Risks, Benefits Of Blockchain In Education: The EC Weighs In

In November 2017, the Human Capital and Employment unit of the European Commission’s (EC) Joint Research Centre issued a report detailing possible blockchain use cases in the education sector, which it describes as “still in their infancy.” The paper also weighs some potential risks and benefits associated with adoption.

The document, geared toward “policy makers, education institutions, educational researchers, teachers and learners” and others interested in blockchain, predicts that the technology could “loosen the control current players have over” the student information market and “accelerate the end of a paper-based system for certificates.” Furthermore, it could “reduce educational organisations’ data management costs, as well as their exposure to liability resulting from data management issues” and “will likely remove the need for educational organisations to validate credentials.”

Other benefits include self-sovereign identity, whereby a user has full control over what information to share with whom; the ease of issuing and difficulty of forging digital signatures; and the decentralized notarizing of certificates that could verify everything from the awarding of a loan and the receipt of tuition payments to school accreditation and course completion. Blockchain-based educational certificates could even be “applied to intellectual property management, [e.g.] for the tracking of first publication and citations.”

Additionally, blockchain technology offers the possibility of school fees being paid in cryptocurrency. Some professors who were interviewed for the study argue that this offering might attract “a truly multinational cohort of motivated students” by helping international students avoid “remittance charges associated with traditional bank clearing which may amount to up to 20% of the tuition fees.”

The report also notes certain possible drawbacks to the use of blockchain in the education field. For one, new digital identity management systems “may well be a threat to the traditional way governments have organised their proprietary information and e-identity systems.”

If a blockchain platform was designed so that a central authority was charged with “issuing linked private and public keys; running a server to timestamp each signature; [and] running the verification software” and that authority’s private key were to leak, then there would be “nothing to prevent an attacker from issuing fake records and backdating content.”

And regarding the possibility of issuing certificates on the blockchain (rather than simply using the blockchain to prove their authenticity), the report says that “any general purpose blockchain used in this manner would grow significantly in size … [leading] to low performance and high resource usage.”

“To ensure development of open blockchain implementations,” the document suggests that,

“the EU in collaboration with Member States consider creating and promoting a label for ‘open’ educational records, which enshrines the principles of recipient ownership, vendor independence and decentralised verification – and only supports or adopts technologies in compliance with such a label.”

It also recommends educating policymakers and other stakeholders on the benefits of blockchain and developments in the space.