4 Ways Blockchain Will Transform Higher Education

October 16, 2019

Contributor: Susan Moore

The most ambitious uses for blockchain in higher education could disrupt the industry.

In 2017, the University of Melbourne started using blockchain to issue digital credentials, enabling students to share verified copies of their qualifications with employers and other third parties in a tamperproof system. New ways to apply blockchain technology in the higher education sector are emerging all the time. Over the past several years, more high-profile projects have received significant media attention, fueling further interest in the technology. 

“ The most promising use case for blockchain in higher education is to transform the “record keeping” of degrees, certificates and diplomas”

The Gartner 2019 CIO Survey revealed that 2% of higher education respondents have already deployed blockchain. Another 18% of respondents were planning to do so within the next 24 months. However, nearly half of respondents (47%) cited a lack of interest, and that number is up from just 37% in the 2018 survey. Many in the “disinterested” group are taking a wait-and-see approach, considering the extreme hype, immaturity and potential risks of blockchain.

Some have analyzed the likely returns and concluded that existing technologies can do the job better than blockchain. Others are unaware of the potential benefits. Terri-Lynn Thayer, Vice President, Gartner, says higher education CIOs should remain curious about blockchain’s potential. “Focus on practical uses for blockchain in the near term, while keeping an eye on its long-term transformative potential,” says Thayer. “The more ambitious use cases have the potential to disrupt the entire education ecosystem.” Gartner has identified four ways to apply blockchain in the higher education sector.

No. 1: Improve record keeping

The most promising use case for blockchain in higher education is to transform the “record keeping” of degrees, certificates and diplomas, making credentials digital and under the learner’s control, without the need for an intermediary to verify them. Blockchain could be also used for accreditation of educational institutions, a complex process in many countries, enabling them to verify quality or qualification to teach. Blockchain’s ability to improve record keeping also makes it a natural fit for solving intellectual property (IP) management problems, for example, by using blockchain to determine if an idea or invention is unique or to register IP assets, copyright and patents.

No. 2: Increase efficiency in existing business processes

Blockchain-based university diplomas are a great leap forward, but perhaps the ultimate use case is the creation of a virtual transcript or record of all education achievements throughout one’s entire lifetime. A verifiable lifetime transcript would reduce CV fraud, streamline student transfers between universities, reduce the overhead related to credential verification, and make moving between states and countries less complex. This kind of initiative goes beyond record keeping and seeks to streamline processes, making it an “efficiency play.”

No. 3: Create a new market for digital assets

Processing student payments is labor-intensive and may involve the student, parents, scholarship-granting agencies, financial institutions, governments and educational institutions. In the future, cryptocurrencies — perhaps even custom cryptocurrencies — could be used as a method of student payments. In 2014, King’s College in New York City became the first accredited U.S. institution to accept bitcoin as payment, eliminating the credit card transaction fees previously charged to students. This is a good example of how blockchain could be used in higher education to create and trade new digital assets.

No. 4: Create a disruptive business model

To date, higher education blockchain use cases have focused on record keeping and efficiency, while the real disruptive power often lies in creating new business models. Woolf University aspires to become the first blockchain-powered, nonprofit, borderless university. Founded by a group of academics from both Oxford and Cambridge, it will rely on blockchain and smart contracts as the basis of the relationship between learners and educators — aiming to create the Airbnb of degree courses.

“ Promising use cases address problems that have proven difficult to solve using traditional technologies”

If achieved, this new educational platform will aim to lower tuition fees at the same time it increases faculty remuneration by using blockchain smart contracts to automate administrative tasks, protect and secure faculty and students, and reduce administrative overhead costs. Instructors can choose to be paid in Woolf tokens or in their native currency. The university will seek EU accreditation and anticipates a global launch in 2019. “The most promising use cases address problems that have proven difficult to solve using traditional technologies, are uniquely digital and represent key barriers to scalability,” says Thayer.

Evaluate projects carefully

Thayer recommends that higher education CIOs use Gartner’s Blockchain Spectrum model to distinguish between projects that are “blockchain washing” and those that will deliver real value. “The best advice is that which applies to all IT projects — focus on the desired business outcome rather than the technology,” she says.

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