Blockchain for higher education: Phil Long leads an energetic discussion on the Future Trends Forum

How can higher education make use of blockchain technology?

In May Phil Long (University of Texas-Austin) explored this question with the Future Trends Forum.  Below are the video recording of the session and my notes.  The field has advanced since, but these questions and answers are vital, especially as education is still wrestling with the technology at a very introductory level.

Questions came thick and fast within the Shindig environment, as you’ll read or see below.  We also had a very active Twitter discussion during the session, which is archived on Storify.

Phil Long discussion

Up top a questioner engages with Phil. On the bottom right, chat discussion. Bottom left, Forum participants listening and thinking.

The video recording runs about 50 minutes, and you can either follow this link to the YouTube location, or watch the embed below:

My running notes from the session:

Phil Long began by defining blockchain technology.  It’s a database, yes, but also a distributed ledger.

So how can it be used in higher ed?

Credentialing is one key way.  That’s perhaps the unique social value of a university (although Phile noted it was getting undervalued by the business world, as transcript demands decline).  Blockchain can’t be hacked (NB: as of that session), allows different levels of privacy, and can also reaffirm learner’s ownership over their record, which makes sense for lifelong, multi-institutional learning.

Questions arose: would national or state governments use blockchain?

Answer: Estonia is using it for voting.  The British government is interested.

Question from Ted Newcomb: “Will [blockchain] incorporate MOOCS, and all the alternative ways to learn and be ‘credentialed’ outside the brick and mortar institutions?”

Answer: indeed.  Anyone interested can do so.  Imagine building an app to share social capital, which would end up in block chain.

Phil Long and a questioner

Many times a questioner climbed on stage and spoke with our guest, taking my place – which is great!

Question from me: how about a scholarly publication version, to share claims of discovery and precedence?

Answer: sure.  Maybe do this for peer reviewers.

Question from Paul Baldridge: “Is the thought that a learner needs to create a bitcoin wallet in order for them to store and/or share their credentials?”

Answer: where one stores one’s credentials is a big issue.  Another issue: will every participant have a full record, or will be agree to fewer and/or simpler records?

Question from Mark Wilson: “Are standards for blockchains being developed anywhere in the world?”

Answer: yes.  The basic architecture hasn’t varied since launched by “Satoshi“.  Distributed consensus methods are being tried out, usually involving some form of proof of work for bit coin. This is mostly transparent, through open source communities (ex: Ethereum, Linux Foundation, IBM). For credentialing, scarcity isn’t the issue (i.e., bitcoin mining), but security.

Question from Scott Walters: “I have my own blog, and I’ve written for online websites — but not recognized as academic writing. Could blockchain show influence?”

A: yes, sure.  But you might not be able to decline recommendations.

At this point we entered the mingle phase, as Phil and I leaped off the Shindig stage to discuss the topic with participants.

Vanessa Vaile, Patrice Prusko, Autumm Caines in the mingle

Sample mingle moment. Note chat box on left, a cluster of four in the middle (Vanessa Vaile, Patrice Prusko, Autumm Caines), and a cluster of four on the right.

When we returned, questions took off.

Question from Patrice Prusko: what about privacy? Think of visibility and the edit ability.

A: encryption is relative secure – financial institutions haven’t broken it yet, which gives us some confidence.   Public and private key gives us some sense of control of visibility.  And blockchain can’t be edited.  This last point is a real problem for the EU and its right to be forgotten.  But you can add an expiration date.

Patrice followed up: where to start with blockchain?

A: try downloading and running Ethereum.  Then focus exploration by asking a question or selecting one application.  Example: the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University exploring smart contracts (when condition is met, code is executed).  Or consider credentialing.  A group of registrars is exploring this: Tom Black at Stanford, Shelby Stanfield at UT Austin.

Phil Long and Patrice Prusko of Cornell

Patrice Prusko and Phil Long

Question: is marginal disruption leading blockchain exploration?

A: big brand name organizations might actually lead the way.

Question from Shelly Alcorn, CAE: will we be able to use blockchain to build “connections” between post-secondary and the association community for the purposes of certifications etc…?

A: blockchain creates a level playing field.  A learner is a member of both schools and associations. We end up with a permanent, unmutable social record.

Throughout this discussion people shared blockchain resources.  Several recommended a blockchain guide from Audrey Watters (our first Future Trends Forum guest).  Paul Baldridge contributed Carla Casilli’s “Welcome to BadgeChain“.  Autumm Caines found the Earning is Learning project, which Jane McGonial worked on.

Before the session began, Phil shared some links on related topics:

Question: should the Forum follow up with another blockchain session?

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One Response to Blockchain for higher education: Phil Long leads an energetic discussion on the Future Trends Forum

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