You may not have heard the term blockchain before, but perhaps you have heard of crypto currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Dash, which blockchain technology underpins. Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology containing records (or blocks), which are linked together and secured using cryptography. Once data is stored in a blockchain it cannot be changed.
One of the main advantages this offers is distributed trust. In plain terms neither party has to trust each other, just the blockchain. So what practical applications could this have? If Bob tells Dennis he has sent him €10 to pay for lunch, Dennis does not need to trust that Bob has done this, as he can look it up on the open ledger. Or imagine being able to scan a tag on that new car you might buy, to see that it is the exact specification you are paying for, or verify that the eggs in your shopping basket really are free range, and see their entire journey from farm to basket. The use cases are endless, and the industries that this technology could disrupt are all around us.
The most widely reported use for blockchain tech to date is cryptocurrency, or digital assets. Each cryptocurrency is different, with different supplies and goals they are aiming to achieve. Cryptocurrencies are a successful use case for blockchain as they provide incentive for miners to mine blocks (record transactions) and run nodes (copies of the blockchain) which secure the network. More copies of the ledger stored around the world means more security. If a copy of the ledger were returned with a tampered transaction, it will not match all other copies, and will be rejected. So what potential blockchain applications could we see in the future in the E-Learning space?
One idea being explored in a joint venture by Sony education & IBM, and others like Accredible, is certification on the blockchain. When this is done by a verified awarding body, it is available for a third party such as a recruiter or employer to verify its integrity. This means certification cannot be faked which benefits all stakeholders: the student, awarding institution, and employers.
This could be applied to any professional development like short courses, badges. As this information can be freely shared by the award holder wherever they choose, with no issues of cross platform portability, or the badge being verified. The Open Badge standard has been developed to facilitate blockchain verification of badges.
The process of making the award itself could also be automated with smart contracts. These are computer programs which monitor the conditions contained in the contract and execute automatically when the conditions are met. In this case a smart contract could automatically trigger award of a certification based on a student’s results, students grouped into passing or failing cohorts, communications sent, or automatically shared on professional networks such as linkedin. Smart contracts could further be expanded to help students during their course, automatically reaching out to offer assistance to students whose grades are falling below par.
Another idea where the two areas intersect could be recording information such as consent on the blockchain. Again, this could be used to trigger an automatic grouping or response based on whether consent has been given/ withheld, and if needed further communications sent.
There are several problems to be overcome before this use case could be implemented. The location where data is stored is becoming more of an issue and new legislation is being introduced in Europe to regulate this. Given the distributed nature of the blockchain, this poses a problem for decentralized systems. Recording consent of users to have their data transferred could provide the solution for this.
Even more ambitious, entire educational platforms are being built on the blockchain. Education-ecosystem is a decentralized educational built on top of ethereum’s network. The currency is used to incentivize content creators by allowing learners to pay for subscriptions using the token. More views equals larger revenue. Tokens are also used for governance. Holders can also use tokens to vote on the direction of the platform, having a direct say on new features and topics they want to see on the platform.
This is an exciting new technology, and there is no roadmap as to how best we can apply it. New use cases are emerging and being explored all the time. It will be interesting to see how the E-Learning industry employ blockchain in the future both in and out of E-Learning.