School Climate & Safety

Would ‘Blockchain’ Tech Work for K-12 Schools?

By Sean Cavanagh — March 15, 2016 6 min read
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A new technology that allows for the transmission of data free of a centralized authority has drawn the curiosity of the educational technology community, raising questions about whether it could allow for a seamless, digitally based sharing of students’ academic experiences.

The potential applicability of “blockchain” technology in schools emerged recently with the announcement by Sony Global Education Inc. that it has plans to bring the data-sharing system to education.

Generally described as a distributed database through which digital transactions can be securely made and recorded without approval from a central authority, blockchain could have applications for student credentialing, and student data management, proponents believe. Sony also sees possibilities in the world of testing.

Blockchain is known today primarily for its use in the world of finance. It is the technology that underpins Bitcoin, a digital currency that allows strangers to directly exchange money without having to rely on a central bank or institution. A growing number of established financial institutions and companies are exploring whether to use blockchain technology to manage a variety of digital transactions.

In its announcement, Sony Global Education, a company affiliated with the Japanese electronics corporation, argues that blockchain technology could give students more control over the transmission of their test results, among other applications.

In one potential application, a parent or student who takes an exam could tell the vendor giving the test to share the results with a third party, suggested Sony officials. Organizations receiving students’ records could then use blockchain technology to calculate scores and assess results in ways that best suit their own interests and needs, the company said.

In an email to Education Week, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu said the company wants to provide a “new kind of education platform which includes verified educational records and academic credentials,” and that blockchain is “one of our options to help us achieve this goal.”

“We want to keep life-long learning records ... securely in the cloud forever,” Isozu said. “While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.”

While the idea behind having shareable records that students can take with them through blockchain is appealing, current fears about data privacy would seem to stand firmly in the way of that vision, said Cameron Evans, the chief technology officer for U.S. education for Microsoft, in an interview.

In today’s environment, the idea of having mobile student records without a centralized authority responsible for them would likely unnerve parents and K-12 officials, Evans said. He spoke last week during the South by Southwest Education conference, a major educational technology summit held annually in Austin, Texas.

“The culture is so far behind blockchain today,” Evans said. Asking about blockchain is “a good question,” put forward “about three years early.”

Testing the Concept

Still, Sony sees an array of possibilities. Isozu offered a hypothetical example from higher education. Suppose an individual studied at a state school in China, took a virtual course from a U.S.-based organization, then graduated from a Japanese university, he said. How would a graduate school in Spain verify the myriad records, in weighing that student’s application?

“In an increasingly global education sector, we believe it’s important for students to be able to easily prove that their credentials are correct,” Isozu said.

Another possibility: An educational blockchain could be used to create a secure academic version of something akin to LinkedIn, housing students’ learning records, Isozu added. With students’ or parents’ consent, data would be shared with different audiences, and made reusable within the blockchain.

“Individuals and enterprises could anonymously utilize the data to analyze personal learning history,” the Sony Global Education executive said.

Within a financial system, blockchain can create transactional records that are “unhackable and irrefutable,” prominent author and business and tech adviser Don Tapscott said in a recent speech. It eliminates the need for an intermediary, such as a credit card company or bank, he explained. And blockchain’s usefulness in finance, he predicted, is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Whether Sony’s vision for blockchain in education will gain traction remains to be seen. But some say one of the possible uses of the technology centers in digital “badging,” by making it far easier for students to create, hold, and distribute a digital academic record that contains details on their academic credits, accomplishments, and experiences.

Conceivably, if blockchain were to help students keep track of and share records of their academic experiences—in brick-and-mortar schools, virtual classes, and from other sources—it could add detail and sophistication to efforts to “personalize” education, said Doug Levin, the president of EdTech Strategies LLC, a consulting organization.

While the blockchain concept is “pretty nascent and people are just starting to explore it,” Levin said,in theory it could “move the control over the transcript from the school to the family. ... The idea is, this could be a much more efficient process.”

Big Privacy Questions

One of the obvious questions about blockchain in the current education environment is whether it would become ensnared in the web of student-data-privacy concerns, which has tripped up many an ed-tech company and put K-12 district officials on edge.

While there’s little doubt blockchain would face privacy questions, when people ask how secure the technology is, one response is: secure “compared to what?” Levin asked.

Schools’ current centralized data systems pose security risks, he noted, just as private vendors’ safeguards have fallen short.

And so far, blockchain has been tested by, and appears to be winning the confidence of, users in the financial sector who presumably have very high demands for data security, in that they want currency protected, Levin said. (It was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal that the bank J.P. Morgan is testing blockchain technology in transfers of U.S. dollars, as it wrestles with competition from online payment and lending systems.)

Other uncertainties abound. Blockchain technology isn’t well understood in society, noted Levin. And many potential blockchain uses are at this point conceptual—and because it’s as broad a concept as something like, say, “cloud computing,” it’s hard to make predictions about its applications in K-12, he said.

Another question stems from the fact that much of the interest in blockchain is based on the Bitcoin experience, or private blockchains, Levin said. Building on a system of Bitcoin’s magnitude and user base has advantages, but there’s also likely to be technical and political baggage, he said. In addition, it’s unclear what incentives would draw a large-enough pool of education users into a blockchain system to make it function efficiently, he added.

There are many players “looking to get a quick buck off the Bitcoin ecosystem,” Levin said. “It can be difficult to separate hype and future aspirations from current capabilities.”

Isozu, of Sony Global Education, said the company is confident that education users will buy into a system that is secure and calibrated to their needs.

But he agreed with Levin that “incentive is the key to any successful blockchain operation,” adding: “This is not a problem only for Sony.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2016 edition of Education Week as Potential Use of ‘Blockchain’ Tech for K-12 Debated by Experts

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