Blockchain. A few years ago, the word was known only to a very select few. Nowadays, most people have heard of blockchains, even though they might just know it as ‘that thing that makes bitcoin work.’ While cryptocurrencies are the first widespread application of blockchain technology, this is far from the only use for it. Being secure, decentralized ledgers, blockchains can be applied in many fields including healthcare and education.

Just a Reminder…

For starters, blockchains are distributed ledgers.

We’ve all seen ledgers before. They are books where records, like accounting records or students’ grades, are kept. Most of these today are electronic, maintained using specialized software, and generally centralized.

If a centralized ledger is ever stolen, damaged or compromised in any way, it’s a problem. So keeping exact copies of ledgers in different locations would be a good safeguard, provided each copy were a faithful, verified, exact version of the original. This is what is called a distributed ledger.

In a blockchain, each of the many individual digital ‘nodes’ keeps a full copy of the ledger and also constantly verifies the integrity of both newly recorded information as well as the copy that it stores. If any or many of these nodes fail or are compromised, the ledger’s information remains intact.

It’s easy to see how this could be beneficial in many fields. But besides holding ledgers, blockchains also offer other services, such as smart contracts and a built-in rewards system. Let’s look at how blockchains could impact education in the years to come.

What Could Blockchains Do for Education?

There are many applications and benefits of blockchain-based ledger technologies for education:

1. Student Records

Academic transcripts are one of the most time-consuming, labour-intensive tasks in academic institutions today. Before issuing a certified transcript of a student’s grades, each entry must be manually verified to ensure accuracy.

Another kind of student record that is frequently requested is the certification of course contents. In K-12 education, it might happen that a student in one state takes a class called ‘Algebra’ and then moves to another state where she is enrolled in a school that also teaches a class called ‘Algebra.’ So far, so good. But do both courses share the same content? Verifying this means comparing the courses’ content. In K-12, this can be tedious. At the university level, it is a nightmare. At the university where I went to medical school, complete course contents are around 700 pages. For each student who requests this record, each page should be signed and stamped (to ensure accuracy). But if this information were stored on a blockchain, with just a few clicks, a person could obtain a complete, verified record of content courses and all academic achievements.

2. Diplomas and Certificates

Just like grades, a student’s diplomas and credentials could be issued and stored on a blockchain. Instead of asking the institution emitting the diploma to certify a paper copy, employers would only need to be provided with a link to a digital diploma. This is already being done. In 2017, MIT began issuing digital, blockchain-stored diplomas to its graduates. This prevents people from submitting fake degrees to potential employers, a situation that is, regrettably, all too common.

3. Badges

Besides degrees, a person’s typical resume contains a lot of additional information that could be relevant to employers. We’re talking about foreign language skills, technical knowledge or specific abilities not necessarily related to a person’s profession. I, for one, am a medical doctor with a master’s degree in primary care diabetology. But that doesn’t tell anyone that I speak four languages to varying levels of fluency, can set up computer networks, know about cryptocurrencies or am a trained cook. Then again, these skills aren’t easy to verify. But a person can get an expert third party to verify that skill and grant a certificate or badge. If these are stored on a blockchain, they prove that a person indeed has the skills in question. Services like Open Badge Passport are a first step in this direction.

4. File Storage

If institutions want to store digital curricula, records, degrees and other information, that’s going to use a lot of file storage space. Saving everything on local hard drives brings us back to the issue of centralizing the files. If the hard drives are damaged or compromised in any way that would be a big problem. Cloud storage is an option, but buying the amount of cloud storage space needed could be out of reach for many institutions. A possible solution would be blockchain-based cloud storage services like Filecoin.

5. Lessons and Courses

Many blockchains are also smart-contract capable. That means that lessons and courses can be programmed into the blockchain and executed automatically when certain conditions are met. For example, a teacher could set up tasks for students. The completion of each task could be automatically verified by the blockchain’s smart contracts. Upon completion of all tasks, teachers could receive payment with crypto tokens and students could be awarded credits. Entire courses could be laid out this way.

6. Publishing

Undergrad and grad students, teachers, professors and researchers constantly generate quality material. But the road to publication is a hard one. Science has a long history of worthy research that, for a variety of reasons, were rejected by scientific journals: Enrico Fermi’s 1933 paper on weak interactions, Hans Krebs’ 1937 paper on the Citric Acid Cycle, Rosalyn Yalow’s 1955 research that set the bases for radioimmunoassay and even as recently as 1993 Kary Mullis’ paper on polymerase chain reaction were all rejected for a variety of reasons—and all these papers went on to earn Nobel Prizes for their authors! Not only does this indicate that rejections don’t mean your paper is bad, it shows just how difficult it can be to get published.

But publishing on a blockchain could help new writers, researchers and many others break into the industry. Blockchains could also help with rights management and protection against piracy.

7. Lower Costs

Many of the applications mentioned above mean that many time-consuming, labour-intensive processes would be automated. This leads to lower costs for institutions, which in turn could translate into savings for students, who may not need to spend years paying off loans. Schools and universities could also reduce costs related to file storage space and by cutting out middlemen in many activities.

8. Rewards

The computer nodes that constantly verify the integrity of the information stored on a blockchain receive rewards in the form of digital tokens like bitcoin or ether. This is what is called cryptocurrency mining. People who use computers to verify education-related blockchains would also receive tokens as a reward. These tokens could then be traded on a safe cryptocurrency exchange like Kraken for other crypto or fiat currencies, or used to pay for goods and services within the education community itself, as schools and universities could accept tokens as payment in cafeterias, bookstores or even for tuition.

Blockchains are already changing the economic landscape via cryptocurrencies; looking at how blockchains could impact education in the years ahead, distributed ledgers and smart contracts could draw a whole new picture. The above just barely scratches the surface of what’s possible. The best thing is that the necessary technology already exists, so it is achievable in the short term. The future is certainly promising and a lot of people, see the positive impact that blockchains could have on education.