Blockchain for Education — From Mystery to Hype

By Prof. O. Andreev, OS University Academia Advisor

https://os.university

How does the ‘’blockchain in education’’ landscape looks like today?

A mix of academic pioneers, decided to change the course of learning and private entities, riding on the crypto-hype, decided to monetize this change. We at OS University introduced the concept for building a system to open-up the educational world though blockchain technologies back in 2015. We started with a doctoral research project at the Technical University of Sofia and in a certain way we seeded the market for the number of recent ‘’blockchain in education’’ ICOs by disseminating our research across the industry.

On a side note, which is the world’s first blockchain project in the field of education and professional development might be a more interesting question than it sounds. Many initiatives claim to be the pioneers. A closer look at a specialized ICO-portal, i.e. ICO Bench, shows that at least 4 out of 5 top-rated projects claim an identical badge of honor. To answer this question, we need to look into the history of the projects concerned.

In the case of the OS University, it is the only one to be dated back to 2013. Below there is one of the earliest research papers on the project (Figure 1 below). The paper describes the principles of operation that are today outlined in the Whitepaper and the roadmap of OS University.

Project archive. (Albena, 2013)

Figure 1. A slide from the keynote paper, presented at the 1st international young scientists’ conference in Albena, chaired by the Minister of Education of Republic of Bulgaria.

If this scientific paper was hashed on the blockchain, maybe it would have been easier to put an end to the dispute. It will definitely be easier in the future. Today, OS University as a research project needs OS University as a technology solution to claim its position as a blockchain pioneer in the field of education the same way any learner and any employee need it to strive in the competitive academic and career development landscape. It is not simply a matter of personal claims and checks; it is a matter of building a tool for providing indisputable digital identity in a globalized, digitized world.

This is precisely why the Technical University of Sofia paved the way — because we see the bigger picture.

If academic records remain dispersed in an ever-globalizing world, described as ‘the information age’’, information would always be a subject of uncertainty, fraud, siloed bureaucratic governance, even loss and destruction.

A subject of ignorance if you like, simply because the transfer and verification of information is too slow or too expensive of a process for interested stakeholders to run on their own without a number of trusted intermediaries along the way.

Today, companies and governments around the world are not able to verify efficiently a broad range of claims, ranging from owning a diploma (that you may have invested thousands of dollars into) to giving a credit for a fundamental scientific breakthrough (that you may have invested years into). These require complex fact checking, going through a disorganized and slow network of information brokers and men in the middle, adding nothing but cost.

At the end, these information-coordination bottlenecks are not just a personal issue to handle (multiplied by billions). They represent serious roadblocks to processes, affecting millions of citizens, learners, employees, and institutions in a globalized knowledge society. Sometimes the problem is indeed related to prospects of academic and career development that we face in Academia. You may eventually prove your claims and resolve any disputes “off the chain”, but the gains are always too little, too late. In other cases, it is all about institutional and personal credibility (as in the case of the blockchain initiatives, claiming the same badge of honor). In all of these cases, it is about finding a way to re-enforce identity and trust in strangely what is an ever more consolidating, yet ever more decentralized world.

To provide an answer/solution to this broader question of building your credible digital identity when it comes to education and career development in particular, we need a systematic approach. Throwing claims back and forth is neither effective, not efficient on the global stage — it still needs arbitrage. A system which records academic, research and professional development accomplishments and achievements is a whole other story.

OS University is creating one such system through a systematic effort 3 years in research and development. Being able to validate and verify your claims through a trusted decentralized platform on the blockchain is among OS University main goals, but it goes in synergy to the other merits in regards to bringing the gap between education and employment.

In parallel to ours, other renowned academic institutions advanced their research. We are very much looking forward to establish a hub for cross-pollination of our findings in the months ahead. A third group of early adaptors of the blockchain technology appeared in more recent days, along with the crypto hype. To give you an idea about what they do in the field of learning and professional development, here are a few of them and how we differ:

