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Is Blockchain the Answer to Education's Learner Record Issues?

A new blockchain-focused initiative with the American Council on Education suggests that the emerging technology could transform the world of learner records, though many questions remain.

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One classic problem in education is the difficulty that learners face when it comes to showcasing their achievements in order to transfer to different educational programs or to capitalize on job opportunities. 

More and more groups are looking to blockchain as part of the solution. Earlier this month, the American Council on Education (ACE) revealed that it received funding from the U.S. Department of Education to support research on blockchain’s potential to solve the learner record quagmire. The money will also be used to help fund pilot projects throughout the country later this year. 

Louis Soares, the lead for the ACE initiative, said the heightened mobility of learners and the variability of learning itself — whether it takes place in a school, the workplace or another setting — have created a need to consider how the qualities of blockchain may improve the flow of learning record information.

“Blockchain is essentially a distributed database where once you load a block of information into that database, it’s very difficult to change, and it’s auditable … if you had a student whose family worked in agriculture, they might move a couple of times during a school year so that their parents are following the work. If their education record existed in a technology like a blockchain, it’s more easily downloadable to the next school district,” Soares said. 

But even if blockchain can help address particular hang-ups such as the efficiency of transfers, the technology presents multiple questions. Who should be able to add and view information in a blockchain? How will blockchain interact with legacy data systems? How will blockchain align with existing regulations, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)? What current practices may need to change? 

“One of the reasons we’re going to do the challenges is to begin to experiment with what a blockchain might look like that serves learners first and considers other stakeholders,” Soares said. 

For guidance, the team at ACE will examine work that’s already been done with blockchain in the learning record realm. A recent example is the partnership between Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD) and the Dallas-based platform GreenLight Credentials that has resulted in students having “unprecedented access to their educational transcripts.”

DCCCD Chancellor Joe May said the decision to address the issue of learning records happened after he learned that all IIT Technical Institutes closed their doors and stopped answering their phones. 

“We went to work trying to assist students and suddenly realized we can’t get their records,” May said. “Of course, you can imagine how unhappy students were. They were one or two courses from graduating. They were in debt at significant levels. And frankly, it was very frustrating to me.”

For May, the situation shed light on an absurdity: Learners can’t access something that should be rightfully theirs. A friend suggested to May that blockchain could give students more control over their learning histories. 

“I realized he was right,” May said. “Because of the distributed nature of that particular technology, it allowed the institution to write to a file that would be on a distributed ledger and therefore wouldn’t be held hostage if something happened to the institution. The record would still exist.”

Today, the students in May’s district are sharing tens of thousands of learning records with transfer institutions, colleges and employers — and the process is not dependent on any office workers.  

“[S]tudents can do it from an app on their phone, and they can literally … scroll through the list of institutions or whomever to send it to, and it’s instantaneous,” May said. “They’re sending now 10 and 11 at a time to different institutions. They’re exploring their options. It’s given them the freedom to really look at and carefully consider how institutions will accept their credit in transfer.”

Although multiple institutions, from high schools to colleges, are writing to DCCCD students’ learning records, the blockchain in this case is not a public ledger but a private one. Additionally, the records themselves are not added to the chain. May said a “fingerprint of the document” containing much less data is written, which helps the speed of transfers. 

What’s more, despite the fact that FERPA states that institutions technically have ownership of records, the DCCCD model also allows learners to have consent. 

“I can’t see the high school record unless the student consents to share it,” May said. “It’s actually been designed in such a way that the identity is completely protected. Only the student can reveal their identity.”

The current success of DCCCD’s system doesn’t mean everyone should jump on the blockchain bandwagon as quickly as they can. Wayne Skipper, CEO of Concentric Sky, wrote an article last year titled Is Blockchain Ready for Prime Time in Education? In the piece, Skipper warns against a “check the box” approach, suggesting that everyone should think about the long-term consequences of using blockchain. 

“Anyone that’s looking solely at a product solution really needs to think about ‘Is that vendor going to be around in five years? Are they going to be around in 10 years? What happens to your records that you’ve written to these other types of solutions?’” Skipper told Government Technology

To Skipper’s argument, Gartner has forecast that nine out of 10 blockchain vendor solutions “will require replacement within 18 months to remain competitive, secure and avoid obsolescence.”

Skipper does understand the need to fix learning records. His company created Badgr, a digital badging product that boasts about 20 million users across the world. Badgr allows users to stack a wide variety of badges, or credentials, and show them off to interested consumers, such as employers. 

Skipper believes learning records should go beyond the traditional forms of diplomas, certificates and so on. The dexterity to play video games, for example, should be recorded. 

“A lot of people think that they know what skills will matter in the future of workforce development,” he said. “I don’t believe that they do. Who’s to say that dexterity doesn’t turn out to be the most important skill of the 21st century as we move into more of a VR- and XR-driven world? Then all of those video game badges that people have been earning — that, on the surface, might seem to be without merit — suddenly turn out to be data points in a representation of that learner’s ability to demonstrate the most important skill.”

Despite his urge for caution when it comes to blockchain, Skipper said his company does have a “blockchain strategy.” In fact, Concentric Sky, along with Salesforce, has assisted Arizona State University with the development of a federated system of multiple blockchains called the Trusted Learner Network

Donna Kidwell, chief technology officer of EdPlus at ASU, said the network aims to address very different use cases involving learning records. One example is the reverse transfer student, which is someone who has transferred to a university with some community college experiences but who has not received an associate’s degree. The ASU team is working with community colleges to build up the logic for how someone could receive an associate’s degree while attending a university. 

“We’ve got lots of students that are in that category,” Kidwell said. “We want to help them to get that accomplishment and achieve it, and plus we want to be good partners to the community colleges that are important parts of our ecosystem.” 

ASU Special Adviser and Faculty Affiliate Phillip Long said the blockchain network will enable students to control what others can see on their transcripts. The idea is for the person to be the focal point, where they can craft the exact story that they want to tell. 

“The idea is that the data model that is being persisted across time can receive assertions of achievements of various sorts in lots of different contexts and is intended to be with them for the duration of their life,” Long said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.