Blockchain in Higher Education: The Evolving University Value Proposition

It is unlikely that HE can continue without adopting technologies that are normal in every other sphere of information usage. Only a few aspects of the traditional HE offering are inimitable by online education. These few represent a potentially valuable differentiation and could be collectively described as the university experience.

Several questions arise concerning the longevity of this differentiation: Will students continue to pay for the university experience? What value has the affective dimension of HE learning? In an age of convenient, bespoke, customisable, competitively priced online alternatives, what will be the market demand for an HE credential, the brand of the awarding institution, the friendships, the daily exposure to learning, the community of peers and academics, or the alumni network (if any)?

At present, markets for HE and its alternatives coexist, but only after a few years of parallel comparison will it be knowable whether the HE experience offsets its opportunity and other costs by quantifiable return-on-investment. 

In the meantime, a headlong rush by HE into digital pureplay is inadvisable. More prudent would be a measured strategy of blended learning provision with the affordances of blockchain incorporated wherever benefits can be discerned.

Regarding the reconfiguring of support systems (and justifying the costs thereby incurred), a straightforward question must be asked before project commencement: is a blockchain solution needed? Incomplete understanding of blockchain may lead well-meaning technophiles and enthusiastic managers to switch to a blockchain system unnecessarily. Existing solutions may suffice. A blockchain switchover is rational if the affordances of decentralization (security, ownership transfer, elimination of administrators or third parties, etc.) are necessary and/or profit generative.   

Blockchain implementation will be socially disruptive. In HE, the most immediate victims of adoption will be human resources and admissions staff, administrators, third-party database vendors, and IT security staff.

According to Skiba (2017), blockchain does not, in and of itself, represent a new form of value. However, the Open University (2016) claims there may be added value in blockchain records: through the public display of credentials, the owner can acquire reputational capital. This possibility raises intriguing questions: how might social capital evolve in the age of transparency? Might blockchain records become a status badge as much as a facilitator of credential proof? Might social capital become more quantifiable than before, now that blockchain owners’ linkages and credentials are visible? Might the ability to identify and thereby acquire the services of social capital-rich users scupper the democratisation ideals currently associated with transparency?

Although blockchain can assure ownership of credentials, this capability has no bearing on systemic problems in education itself. The question of a credential’s value in terms of usefulness of the material taught, quality of the issuing institution, and the competence and abilities of the credential’s owner remain separate matters to be judged by the learner-customer and the job market.