  • Indorse— it is a LinkedIn type of social network with somewhat complex wisdom-of-the-crowd endorsement & incentivization mechanisms. While it gets close to the idea of using the blockchain for validation and verification of achievements/accomplishments, it does interpret these concepts in a bit of an odd way. Difference with OS University? Well, OS University introduced to the world the “L2A” (learner-to-academia) smart contract. This smart contract allows learners to register their proofs for accomplishments and skills in the forms of degrees, certificates, etc. and have them verified by the issuers. The blockchain serves as an environment to record these requests and transactions of data, so that your clams get ‘’whitelisted’’ the same way a property register on the blockchain would serve property owners/buyers. It is a straightforward process optimizer, a notary, sticking to what matters — indisputable, immutable validation and verification of data, adding real value to the industry, solving its problems, related to the dispersion and quality, hence trust in the underlying information. It is not a LinkedIn-wannabe, something that “Indorse” tends to lean towards.
  • Tutellus — currently an active provider on the MOOC market, Tutellus is one of the hundreds of online course providers, a fraction of the marketplace that OS University envisions in order to democratize access to education. Think of “Tutellus” as a merchant and of OS University as a decentralized “Amazon for Learning” type of marketplace. As an expert, I do not believe that blockchain is a technology for building content on top of it, whether that would be learning content or games, or whatever other idea is out there. Blockchain as a technology is an improved distributed database, a decentralized ledger, so you better use it as intended. It is simply not an LMS, a learning management system. Therefore the main difference — our tokenized marketplace model and “B2A” smart contract (business-to-academia) are there to enable content creators to meet existing demand and create new by collaborating with other knowledge producers and consumers, not to compete with them. The latter is something that Tutellus is decided to do, most probably driven by earlier monetarization success of “BitDegree”, another “Coursera” on the blockchain. OS University looks into the blockchain technology as a connecting, enabling layer, a smart grid for connecting demand and supply, a smart grind for enabling information coordination relationships.
  • Profede — it is supposed to change recruitment through change of ownership of career data. Similar to the OS University’s “B2L” (business to learner) smart contract, it provides a channel for exchange of data between the stakeholders. However, instead of focusing on the basics (i.e. how to improve the quality of the flow of information), “Profede” focuses on aspects such as monetarization primarily. Every time an ICO speculate around this subject, they simply forget that promises for decentralization, ownership rights are not enough — you need to improve the system strategically, not just its mechanics. As an example, in the case of OS University, our B2L contract has its value rooted within the B2A and the B2A ones — learners, employers and HR partners exchange information on the principles of many-to-many. It is not just about you as a candidate sharing data with an interested company, it is about the company sharing its insights with you — on the way to move forward in your learning, career development.

In a nutshell, OS University helps educators market their products, while helping learners market themselves. This happens through a decentralized marketplace and a distributed learning and development ledger. They achieve their aim by leveraging three smart contracts that are outcome of a long-time research — B2A contract, B2B contract, and a B2L contract.

The other projects that are put forward as examples within the current review are not necessary of inferior quality — they are simply addressing the opportunity partially, in an uncoordinated manner. While they lack scientific peer-review to back their theses, each of them have received enough public backing from a variety of crypto-generalists to pass the scam-test and be included in this article.

Being trendy on the markets, however, is not close to being of greater value to your stakeholders. Take viral apps such as Snapchat as an example. Born as a ‘sexting app’, “Snapchat” went up to a 20 bln. dollar valuation not that long ago. Would teenagers really care if it is gone tomorrow, if it is substituted by a more viral app? I do not think so. Yes, of course, early investors would care about the money they would lose.

So choose wisely if you are investing in a startup venture (whether in edtech, crypto or elsewhere) that has no deeper fundamentals and connections to the industry it is operating in.

What the purely commercial-driven outsiders are missing in their concepts for application of blockchain in education, is the need to act in an integral, scientifically-driven manner. Enabling educators to reach effectively to learners cannot be done without enabling learners to reach effectively to businesses. The latter also need to be close the loop by reaching out to educators. It is an input-output story. Break the chain and you will have not a blockchain use-case, but a short circuit in your business model.

In other words, if you are a blockchain startup with edtech aspirations, and you try to address the big picture superficially, you would either end up not having a proper token circulation model to sustain your project or you would produce a decent tool that somehow manages to provide utility to token owners, but without a real need for the underlying blockchain technology.
OS University will continue to seed the industry with ideas, but quite frankly, we need the challengers to go through them more carefully. Therefore you should look for some important educational announcement that we will make in the upcoming weeks and months.

Prof. Ognyan Andreev

Prof. Ognyan Andreev,
Academia Ambassador

As of 2011, Prof. Ognyan Andreev is Head of the Department of Economics, Industrial Engineering and Management at the Faculty of Economics, Technical University of Sofia.
Author and co-author of more than 80 scientific papers and reports, 6 textbooks and teaching materials, 3 monographs in the area of project management.
He has been part of more than 15 scientific and applied research projects, of which a project manager in 7, including 2 TEMPUS projects and 2 British know-how fund projects on academic education and corporate L&D in the field of management. Linkedin Profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ognyan-andreev-538b606/

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