Blockchain in higher ed moving from idea to reality
- Greater numbers of institutions are investing in research programs on blockchain, the infrastructure needed to manage cryptocurrency, including MIT, Stanford and University College London, among others, reports Bitcoin Magazine. Columbia University is the latest to hop on the trend, announcing yesterday in a press release a joint development with technology company IBM a research center to cultivate "scientific breakthroughs" in data transparency, blockchain and technology capabilities that apply blockchain in new ways.
- Central New Mexico Community College has already used blockchain infrastructure to issue around 300 digital bitcoin diplomas. Bill Halverson, chief technology officer for CNM Ingenuity, told Education Dive there are plans to scale the infrastructure through automation. The process of setting up digital "wallets" holding students' credentials will become faster as "student reports are automatically uploaded to the blockchain platform with validation processes in place," said Halverson, who noted the college is also working on a simple transcript management application for students.
- Like Columbia, CNM is also implementing blockchain research programs in an effort to sustainably build out and manage its infrastructure and so that students can help evolve the technology's development, said Halverson. David Post, blockchain strategy and platform growth leader for IBM Industry Platform, told Education Dive institutions investing in blockchain research are creating "an innovation structure" that will allow for the next generation of breakthroughs and will allow them to carve out expertise in a budding market.
Since the advent of bitcoin, a type of digital currency, blockchain has amassed popularity as a focus of research and development, especially as more industries recognize the blockchain infrastructure — a continuously amassing and self-verifying ledger of records — can be used for myriad purposes. In higher education specifically, institutions like CNM and MIT's Media Lab are pioneering ideas like digital certificates, where students can opt to take ownership of their stackable academic credentials via a type of digital tokens that can be easily shared across institutions and employers.
Though such plans are still in troubleshooting phases, many throughout the industry are intrigued by the promise of blockchain infrastructure, and many institutions are starting to invest in academic programs and initiatives. Post told Education Dive, for instance, the partnership between IBM and Columbia to create a center focused on blockchain is intended a "think tank," where "we will be providing Columbia with the technology so we can train more people to access it, build up the human capital of teachers and apply research to help establish products and innovations that can be used throughout multiple industries."
But while there are benefits to investing in blockchain, Halverson said, there's still a few areas of caution that institutions ought to be aware of. For instance, even though CNM is taking steps to automate how digital certificates are made, a significant barrier is first "knowing the architecture." He said the college conductd small pilots with classes of 10 to 13 students, developed custom certificates and made sure "we thoroughly understand the process of linking the certificate to the student's identity and digital wallet."
He noted that facilitating training and research programs around the technology are helpful in creating a network of experts on campus to alleviate some of those difficulties.
Having worked on piloting several hundred digital diplomas, Halverson's takeaway for other administrators is to invest heavily in understanding and learning blockchain before trying to implement anything.
"As more schools implement this ... we can say a student has a universal identification where the credits can easily be validated across different institutions, so the students' academic track records can be maintained and not lost," said Halverson.
"But, the biggest challenge is the unknown," he added. "How do you support this? How do you know for your staff how to solve issues and help students know how to maintain their credentials with encrypted keys securely?
Halverson said these issues are still being worked out, including how to validate that certificates are being issued from a verified credentialing authority.
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