US Department of Education encourages placement of student records on blockchain

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The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed flaws in various sectors. As a result, a number of government departments are evaluating blockchain-based systems as possible solutions to challenges involving multi-stakeholder workflows, record keeping, transparency, etc.

For example, the United States Department of Education recently funded the launch of the “Education Blockchain Initiative”. Called EBI, this project is led by the American Council on Education – an organization that helps the higher education community shape effective public policies – and is designed to identify ways in which blockchain can improve data flow. between academic institutions and potential employers.

Determined to seek new technological solutions, ACE announced at the end of 2020 the “Blockchain Innovation Challenge” to find projects capable of reinventing the American ecosystem of education and employment. The challenge was specifically aimed at helping underserved populations who have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Louis Soares, director of learning and innovation at ACE, told TBEN that the higher education sector as a whole has been hit financially by the economic recession. This has resulted in a drop in student enrollments, putting even greater pressure on education budgets which now require a digital approach:

“Higher education learns to operate in a new technological environment. We need to explore different ways of making connections between education and work. This includes finding new approaches to accreditation (and hiring) that harness the potential of emerging technologies to improve communication between education and training organizations. ”

Blockchain gives students control over their credentials

According to Soares, blockchain technology can help empower students by providing them with control over their educational records such as degrees and transcripts. This is especially important for allowing smooth transitions when a student transfers from schools, or for those who are looking for a job and need to present credentials.

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A document from the education department indicates that school records are usually found in the school that a student is attending or attended. He further notes that if a student has transferred a school, these records “may” be transferred with the student, but some “may” remain in the school. As such, there are a number of challenges for students who need to get their personal records.

The Blockchain Innovation Challenge dedicated $ 900,000 to help solve this problem and announced four Phase 1 winners on February 11. sharing of educational records.

For example, one of the winning teams was the UnBlockEd project, which relies on a blockchain-based system to solve the problems of recognizing unfair transfer credits. The project is led by the University of Arizona and the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as various technology providers and academic institutions.

Greg Heileman, vice-provost for undergraduate education at the University of Arizona, told TBEN that UnBlockEd empowers students by giving them sovereignty over their learning outcomes. Heileman noted that this is achieved through a decentralized identity management system that allows students to control who has access to their learning records or transcripts:

“We are working to develop a minimally viable product (MVP) that will clearly demonstrate the feasibility of our approach. This MVP will demonstrate how a student in a degree program at any college / university in the state of Kentucky can effectively move on to any other program at any other college / university in the state. “

Specifically, Heileman explained that a “graduation roadmap” will be developed to show students how to transfer their previous credits to those in the host program. To ensure this, UnBlockEd operates Fluree, a decentralized data platform that stores secure, verified and reusable data.

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Brian Platz, co-CEO of Fluree, told TBEN that Fluree allows the private holding of data by individuals, but also allows other parties to view that information. As such, different groups can issue credentials, while those who receive the information can verify that the data is correct:

“It solves the problem of reusing data. We use a private blockchain to tokenize data and validate a series of rules that ensure information adheres to those rules. It’s like a smart contract, but heavily data-driven. “

Blockchain solves inefficiencies in data transfer

The solution developed by UnBlockEd is extremely important for a number of reasons. For example, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, students will lose, on average, the equivalent of one semester of classes with each transfer.

Heileman added that out of 23 million higher education students, around 35 percent will transfer at least once and 11 percent will transfer twice in their academic career. He also pointed out that community colleges function disproportionately as the primary entry point for students from historically under-represented ethnic groups and low-income families. “To put it mildly, the articulation of transfers is a structural inequality in higher education. Our hope is that the UnBlockEd project will reduce the extent of this inequality, ”commented Heileman.

Another winning project came from Texas Woman’s University. This initiative aims to establish a consortium of institutions across the North Texas region through a shared accreditation platform. The platform would allow students to store and send their educational records to colleges and employers in North Texas.

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Fluree also helped fuel the Lifelong Learner Project, which aims to develop a digital wallet for teachers to store and access their credentials, certifications, and learning resources. This is intended to allow teachers to share these verifiable credentials with entities such as state licensing systems, human resource departments, and learning management systems.

Implementation is the next step

While each of these projects takes an innovative approach to solving the challenges of sharing educational data, implementing these initiatives will likely take some time.

For example, Platz explained that there is a supply and demand side when it comes to blockchain-based projects. He pointed out that while universities and educational groups can issue digital degrees to students, employers are not yet asking for them: “We are still building ecosystems around this involving education and government standards.

Fortunately, Platz noted that President Joe Biden’s new administration shows potential to implement new technology standards focused on blockchain and other emerging technologies that may provide benefits. It is also encouraging to see that other countries have started to store certificates and educational records on blockchain networks.

Matla, for example, was one of the first countries to announce that all educational certificates will be kept on a blockchain. Additionally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, created a pilot program in 2017 to issue blockchain-based digital certificates to graduates. While it may be, an MIT Media Lab blog post explaining lessons learned from the project noted that blockchain is a complicated technology and that there are still very few people who understand it.

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