American Council on Education Hosts Blockchain Innovation Challenge Aiming To Reimagine Management of Education Data

The American Council on Education has launched the first-ever Blockchain Innovation Challenge to reimagine how students, colleges and employers manage educational data.

The challenge is funded by the U.S. Department of Education with the goal of providing learners with greater control over their learning records. The Blockchain Innovation Challenge will begin receiving applications for pilot projects utilizing blockchain in education in August. Three of these pilots will be awarded funding and ACE will monitor their success over the year and then report back to the Department of Education.

Blockchain is a shared, distributed database that uses a protocol to verify information on the network without a trusted third party. In a report published by ACE leading up to the launch of the challenge, authors argued that utilizing blockchain in the education world would allow learners to better communicate their skills to employers by storing their skills on a single, sharable and verifiable record. It would also allow them to update their experiences as they gain work experience, additional training or certifications. By entering these credentials into a verifiable, immutable record like a blockchain, learners could take control of their data back from institutions like a university.

“The interesting thing about blockchain is you kind of cobble together the idea of transparency and immutability — so tamper resistance with the ability to have decentralized control — and it creates the possibility of flipping the way we’ve controlled people’s human capital information on its head,” co-author of the report and chief learning and innovation officer at ACE, Louis Soares said.

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Allowing individuals to carry their data with them is especially valuable in today’s increasingly fluid labor market, data from The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics demonstrates that in 2018 the average time in a single job is down to 4.2 years. Soares highlighted that learning happens incrementally — analogous to how a bachelor’s degree comes from a collection of courses — and that updating a blockchain would allow individuals to document these increments as they learn throughout their post-graduate careers.

“One of the big potential cultural changes is if you give the average student learner more control over the record of their human capital they will use it and leverage it to get better employment, to learn more and faster,” Soares said.

The report identified 71 efforts internationally working to utilize blockchain in education fields, including the Trusted Learner Network (TLN) at Arizona State University. The TLN’s most common use case to date has been facilitating reverse transfers for students who transitioned from a two-year college to Arizona State.

Professor Philip Long, team lead for development of the TLN at ASU, noted that 80% of students at two-year colleges elect to transfer before finishing out associate degrees. The TLN shares student’s courses at ASU back to their two-year institution so that they can be awarded their associates while working towards their bachelors.

Long highlighted that community colleges are increasingly ranked based on two-year completion rates, so the reverse transfer helps them to boost these numbers even when students transfer to a four-year school. It also helps the students to earn a degree sooner and gives ASU a unique advertising edge for students at two-year schools looking to transfer.

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The TLN does not yet allow students to share their records with anybody outside of the network, which separates the project from pilots aiming to create records for individuals to carry with them throughout their lives and share with a host of potential employers or future schools. Despite this, sharing records outside of the network is the ultimate goal.

“This is essentially our first step of deeply understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the underlying technologies and doing so in a way that solves immediate problems for all parties involved. You always want to start potentially large projects with a potential win,” Long said.

Utilizing blockchain to store educational data would also allow students to selectively share information with potential employers. For example, rather than sending an entire transcript, a student could send specific, relevant courses. Long believes that blockchain could curb this type of data leakage while also giving individuals more control over how they represent themselves to a third party.

“In order to prove that one little thing you expose a whole bunch of stuff about yourself that was totally unnecessary and yet we do that to prove that one little bit,” Long said. “That’s the thing we’re trying to minimize, don’t share what you don’t need to to answer the question.”

Blockchain has also been implemented at the high school level with Union Public Schools leading the charge. The Oklahoma district has become the first in the U.S. to issue digital diplomas and transcripts using blockchain technology, a project which executive director of technology at Union Public Schools, Todd Borland, says has helped to spur conversations between students and faculty about their learning careers.

“How do we empower kids to be owning the grade, owning the learning process, not just a passive recipient of the whole process? Blockchain solves that problem, or part of that problem, so that’s where it stems from. We wanted to give kids the agency to be able to control where their grades go.”

The next step for Union is adding micro-credentials like automotive, Dell, or other industry certificates to the students’ blockchain records to allow those looking to apply for trade schools or immediately enter the job market to demonstrate the full range of their skills.

“The more schools join in, the more colleges will accept it, the more employers will accept it. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is give children their own self-sovereign identity where they own their own data.”

By Emily Mason

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