US Education Department promotes putting student records on blockchain

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in a number of sectors. As a result, a number of government agencies are evaluating blockchain-based systems as potential solutions to challenges involving multi-party workflows, records, transparency and more.

For example, the United States Department of Education recently allocated funding to launch the Education Blockchain Initiative. Referred to as EBI, this project is led by the American Council on Education – an organization that helps the higher education community shape effective public policy – and aims to identify ways blockchain can improve the flow of data between academic institutions and potential employers.

Determined to seek new technology solutions, ACE announced the Blockchain Innovation Challenge in late 2020 to find projects that can reinvent the U.S. education and employment ecosystem. The challenge specifically focused on helping underserved populations most affected by the pandemic.

Louis Soares, ACE’s chief learning and innovation officer, told Cointelegraph that the higher education sector as a whole has been financially impacted by the economic downturn. This has led to a decline in student enrollment, putting even more pressure on education budgets, which now require a digital approach:

“Higher education must learn to operate in a new, technology-enabled environment. We need to explore new ways to create connections between education and work. This includes finding new approaches to credentialing (and hiring) that harness the potential of new technologies to improve communication between education and training organizations.”

Blockchain puts students in control of their credentials

According to Soares, blockchain technology can help empower students by giving them control over their educational records, such as degrees and transcripts. This is especially important to allow for seamless transitions when a student changes schools, or for those who are looking for a job and need to show their transcripts.

A Department of Education document states that education records are usually located at the school a student attends or has attended. If a student has changed schools, these records may be taken with the student, but some remain at the school. Therefore, there are a number of challenges for students who need to preserve their personal records.

The Blockchain Innovation Challenge provided $900,000 to address this problem and announced four Phase 1 winners on Feb. 11. According to Soares, the winning teams – from Arizona, Nebraska, Texas and Utah – demonstrated the potential for using blockchain and distributed ledger technology to streamline the sharing of educational records.

For example, one of the winning teams was the UnBlockEd project, which uses a blockchain-based system to address issues with inequitable transfer credit recognition. The project is led by the University of Arizona and the Georgia Institute of Technology, along with several technology vendors and academic institutions.

Greg Heileman, vice provost for undergraduate education at the University of Arizona, told Cointelegraph that UnBlockEd empowers students by giving them self-sovereignty over their learning records. Heileman noted that this is achieved through a decentralized identity management system that allows students to control who has access to their learning documents or transcripts:

“We are working to develop a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) that clearly demonstrates the feasibility of our approach. This MVP will demonstrate how a student in one degree program at any college/university in the state of Kentucky can efficiently transfer to another degree program at any other college/university in the state.”

Specifically, Heileman explained that a “degree roadmap” is created that shows students how to transfer their previous credits to those of the receiving program. To ensure this happens, UnBlockEd uses Fluree, a decentralized data platform that stores secure, verified and reusable data.

Brian Platz, co-CEO of Fluree, told Cointelegraph that Fluree allows data from individuals to be kept private, but also allows other parties to see that information. This allows different groups to issue credentials.

Blockchain solves data transmission inefficiencies

The solution being built by UnBlockEd is extremely important for a number of reasons. For example, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, students lose the equivalent of a semester’s worth of coursework on average each time they transfer.

Heileman further shared that of the 23 million students in higher education, approximately 35% will transfer at least once and 11% will transfer twice during their academic careers. He also pointed out that community colleges disproportionately serve as the primary entry point for students from historically underrepresented ethnic groups and low-income families. “To put it mildly, transfer articulation is a structural inequity in higher education. We hope the UnBlockEd project will reduce the extent of that inequity,” Heileman said.

Another winning project came from Texas Woman’s University. This initiative aims to establish a consortium of institutions across the North Texas region through a common credentialing platform. The platform would allow students to store and send their educational records to colleges and employers throughout North Texas.

Fluree also supported the Lifelong Learner Project, which aims to develop a digital wallet for teachers to store and access their credentials, certifications and learning resources. This will enable teachers to share these verifiable credentials with entities such as state licensing systems, human resources departments and learning management systems.

Implementation is the next step

While each of these projects takes an innovative approach to solving challenges related to education data sharing, implementation of these initiatives will likely take some time.

For example, Platz explained that there is a supply and demand side when it comes to blockchain-based projects. He pointed out that while universities and education groups can issue digital credentials to students, employers are not yet demanding them: “We’re still building an ecosystem around this that includes education and government standards.”

Fortunately, Platz noted that the new administration of President Joe Biden is showing potential for implementing new technology standards focused on blockchain and other emerging technologies that can provide benefits. It’s also encouraging to see that other countries have begun storing education certificates and records on blockchain networks.

Matla, for example, was one of the first countries to announce that all education certificates will be stored on blockchain. In addition, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, launched a pilot program in 2017 to issue digital certificates to graduates based on blockchain. Even though this is the case, a blog post from the MIT Media Lab explaining the lessons learned from the project pointed out that an important realization is that blockchain is a complicated technology and there are still very few people who understand it.

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