As higher education shifted online through the global pandemic, issues of trust, identity and fraud crippled learning and research. Blockchain technology has emerged as a potential solution to these long-standing problems and might even offer opportunities for novel and emerging use cases. However, despite being an important driver for the blockchain industry, universities have failed to realize the potential of blockchain technology for their own use.
This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2021 universities package. Quinn DuPont is an assistant professor of business at University College Dublin. He is the author of Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains (Polity, 2019).
To better understand how blockchain and innovative EdTech companies might disrupt this trillion dollar industry, through 2021, I led a team of students who surveyed the market, looked at potential use cases and separated reality from hyperbole. In our comprehensive report, we discuss many compelling use cases but found few serious players. With the exception of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), top tier universities remain conservative, neither embracing the educational and research opportunities brought about by blockchain nor utilizing the technology to better serve their student, faculty and social stakeholders.
Higher education is complex with well-established incumbents and important norms and traditions. While these norms and traditions are certainly barriers to innovation, companies hoping to disrupt the industry will fail if they do not pay heed to this reality. In our report, we identified four areas for potential innovation to solve real challenges: research and innovation, certification and validation, student identity, and integrated and online learning environments. While each has its complexities (which we discuss in our report), we believe blockchain technology is now mature enough to offer real solutions.
Perhaps the most vexing challenge facing universities is dataset provenance. Datasets are often produced by university researchers and shared with commercial and government stakeholders. These datasets may contain the results of empirical research or training data for machine learning models. Due to the importance of these datasets, it is critical that their users know where they came from and whether they have been tampered with.
A robust software supply chain tracks datasets across their lifecycle, from creation to use, to modification and end of life. Like traditional supply chains (a use case already disrupted by blockchain technology), software supply chains need assurances of confidentiality, integrity and availability. Moreover, since some datasets contain sensitive information, access needs to be carefully managed. For example, a recent Microsoft report detailed the volume and severity of attacks to machine-learning (ML) datasets. The authors reported that “model poisoning is the top perceived threat against ML for business decision makers.” Since blockchains excel at tracking digital assets without the need for a trusted third party, they are obvious solutions for critical software infrastructures. We believe universities play a critical role in ensuring datasets are kept secure.
The next most important challenge brought about by the global pandemic and now facing higher education is diploma fraud (although student identity, as the lynchpin to widespread online cheating, is a close third). When university campuses shut their gates during the pandemic, many of the traditional paper-based processes were exposed as inefficient and insecure. Diplomas and transcripts are still today issued as paper copies, and when pressed to offer digital copies universities issue insecure versions that are easily fabricated or tampered with. By securely recording unique “fingerprints” (cryptographic hashes) of digital assets and solving the challenges of managing a decentralized public key infrastructure, blockchain technologies offer a simple, turnkey solution for issuing and managing university transcripts and diplomas, while potentially lowering administration costs.
Going beyond the current state of the art, we recommend four disruptive potential use cases for blockchain in higher education: decentralized education marketplaces, educational incentivization, smart-contract test marking and reputation management. The most enticing of these opportunities is decentralized educational marketplaces. Due to the low-friction, low trust environment made possible by blockchain, federated or multi-institutional degrees might become possible, allowing students to choose best-of educational offerings (bottom-up) rather than prescribed (top-down) curricula. A decentralized educational marketplace might also enable “subscription” models for lifelong learning.
A green field
Despite these turnkey opportunities and future developments, the commercial landscape of blockchain in EdTech is a green field. We found very few serious blockchain providers in the industry and seemingly little interest from would-be buyers – that is, the higher education providers subject to disruption.
In our analyses, we found that universities have numerous ways to lock out competitors and have been effective at doing so. Market disruptors like massive online open courses (MOOCs) have come and gone, while low-cost and online universities have existed for decades. But none of those options have supplanted the perceived value of a top-flight, brick-and-mortar education. These are formidable challenges for the nascent blockchain EdTech space, but we see many opportunities for blockchain including greater access to investors, novel education and research practices and emerging uses like citizen science and other peer-to-peer models for education.