CHICAGO — Blockchain technology promises to make it easier for learners to share their academic and professional accomplishments with potential employers and educators. But it's up to academe to implement it, and so far uptake of the emerging technology has been gradual.
That's in part because the market is fragmented and potentially confusing, with several platforms and institutions adopting the technology in a disparate manner, according to a Gartner report published in June. The research firm estimates that nine in 10 blockchain implementations will need to be replaced within 18 months.
To help, a group of nine colleges, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are exploring how to make such digital records more secure and user-friendly.
The blockchain is a decentralized, internet-based digital ledger onto which organizations can record transactions. In the case of higher education, those transactions are academic accomplishments: courses completed, badges earned, degrees obtained.
Blockchain is more widely used in other fields, such as logistics. And interest from the business community has spurred colleges to add the topic to their curriculum.
Advocates of blockchain in higher ed say it can help give students more control over their records, allowing them to share the records in parts or fully with future employers or educators throughout their lives. For instance, MIT and Central New Mexico Community College offer students digital versions of their transcripts.
At Educause's annual convention this week, Arizona State University and California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) shared how they are using the technology, with an eye toward how it can benefit professors and staff and give students the ability to share supplemental information.
"Up until now, the transcript has been an irreducible object. You get the whole transcript or you get no transcript," said Phil Long, a faculty affiliate at Arizona State and a senior scholar at Georgetown University's Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
Long attended Educause in part to discuss Arizona State's Trusted Learner Network (TLN), a way to securely share student records that relies on the blockchain. The team has developed a minimum viable product with Salesforce using open-source technology and is testing it internally but couldn't yet say when it would be more widely available.
Although the primary focus is on recording credentials offered by Arizona State, Long said the university wants to make sure what is designed is useful for when a student transitions into the workforce or some other kind of learning, whether they formally enroll in an institution or not.
One way they hope to do that is by letting students include examples in their records that back up their achievements, which could be educational or aspirational. For example, students can demonstrate their ability to play a musical instrument by uploading a digital recording to their individual file, or Trusted Learner Record (TLR), Long said.
"The idea behind the TLR is to provide the validated, verifiable, narrative identity of a person," he said, that covers the past, present and — through the idea of aspirational accomplishments — their future.
Earlier this week, the learning management system Canvas announced it integrated a student portfolio network, Portfolium. The news added a little more momentum to the concept of giving students a way to flesh out and track their academic accomplishments through time.
Surveys of hiring managers have indicated that digital portfolios that demonstrate a candidate's abilities can be more helpful than traditional transcripts in vetting a potential hire.
Using blockchain can also help institutions address security issues around making credentials easier for students to keep track of. Arizona State's TLN encrypts its records with permissions to grant access to certain people, Long said. So far, those records can only be shared with TLN network members but the university hopes to eventually offer access beyond that.
Not all blockchain adoptions in higher ed focus on overhauling transcripts. Fresno State, for instance, is exploring how it can be used to validate and share microcredentials.
In the last five years, the university's Center for Faculty Excellence issued about 2,000 digital badges to faculty for professional development and attending campus events, said Mary Bennett, an instructional designer at the university. It's one of several departments within the institution to have embraced badging.
The university uses several vendors for badges. That posed a problem. "All these badges are going into different silos, which makes it very, very difficult to track," Bennett said.
To help, Fresno State developed uBadges, which uses the blockchain to let students track and share the badges they earn. By doing so, the university hopes to increase the security of records, avoid being locked into a specific vendor and tie into existing campus technology, such as the learning management system, Max Tsai, the university's coordinator of digital transformation and innovation, wrote in a Medium post in July.
The university is expecting to have 200 or more faculty members, staff and students piloting uBadges as of this fall, Tsai told Education Dive in an email.
Tsai wants to take the idea further, with a product called Pathway that's in development. Students, faculty and staff using the tool will be able to see additional badges they might want to earn toward a full credential based on the ones they've taken so far. Tsai said the university expects to release a version of Pathway in early 2020.
Although the examples of institutions using blockchain show a nascent technology, opportunities are possible. A report from the International Council for Open and Distance Education earlier this year suggested nondegree credentials can better align with workforce demands and the skills learners are acquiring than do traditional transcripts and may render them irrelevant.
As colleges consolidate, having blockchain-based transcripts can make records easier to track down for students, IBM notes in a recent report about the technology's potential uses in higher ed.
Challenges remain. Among them is the need for more standardization among the growing roster of microcredentials institutions offer. Educating students and employers about how to share, or receive and vet, blockchain credentials also is important, officials say.
"The design is about who we are, not where we are," Arizona State's Long said. "What we want to do is to be able to establish identity and be able to write a narrative for the individual to describe themselves based on the different points in their trajectory across life and have those points of information verifiable."