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Blockchain has been receiving considerable attention from a score of industries and audiences due to its promises of immutable, decentralized, and verifiable data management. Despite these characteristics offering a substantial draw for both academia and other industries, it is the social benefits of a trustless system enabling seamless peer-to-peer interaction within a decentralized network, that academic institutions have latched onto. Is there a need for blockchain adoption within universities?
Parasite, an oscar award winning film directed by Bong Joon-ho, spurred a global dialogue regarding the growing social divide in South Korea. An often forgotten detail highlighted in the film is the forgery of a Yonsei University diploma, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea and a letter in the renowned SKY acronym. Despite fake diplomas failing background checks, a black market for these still exists, showing some demand for these services. Not all employers go to great lengths to ensure a candidate is qualified, conducting half-hearted background checks and deeming an interview as satisfactory in assessing their eligibility. Digital diplomas secured on a distributed ledger (DLT) could directly tackle these concerns and streamline the review process. One of the many niches in academia where blockchain intervention could be valuable.
Blockcerts, touted as the open standard for blockchain credential verification, has seen widespread adoption and utilization in civic records and license distribution, academic credential management, and workforce development. Blockcerts utilizes a standard data format easily read by any system and can be issued to multiple blockchains including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Sovrin, and or Hyperledger.
Payments, Funding, and Smart Contracts
One of the more thought-provoking and potentially transformative effects within academic eco-systems resides within the money transfer system. Scientists and researchers spend a great deal of time writing time-consuming grant applications, reports, and paperwork, with the intent to receive funding. Similarly, students will work tirelessly repurposing the same narratives for scholarship and grant applications. Additionally, the US government has recently reduced funding in the sciences, in the hopes that other firms and private foundations will pick up the slack. How could blockchain remediate these issues?
Automating fund disbursement could reduce overhead costs and bring new efficiency to accounting processes within academic institutions, resulting in a more manageable paper trail and lower fees. With the implementation of smart contracts, grant money could be delivered when predetermined conditions are met, streamlining the funding process. An example of successful integration can be found in the public sector at the National Research Council of Canada, where the Ethereum blockchain was employed to publish grants and funding data.
Despite these promising developments, the most influential change lies in experimentation with new grant and money distribution processes, evoking a cultural shift. This would give researchers an opportunity to receive funding from investors outside of universities, from individuals that may hold a different outlook from the researcher’s institution. In essence, crypto-economic tools could give academics new independence, eliciting a paradigm shift within universities and profound downstream consequences in society.
International students' tuition payment is another area ripe for disruption. International money transfers can be expensive and slow and go through multiple intermediaries before they reach their proposed destination, Bitcoin changes hands — once.
In 2013, the University of Nicosia (UNIC) began allowing students to pay tuition fees in Bitcoin. This was received positively and an increasing number of students welcomed this payment alternative with some professors vouching for their salary to be paid in BTC as well. Such developments ultimately save time and money for both individuals and universities. This expense isn’t specific to academia but ubiquitous across all verticals and rears its ugly head every time money changes hands across borders.
Tokenization Of Degrees
In addition to streamlining money-transfers and its inherent decentralization, blockchain also enables tokenization. Blockchain integration in higher education originally dates back to 2017, when the University of Melbourne issued recipient owned blockchain credentials. Since then over nine universities have followed suit, most notably, MIT, Harvard, and the University of California. These universities are collaborating on a shared and trusted infrastructure whereby sharing credentials, for either academic or professional reasons, has become a seamless process on a local or global scale.
If you have had to share your academic credentials with a potential job or a university, you can likely appreciate how archaic this process feels and how easily it can be improved. Developing a wide-spread accepted blockchain infrastructure where individuals can access their digital diploma, could potentially eliminate the diploma black market and streamline the credential sharing process.
Sentiment In Academia
The social and economic benefits of blockchain implementation within academia are boundless, with great potential to drive a cultural change. Recent developments in the Blockchain niche can revolutionize our society and economy, eventually boasting a massive influence on education. Despite numerous applicatory benefits, there are some concerns for a premature adoption.
Academics interviewed on this subject raised concerns regarding ease of use and understanding. They worry that blockchain applications for academia are still in their infancy and adoption cannot continue until these applications are on par with “Facebook or Uber” — easy to navigate, download, and satisfying its user-bases wants and needs.
The price point is also of concern, with academics purportedly suggesting the team of developers required to develop and sustain the network, would demand a huge amount of resources. However, they fail to recognize that it is not a sudden implementation of new resources but a divvying up of current capital. Fees associated with large accounting departments and money transfer fees would be reduced and most likely stomach some of the financial burden accrued from onboarding a team of developers. There are more concerns including the moral dilemma of firing accountants no longer required, academics concerned with royalty payments for their research, and requirements of universal adoption.
There are a wealth of benefits of DLT within academia and just as many concerns, some of which are more well-founded than others. Traditional academics may see this change as a threat to their current established structure they have enjoyed for centuries, and take immediate action to protect it. This is an inevitable cost of innovation. If however, it is viewed as an opportunity, they may become more deliberate and reasoned in their response. Current research in this niche points towards an education gap in both the hows and whys of DLT implementation. These knowledge gaps will likely be spanned as blockchain further saturates across the post-secondary landscape and reaches maturity. Just give it time.
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