders’. Sure, groups such as the state, education and training institutions, employers, social partners and learners. are readily-identifiable. Once you move away from these prescriptive silos and start thinking lifelong learning, jobs and social capital you unravel the wealth and intricacy of human networks. Blockchain technology benefits from a network effect when applied transnationally but context matters, more than ever — as does Realpolitik. Education remains the exclusive competence of member states: you cannot avoid engaging with the nation state if you want to use the blockchain to make long-lasting change in education systems. If you want to get a pilot project off the ground, you need to drill down and identify key people in the various networks that make up the primary groups — by name. In my part of the world, in principle, policy work linked to the blockchain should be a responsibility shared between the EU and member states, in line with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality laid out in the treaties. In practice, if you want to start up something meaningful, the only way right now is to identify and fund scalable pilots, learn from mistakes, re-align, share information and keep going. All the while, keeping an eye on the innovation pipelines during any blockchain implementation.

5. Islands and small states make excellent labs for groundbreaking technologies. If you’re looking for scalable, working blockchain and EdTech pilots, for the time being watch the mavericks: the Netherlands, Cyprus, Slovenia, Estonia. Malta — soon, the Bahamas. Small places are obliged to use technology to remain competitive in the global economy. Many a time, they ‘jump hoops’ in technology to survive. UMTS technologies were trialed in Malta in the late 20th century, and we had broadband when European cities were on a waiting list.

Small states provide real-life applications and use case studies with all the complexities of infrastructure, GDPR, human relationships and obligation to demonstrate ROI and value for money over short timeframes. These places will move quickly from education to other public-facing activities that would benefit from being re-engineered by the affordances of the blockchain.

6. Not everyone will get on the open standards bandwagon, including those that appear to be paying lip-service to the notion. By ‘open’ I mean open implementations of blockchain technology, which a) utilise open source software, b) use open standards for data and which c) implement self-sovereign data management solutions. There is an opportunity for power blocs to take a stand and provide a clear direction on the issue. Further development of the technology in the educational field could be considered as a shared competence of the market and of public authorities, to ensure an appropriate balance of private sector innovation coupled with the safeguarding of the public interest

Just in case this seems Utopian pie in the sky — consider the issue of EU funding for research and project work. The EU could announce that it will only fund and support collaborative blockchain projects for member states on the basis that they meet pre-determined criteria: for instance, all funded projects would have to contribute to ‘open’ educational records; it would lead the process for commonly agreed digital meta-data standards for such records; it would unequivocally enshrine the principles of recipient ownership, vendor independence and decentralised verification.

Will this happen? Not sure.

7. There are many elephants in the room, and many excuses for blockchain inertia. Think open standards vs hybrids. Many policy-makers, including those in higher education institutions, remain misinformed on the potential of the technology, associating it with hype, money-laundering, cryptocurrencies that will soon be outlawed to prevent the collapse of our banking institutions. I have heard any number of excuses as to why it’s too early to make any big decisions about a technology that at face value appears anarchic — or just ‘crappy technology’. The inevitable wait for further announcements from the likes of IBM, Sony, Accredible, Microsoft, Civic — who knows, Facebook could do with a bit of blockchain love right now — is also indicative. Do you put trust in startups or in the technology solutions, brands and platforms that have been tried and tested?

The EU has set up a Blockchain Observatory and Forum. That’s a start. Is it enough? Not sure.

8. Blockchain governance remains a big issue. Despite announcements to the contrary, many governments and the so-called politics of representation are unlikely to be cheer-leaders for disintermediation and public blockchains. Estonia’s blockchain is not open, but closed, centralised and militarised. We may point to the need for a leap of faith, to put trust in the trustless. The blockchain may be another opportunity to wrestle online power from a handful of Silicon Valley platforms. For those of us who failed to be surprised by the Cambridge Analytica fiasco and long lost trust in the original promise of social media empowerment, Michael Casey and Paul Vigna’s beautifully-written piece about trust and the blockchain should be required reading. Particularly for those concerned about blockchain governance, and yet until recently were comfortable with the way “behemoths such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon .. turn economies of scale and network effects into de facto monopolies”. Putting trust in the trustless, in “mathematical rules and impregnable cryptography, rather than trust in fallible humans or institutions, are what guarantee the integrity of the ledger… in “triple-entry bookkeeping”: one entry on the debit side, another for the credit, and a third into an immutable, undisputed, shared ledger.

Will this happen in practice? Or will big governance operate in hegemony with the powerful platforms and wait for solutions that appear open, trustless, empowering and disintermediating — but which in practice are more of the same?

9. The social value proposition for citizens must be communicated in plain, coherent language — clear content for learners and their parents delivered over the platforms and devices of learners’ choice. Do not assume that digital natives will ‘get it’ just because they sleep with digital devices. Or that they will automatically fall in love with what at face value may seem to be another app. What’s in it for young people to download an app and activate a private key? Unless someone explains what’s in it for them. I’m not sure that this is happening much — we’re still in the territory of mad ICO rushes and policy hyperbole.

10. Never underestimate the resilience of the credential as long as humans are in the business of demonstrating their worth to others. It remains the lingua franca of social capital. It will probably become even more important as young people get used to re-inventing themselves every five years, as informal and professional learning starts to secure parity with traditional higher education. Yet we need to reimagine the credential, in view of the affordances of blockchain technologies.

Like any middle-aged parent, I dread the day my father passes away and I have to go to his house with my siblings to retrieve family artefacts. Including the blessed framed certificate in the hall. Somehow, I am not sure that I would trust my son to store it somewhere and tell his own kids that his old man was into re-invention.

Whether we can put our trust in the trustless blockchain as a guardian of our credentials and social capital is the unresolved argument. And also what makes these times we live in so interesting.

Digital Citizenship

The mindful navigation of our technologies of life

Alex Grech

Written by

Strategist, Change Agent & Academic. Into EdTech & Media Literacy. Partner at StrategyWorks. Director Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning

Digital Citizenship

The mindful navigation of our technologies of life

Alex Grech

Written by

Strategist, Change Agent & Academic. Into EdTech & Media Literacy. Partner at StrategyWorks. Director Commonwealth Centre for Connected Learning

Digital Citizenship

The mindful navigation of our technologies of life

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