The Blockchain Movement in Education

Michael Mathews |

Guest Author

Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Supply Chain vs. Student Life Cycle

Blockchain is a relatively simple approach that leverages the Internet of Things to securely transfer digital records among people and organizations. Unfortunately, the confusion around Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies has limited the public’s understanding of blockchain, which is completely independent of bitcoin or cryptocurrency. In its simplest form, blockchain is a database designed to allow the Internet to take advantage of better security. It accomplishes this through a distributed ledger that defines who can access the data within the chain. At a higher level, blockchain can be described as the next-generation supply chain that leverages a secure method of all elements within the chain to perform secure transactions of data.

This secure chain of data can include financial information, contracts, talent acquisition, orders, quality control, health records, education records, or any information across the public and private Internet. In fact, Merriam-Webster defines blockchain in a very similar fashion.

Blockchain: a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network. … Blockchain is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.

Since writing my first article on blockchain in 2018, I have wondered why something this simple is so difficult for educational entities to grasp. The answer is quite clear when reflecting on the last two major technological transformations that other industries adopted much sooner than education: the internet and smart devices for students. Education took anywhere from two to five years beyond what it took industries to adopt these technologies and improve connectivity.

Companies jumped on quicker because they generally have direct needs to leverage better connectivity and personalized computing to stay competitive in the marketplace. For over two decades, companies have had a need for supply-chain systems. Beginning in 2016, these same companies envisioned blockchain as the next generation of being connected and competitive. In essence, the next chain to connect people in a secure fashion is the blockchain, as it increases reach, security, and trust in digital transactions. FedEx, IBM, Walmart, United Health, Coca-Cola, and hundreds more companies have embraced blockchain as the next breakthrough to be connected and competitive.

As an example, Walmart has opted to force all their produce vendors to be on their blockchain by September 2019. The reason is simple: Walmart wants every consumer to be able to scan the bar code on the produce they purchase to identify the exact farm the produce came from and be aware if there are any recalls on that produce. With blockchain, Walmart is essentially personalizing the supply chain to speed up information to consumers, providing a distributed ledger of accountability between farmers and every consumer who purchases from them.

One change over the past 20 years that education missed is the adoption of a supply chain. Very few education entities saw the need to connect students before and after the journey through their college or university. Most saw themselves as a stand-alone entity that only needed to be concerned with the student life cycle within the institution. This approach caused the number-one document that students paid for to become an ongoing stumbling block. The transcript, which represents the credentials, grades, and degree a student invests in and earns, is too often held up by the Student Information System (SIS) and each individual institution. When students desire copies of their transcripts, they cannot easily make it transportable to prospective employers or other educational institutions. For the 75% of all students who attended more than one college, the problem is magnified. In a supply-chain model, this issue would have been solved, as SIS vendors would have seen a broader view of students’ needs that extend beyond the student life cycle.

Blockchain may solve the two largest challenges for education

Blockchain will drive changes in the education system much like the iPod started the shift in the music industry. It is important to anticipate multiple generations of blockchain, just as the iPod morphed into other devices, including the smart phone, as the music industry changed. Oxford’s Woolf University is the first university to draw a line in the sand and claim that the shift in the education industry with blockchain is underway. The below video on blockchain and the Best Buy Express vending machine shows how this is all plausible in 2019 and beyond. Just as importantly, it shows why MOOCs and other online models could never break open the new education paradigm.

Blockchain_Concept from Michael Mathews on Vimeo.

Just as the smartphone eventually became a vital device for students on campus, blockchain will become the number one transformation in education. First, two hindrances to full adoption of blockchain technology in education will be overcome.

  1. SIS and Learning Management Systems (LMS) companies have designed their systems around the student life cycle rather than the supply-chain model.
  2. SIS and LMS platforms are priced on a per-student basis, making it unaffordable and difficult to extend access to everyone in the supply chain.

Just like the iPod, iPad, and smart phone revolutionized the music industry, blockchain technologies will eventually break apart the systems we have been using. The ability to put purchased data such as music in the hands of users eventually changed the systems and devices that were once needed. The whole music industry shifted the way songs were purchased and delivered once the supply chain was created to accommodate the devices.

The global workforce, with its ability to integrate systems and people across society, will eventually demand that SIS and LMS companies consider how to connect students beyond the student life cycle. Colleges and universities that have desired to offer supply-chain style connectedness with their data have found it extremely difficult to integrate back to the SIS and LMS systems.

Institutions need to integrate K–12 transcript data, workforce data, NCAA data for athletes, veteran-related data, alumni data, grant data, donor data, pre-credentials, benchmark data, regulatory data, federal and state data, assessment data, accreditation data, vendor comparison data, student success data, post-graduation employment data, and more. All these non-integrated types of data in a normal business would be included in a supply-chain style ecosystem that allows transportable data between all the organizations. Blockchain provides a fresh start to bypass the first generation of supply-chain ecosystems.

Oxford’s Woolf University has proven this theory and started the first blockchain-powered university. Central New Mexico Community College has become the first blockchain-based community college to issue all certificates, diplomas, and degrees via Blockcerts, the open standard for blockchain certifications (transcripts) by Learning Machine systems.

The blockchain movement has taken hold in Canada. When Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s (SAIT) president, David Ross, CIO, Dan Duffy, and registrar, Neera Arora, learned of blockchain’s value, SAIT became the first blockchain-issuing higher education institution in Canada. The value statement is simple for any institution that desires to help students possess their information and data in a secure fashion. President Ross states, “At SAIT we are thought leaders, and this is a strong example of how we’re increasing our value proposition for graduates and employers. This is only the beginning as we continue to put the potential of blockchain technology into practice.”

There are two huge payoffs with blockchain in education. The first and most obvious is the transcript and credential processing being delivered directly to the smartphone via three-way matching identification. This is already happening at numerous institutions, and IBM is issuing a million blockchain-based educational certificates annually, which are being passed to their higher education partners. The second and larger payoff will be realized when SIS and LMS systems are put in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud. Once they are in the AWS Cloud, major components classified under “order processing” can be replaced with a pre-built Amazon blockchain template. AWS has many predefined blockchain templates to accommodate order processing, and these templates will streamline areas such as admissions processing, articulation decision-making, degree pathway processing, and help-desk service functions.

A blockchain template is simply the process of automating the decision-making process documented in the distributed ledger that executes routine functionalities on campus. In essence, many of the old SIS functions that took days to process, due to the many manual decisions and validation tables, will be replaced by blockchain templates. The payback will be the ability to treat students as “prime” students, much like Amazon Prime customers. One can imagine that, with enough blockchain templates and Amazon’s expertise in systems, data, and order fulfillment, the elimination of SIS and LMS may be around the corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tambellini Group. To express your views in this forum, please contact Hilary Billingslea, Director, Marketing Communications & Operations, The Tambellini Group.

©Copyright 2019, The Tambellini Group. All Rights Reserved.

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Michael Mathews |
Guest Author
Mr. Mathews serves Oral Roberts University (ORU) as CIO and Vice President of Global Learning and Innovation. He has successfully led a 2-year initiative to transform “Information Technology” toward “Innovation and Technology.” This transformation has allowed ORU to enjoy global attention through digitizing the entire campus experience. Prior to joining ORU, Mr. Mathews invested eleven years as a CIO, Business Development Officer, and VP of Academic Technology for Ellucian.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Tambellini Group. To become a Top of Mind guest author, please contact us.

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