Does Work on a ‘Learning Credential Blockchain’ Have Implications for K-12?

Contributing Writer

Blockchain’s applications in the education arena are taking another step forward.

The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that conducts education research and provides education data, will evaluate a potential national use case for the technology at institutions over the next six months, according to a recent blog post by clearinghouse CEO Rick Torres.

In addition, the major tech corporation IBM has joined with a consortium of organizations that are seeking to create a “learning credential blockchain” that allows for the sharing of digital records that are “tamper-evident,” meaning students could see if their records are secure, or have been interfered with. The members of the consortium include the clearinghouse and Central New Mexico Community College, according to an online statement by Alex Kaplan, IBM’s global leader for blockchain and artificial intelligence for learning credentials.

The consortium is mostly focused on blockchain’s applicability to higher education, but there could be implications for the K-12 space, Kaplan said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief.

“Moving forward into 2020, the consortium’s primary goals will be scaling the network by signing on additional participants, and fine-tuning an equitable administration and governance structure,” Kaplan wrote in his blog post.

Blockchain is a technology incorporating a kind of distributed ledger involving individual records linked together in a chain. The pieces of the chain are linked by unique digital signatures, which safeguard against unintended breaches.

The credential also proposes to give students greater independence over their academic data, giving them autonomy over how and with whom their data are shared, according to Kaplan’s post.

There’s been discussion of using blockchain for credentialing in education – including potentially K-12 – for some time.

Kaplan said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief that he could envision high school students being able to use academic credentials stored on the blockchain to apply to college.

Another potential K-12 application is embedding proof of high school students’ digital credentials, like Java programming into the blockchain, he said.

“In addition to their high school diploma, they could be getting [digital] badges,” Kaplan said. “Let’s say if they’re going to a coding camp, all that could be written to the blockchain and provided to that individual student.”

A Need for Blockchain Standards?

There could be value in blockchain providing a single point of reference to view academic records, but there are several potential barriers and practical considerations associated with any rollout of the technology in the education space, according to Doug Lynch, a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of education.

“There’s no place, a central repository —  and no consistent way of telling the story of somebody’s learning lifecycle,” he told EdWeek Market Brief in an interview. “Those are both kind of intriguing things intellectually.”

But setting standards for using blockchain in K-12 recordkeeping would be tricky, given that a lot of policymaking occurs locally, across 14,000 districts, Lynch said.

“Who sets the rules, and how do they set the rules in a hugely politicized system where it’s all about control? And then, to what benefit?” he said. “Is it going to be cheaper? Or is it going to make living better?”

Blockchain is also a very expensive technology, and any policy discussion about K-12 blockchain standards would likely provoke heated debate about protection of student privacy, a very sensitive topic when it comes to younger students, Lynch noted.

He questioned whether blockchain in education would need to be reconciled with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which requires schools to protect student data. Implementing blockchain for learning credentials could make FERPA compliance more hazy, potentially raising questions of who is exempt from the law and opening up a legal can of worms, Lynch said.

There are ongoing discussions being led by the U.S. Department of Education and other standards bodies regarding the broad regulatory implications of blockchain in the educational space, Kaplan noted.

IBM and other members of its blockchain learning consortium are also looking at standards-related issues, such as how to create a cohesive set of standards for how learning credentials will be issued and exchanged.

“Working through what kinds of organizations will have the right to use the blockchain is an essential governance function,” Kaplan said.

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