Blockchain in HE: Caution and Necessity (1)

The Joint Research Centre (2017) asserts that “open education” will be achieved through appropriate technology, credential recognition, stakeholder collaboration, and published research. The accreditation of research and academic learning needs to be digitized. HE organisations can use blockchain as a transparent trusted agent for sharing and verifying qualifications, enabling smart contracts, collecting and requiring digital signatures, and allocating finance.

Adoption of blockchain by HE will be disruptive and therefore resisted. Brand reputation issues will arise: how will universities maintain prestige and safeguard their reputations while operating unlimited access MOOCs? How will universities uphold credibility if they have to validate credits obtained through unconventional learning formats?

There are other areas of uncertainty: blockchain applications are in their infancy; implementation into HE would require various (likely costly) piloting schemes; the legality and ethics of data stored on blockchains are ambiguous; the collaboration between public and private organisations poses challenges.

McNaught (2017) asks “Will blockchain genuinely revolutionise HE, or is it overhyped?” On Gartner’s hype-cycle, blockchain is presently sliding from the Peak of Inflated Expectations, so will soon wade the Trough of Disillusionment. The business case for the adoption of blockchain may be exaggerated.

The more obvious discussions around HE adoption concern the holding of certificates and the cost benefits of disintermediation. Because public keys would be provided by the owner and the HE institution, validation would no longer require notarisation from a lawyer or any other party.

The relationship between producers and consumers could change fundamentally. Open access journals and open educational resources would leave the hands of gatekeepers. Traditional systems feature central organisations that operate for-profit and retain control. Their economic model is simple: access is denied until payment is received.

Such closed systems are, in business terms, quite sustainable and rational.

The economic case for distributed, decentralized journals and resources is far less clear. In a blockchain-based model, quality in research and teaching material would be determined by community ratings, with weightings applied according to credentials of evaluators. Ratings determine the price of usage, and authors would be paid accordingly. Quality in material should improve as a consequence of financial reward in direct proportion to quality as determined by peers and users. In this way, blockchain could elevate quality in academic output.

Blockchain will not however replace virtual learning environments and relational databases. Before investments commence, a realistic understanding of what blockchain can achieve is required. The following seven questions determine whether a service can/should be converted to a blockchain system:

1. Is a centralized system already operating? (No: is a centralized system possible? If not, why not? Yes: is there a problem with the current system? Would blockchain solve that problem?)

2. Do the transactions involve small, transactional data objects? (No: blockchain cannot replace large databases.)

3. Do users require very high selectivity and data reliability? (No: blockchain is unnecessary.)

4. Is data sharing required? (No: blockchain is unnecessary.)

5. Is a high level of trust required? (No: blockchain is unnecessary.)

6. Are there many parties involved in the transaction? (No: blockchain is unnecessary.)

7. Does the service possess intrinsic value? (No: blockchain is unnecessary.)

Blockchain is not free. It may be cheap, but its adoption has consequences – structural and financial.

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