Should Edtech care about blockchain?

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People have been trying to find educational uses for blockchain for many years now. I try to carve out a little time every year to see if any research projects have matured into industry products but it’s never a productive search. There are always dedicated practitioners (mostly academics) running proof of concepts, and many more edtech commentators weighing in with blogs, ideas and conjecture about blockchain’s potential in education. But over the years things have progressed at such a glacial pace, I had pretty much concluded that blockchain in EdTech was possible just a solution that couldn’t find a problem.

However, on attending a conference in late 2022 I heard a speaker tell the assembled audience from the higher education and apprenticeships world that blockchain is coming to disrupt their sector. Cue lots of scribbling on notepads and phones by senior decision makers. People lap this stuff up, no one wants to miss the next big thing. The trouble is that blockchain, like VR, has been touted by self-proclaimed ‘thought leaders’ as the potential next big thing in education for much of the past decade. But it never seems to jump the chasm from early adopter to mainstream market. To be honest, I’m not sure that blockchain has even made it as far as the early adopter phase. It always seemed to me like a lot of hype and hot air. Eyeing up the conference audience interest, I decided it was time to update my research and see if anything has changed.

The chaotic world of crypto

Try searching up blockchain and you soon get lost in a maze of terminology, hype and promises, a world dangerously full of rabbit holes that threaten to waste many hours of your life. You’ll come across Web3, a collection of crypto technologies that may or may not form the basis for the next generation of infrastructure that underpins the World Wide Web. You’ll quickly get confused when you find that Web 3.0 is completely different, a more general concept describing how the web may be used in future. You’ll obviously come across the term Crypto, which many people associate closely with cryptocurrency and related technology including blockchain, but the term has historically been associated with cryptography, the science of encryption which has been used in your email and messaging apps way before the cryptocurrencies crowd arrived on the scene. It’s a chaotic and confusing world to get to grips with, and hard to find balanced, thoughtful articles among the sea of hype and bullshit about how crypto is going to save the internet or make you rich. There are many heavily-biased explainer articles around if you feel compelled to know more, but this one seems pretty balanced.

To clarify, for this post I’m just looking at blockchain specifically, not the wider technology around Web3 like cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

Is anybody actually doing anything useful with blockchain in education?

Looking past all of the blogs, ideas and conjecture, the number of implementations that have actually been built and taken to market by the end of 2022 comprise just two use cases.

Storing educational credentials

Back in 2016, MIT Media Lab partnered with Learning Machine to create an incubation project called Blockcerts, “an open standard for creating, issuing, viewing, and verifying blockchain-based certificates“. With Blockcerts, students can register their pass certificate so that it can be shared to anyone who wants to verify it. MIT have used it on their own students, with 111 graduates receiving blockchain credentials in 2017.

In 2018, MIT evolved their efforts into the Digital Credentials Consortium with a number of other institutions. They are creating open source projects to “explore a digital credentials infrastructure“. The word ‘blockchain’ is conspicuously absent from the DCC website and I can’t work out if it’s under the hood or has been thrown out completely. The US Dept of Education awarded DCC a contract in 2020 which included developing the Learner Credentials Wallet for storing digital credentials. Interestingly this does not accept Blockcert or Open Badges certificates, instead choosing to follow the W3C Verifiable Credentials Data Model which is compatible with neither.

As an aside, Open Badges are a fantastic concept, I was out doing conference presentations about them 10 years ago. I love Open Badges to bits but they’re still barely used by anyone for actual credential sharing, and have largely become confined to being a gamification / reward mechanism. The concept of shared, verifiable digital credentials is great, but given they’ve not taken off with the excellent Open Badges standard despite support being baked into mass market platforms like Moodle, I’m struggling to see how applying new technology to the same use case will magically lead to greater adoption.

To bring this up to date, in 2020 Learning Machine got acquired by Hyland and is now Hyland Credentials, and they’re having some success on the blockchain credentials front. At about the same time as the acquisition, they concluded a 2 year pilot in Malta which has apparently been rolled out across every Maltese secondary school, where certificates for a combined 12,000 students are now stored on a blockchain.

Meanwhile, Blockcerts has been soldiering on in the background . It was originally developed as an open standard in the hope of establishing a community around the product. There is a community site but as at end of 2022 there are very few active users engaging in it, always a very bad sign for open source / community based projects.

Transferable student records

EduCTX is a Blockchain platform for global higher education credits. It is based on the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System concept which aims to make national education systems more comparable internationally. EduCTX offers a unified student record stored on the blockchain, updated by higher education institutions and accessed by students and other organisations. It has a glossy website, but I can’t find any evidence that it’s much more than a proof of concept.

Is it all just hype that I can ignore for another year?

It’s safe to say that blockchain has little to offer the education sector beyond credentials and student records, and that both those areas are still highly experimental so not really worth exploring unless you’re a high- risk taking ‘innovator’. In Everett Rogers adoption curve model, innovators represent the first 2.5% of the market for new technology, while early adopters form the next 13.5%. We’re barely even at the start of the innovators phase with blockchain in education, with only a handful of real-world implementations among the many hundreds of thousands of educational institutes, or even millions if you include schools in the mix. The number of blockchain implementations are so infinitesimally small, it’s barely even measurable. There is no way that this could realistically be called a “next big thing”, which is a term reserved for technologies that are poised to bridge the chasm to mainstream adoption.

Academic research into blockchain in Education, however, is a completely different story. Published research into this area is exploding, so there are no doubt interesting times ahead. There are good literature reviews from academics and public bodies, which are the best starting point to explore where this may all be heading. It’s pointless repeating it here when other people have done all the legwork, so go read.

It takes years for a new technology to move from academic research to be taken to market as new products. It takes years more to move from innovators phase to early adopters phase and to make the eventual leap to mass market adoption. Personally, I’ll continue to check back every year or so and see how the research and pilots are progressing. Until then, if anyone tells me that blockchain is the next big thing for education, I’ll be sure to take it with a massive pinch of salt.

Credits: Header image produced by DALL-E AI image generator. Entire text content created by my own human hand!

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