Recently, the American Council on Education (ACE) released its findings from a six-month study on the use of blockchain technology in education. The study, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, examines the potential for blockchain to help individuals communicate the depth of their education, skills, experiences, and credentials.
ACE President Ted Mitchell’s foreword may contain the most honest portrayal of the importance of linking education, work experience, and credentialing. He stated, “As the implications of mass unemployment loom large, the imperative of making good on our collective educational investments takes on new urgency. Blockchain, in particular, holds promise to create more efficient, durable connections between education and work.” President Mitchell goes on to write that “[higher ed] must be more willing than ever to test innovations that could equitably help people better develop and share their skills.”
The report, co-authored by Kerri Lemoie and Louis Soares, identifies 71 active blockchain (distributed ledger technology) initiatives, including one sponsored by American Public University System (APUS). Dr. Melissa Layne piloted an initiative using blockchain to uniquely identify the creator of Open Education Resources. She is the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Open Educational Resources, an academic journal sponsored by APUS and the Policy Studies Organization (PSO).
In the opening pages of the report, Lemoie and Soares note that the half-life of skills learned in college is five years, and the average time in a single job is now 4.2 years. Students and workers need to document what they learn and do, while the jobs that employers need to fill are changing due to technology.
Information about what people know is maintained in multiple forms: resumes, high school and college transcripts and diplomas, human resource records, job applications, licenses, certificates, and even digital badges. Blockchain may be able to solve the challenge of multiple points of record storage by shifting the control over the data to the individual learner and worker.
The three major themes that emerged from the research are personal data agency, lifelong learning, and the power of connected ecosystems. Personal data agency provides individuals with immediate access to their digital data. That access includes the ability to control who can view it and allow for the verification of the data without contacting the issuing party (i.e., a current or former employer or former educational institutions).
Much has been written about the changing global economy and workers’ need for lifelong learning in order to maintain their attractiveness to prospective employers. The nonprofit clearinghouse, Credential Engine, identified more than 700,000 unique credentials in the U.S. Similarly, postsecondary institutions issued 370,000 credentials, non-academic institutions issued 315,000 credentials, public and private secondary schools issued 46,000 credentials, and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) providers issued 7,000 credentials.
The growth in the issuance of credentials makes it more difficult to document, verify, and share data about learning. Digital wallets can provide data-backed proof of learning that resumes and LinkedIn profiles do not.
The authors point out that technology does not entirely replace the value of human connections and trusted relationships. Networks of students, educators, community members, institutions, employers, nonprofits, and government can create a connected ecosystem of trust. Several of these ecosystems are described in the paper.
Authors Lemoie and Soares have collected and summarized a lot of information about blockchain and its potential to positively impact students, workers, educational institutions, and employers. They identify challenges and concerns about using distributed ledger technologies but conclude that the potential to ensure a citizen’s place in a highly competitive labor market is worth the risk. I recommend reading the full report to anyone leading an educational institution or learning organization.