What Blockchain Technology Can Do for Online Education

There’s been a lot of hype around cryptocurrencies, with prices in 2017 increasing up to 1,500% for most of the top twenty assets on CoinMarketCap.com. Bitcoin led the way, rocketing from below US$1,000 in January to around US$20,000 towards the end of the year. As public interest is piqued by the price explosion, debate rages whether cryptocurrencies are scams, Ponzi schemes or true investment assets.

However, the skyrocketing price isn’t what matters. The real magic is that decentralized, public, peer-to-peer networks of independent computers (with no central servers) have effectively maintained their transaction ledgers through consensus without fail. Yes, exchanges and wallets have been hacked, but no blockchain has been compromised. For Bitcoin, that’s an uninterrupted nine-year record of secure operation.

The architecture of maintaining a transaction ledger on a peer-to-peer network existed only in theory before Satoshi Nakamoto launched Bitcoin in January 2009. When you study and acknowledge the genius of this architecture, the price of cryptocurrencies become irrelevant.

Many developers, inventors and entrepreneurs have been doing more than studying this architecture. They’ve been applying “blockchain,” as the technology is called, to solve problems.

Blockchain is fundamentally a solution for trust issues. A peer-to-peer network of computers stores and chains together blocks of transactions in a public, online ledger to make it impossible to alter entries without detection. The technology has applications beyond currency, with cutting costs, improved privacy and security being the major attractions. It is applicable in any situation where a third party maintains records.

Right now, there is a startup building a blockchain solution to solve a problem in nearly every industry. Indeed, blockchain has become kind of a panacea technology: it’s being applied both where it is really needed and where it adds little value.

One sector where it could solve real problems is in the online education & professional development space — think Udemy, Lynda and Coursera. Professional development exploded with the Internet and has grown to be worth over US$300 billion. While it has helped millions of people acquire knowledge and skills from the comfort of their homes — bypassing most of the obstacles that exist in formal education — the industry faces a myriad challenges. The main ones include:

  • Poor cross-platform collaboration
  • Threat of student data theft
  • Difficulty in authenticating certifications

The following are blockchain use cases that attempt to fix these issues:

Decentralized E-Learning Platforms

Blockchain offers the possibility of decentralized education platforms maintained by consensus rather than a central authority. It makes a truly peer-to-peer learning experience possible. The technology also encourages standardization across educational establishments, the possibility of sharing a platform to which no single educator owns an exclusive license and the ability to utilize blockchain-native applications such as smart contracts and tokens.

This is the next generation of online learning, where centralized sites like Udemy and Lynda are replaced by a new breed of educators working on a single, shared platform and using a common currency, regardless of their geographical, industrial or professional demographic.

One startup creating a decentralized e-learning platform is LiveEdu, who are building on top of the Ethereum blockchain. LiveEdu connects content creators and learners, with a focus on content that focuses on real projects and not theoretical knowledge.

The platform seeks to provide tools that both individual and institutional content creators can use to teach hands-on skills and knowledge without the constraints that come with centralized platforms. It also provides a means of sharing value in the form of a public token (not controlled by a single entity), only possible on a blockchain.

Securing Student Data

As educational establishments rely increasingly on Internet-accessible databases, the risk of a hacker changing their grades, adding unearned certifications or even deleting (or stealing) an entire database also increases.

In December 2016, Lynda.com — the online learning platform owned by LinkedIn — was hit by a hack. An unauthorized external party accessed student data with 9.5 million user accounts affected.

This kind of wholesale account compromise happens because platforms like Lynda.com use servers to store data. This form of centralized storage — even if it’s “in the cloud” — has single attack points, which offer access to all data stored if breached.

Blockchain solves this problem at a fundamental level: the technology requires consensus to confirm transactions, which become immutable once sufficiently confirmed. Since each full node (which can run equally well on a server or on someone’s home computer, anywhere in the world) maintains an independent copy of the blockchain and verifies it against all others, there are no central attack points. The cost of protecting student data falls while security improves. As mentioned earlier, no blockchain has ever been hacked.

Authenticating and Securing Certification

At present, the only way employers can verify potential employees’ credentials is by contacting individual educators. Given that an interviewee will likely have certificates from several high schools, universities, professional educators and online companies, that’s a lot of checking.

Confirming authenticity is easy with blockchain. Once an educator adds an individual’s certificate(s) to the ledger, the details not only become immutable but are publicly available and separated from the issuing establishment. Employers can simply reference the online record to verify a potential hire’s learning history.

Students also gain full control of their data by the same measure. They can access and verify every detail of their history online and it doesn’t matter if an educator goes out of business: the records are permanently inscribed on the blockchain.

Identification, Accreditation and Tracking

As each educator joins the blockchain — or starts their own — their data moves out of individual data silos and into an easily accessed repository that can be shared across borders and industries (with appropriate security and access control). Students no longer have to carry certificates to prove their skills, as all their data is available online.

That’s a huge benefit for people moving between countries or into a new industry or role. Assuming their potential employer has access to the blockchain, they can simply provide their biometric identity (similar to a wallet address) and everything is instantly verifiable from anywhere in the world.

As blockchain evolves, innovative new applications will disrupt online education. Exactly how that will happen remains to be seen, as current giants face the reality of new technologies that can potentially make their existing platforms obsolete. The opportunity to expand course offerings across borders, to secure student data, reduce cost of operation and to improve data accessibility will undoubtedly mean exciting changes in education in the coming months, for everyone involved.

More by Dr. Michael J. Garbade

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