Personalized Learning

‘Blockchain’ Tech Pushed by Sony. Does It Have a Future in K-12?

By Sean Cavanagh — February 27, 2016 6 min read
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Cross-posted from the Marketplace K-12 blog

Sony Global Education Inc. says it has developed a system to bring “blockchain” technology--meant to serve as a decentralized-yet-secure method for transmitting data--to education, as the concept slowly begins to attract attention in the K-12 space.

Blockchain is known today primarily for its use in the world of finance, most notably for Bitcoin, a digital payment system or type of “crypto-currency,” meant to be powered by users, rather than a central authority.

Bitcoin uses blockchain technology as a type of public ledger that contains every transaction processed. The authenticity of transactions are protected by digital signatures that match up with the signatures of those sending information, giving users control over the sending of bitcoins.

Sony Global Education, a company affiliated with the Japanese electronics corporation, defines blockchain as a decentralized network technology in which the same data are recorded and maintained on multiple nodes--computers connected to a network--that are geographically isolated.

(See this fact sheet on Bitcoin and blockchain for more details, as well as an online primer video from Khan Academy.)

In its announcement, Sony argues that blockchain technology could have broad application by giving students more control over the transmission of their test results. And in an e-mail response to questions from Marketplace K-12, the company said it sees broader uses in the transmission of an array of educational records and academic credentials.

When it comes to testing, blockchain could be used by a student who takes an exam and then tells the vendor giving the tests to share the results with a third party, Sony officials said in their announcement this week. Organizations receiving students’ testing records would have greater power using blockchain technology to assess those results and calculate scores in ways that suited them, Sony argued.

In an e-mail, the president of Sony Global Education, Masaaki Isozu, said his 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.”

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. company, 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’ 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.

Goodbye, Middleman?

Sony, in announcing its plans for blockchain, says it has a laboratory in mind for testing the technology in education.

The company stages a competition called the Global Math Challenge, which it says has drawn 150,000 participants from 80 countries around the world. The scores of students participating are calculated not just on the raw number of right and wrong answers, but also on their “overall test-taking performance,” including the time taken to answer the questions.

Sony officials said they will weave applications utilizing blockchain technology into their services, and into the global math competition.

Within a financial system, Blockchain can create transactional records that are “unhackable and irrefutable,” prominent author and business and tech adviser Don Tapscott said recently. 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.”

Here’s Tapscott on the potential he sees in blockchain, beyond the financial sector:

Whether Sony’s vision for blockchain in education will gain traction remains to be seen.

But one of the more intriguing possibilities created by blockchain is that it would make it far easier to allow students to create, hold, and distribute a digital academic record--with details on academic credits, accomplishments, and experiences.

Badging and Beyond

This concept is sometimes called digital “badging.” Conceivably, if blockchain were to help students keep track of and share records of their academic experiences--in brick-and-mortar schools, virtual classes, 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, in an interview.

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.”

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 asks. Today, schools’ centralized data systems pose security risks, he noted, just as private vendors’ safeguards have fallen short.

And so far, it’s worth noting that blockchain has been tested by, and appears to be winning the confidence of, users in the financial sector who presumably have high demands for data security, in that they want currency protected, Levin said.

(It was recently reported that the bank JP 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 education or society at large, Levin said. Also, 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 in a follow-up e-mail.

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. (See a recent blog post Levin wrote about blockchain.)

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, but all affiliates.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.