Published on 2019/05/21
The EvoLLLution | Higher Education and the Blockchain Ecosystem: An Overview
Implementing blockchain technologies could provide significant benefits to every department within a postsecondary institution.

Each department within the institution, directly or indirectly, interacts with the learner and with each other. Most departments work with external entities and must exchange information, documents, money, contracts, media, certification and accreditation documents. Most, if not all, departments work with accrediting bodies. Most, if not all, work with professional organizations. Many work with vendors and consultants. All of these transactions are fair game for blockchain.

Once you get a firm grasp on Blockchain, you will be able to explore more potential applications for it in your department. This article is the first in a series on blockchain in higher education, so I will start with a general overview, with examples of how Blockchain can be implemented at an institution. In later articles, I will go into more depth and provide you with context, more examples, cost analyses, and direction.

Admissions: When a student is admitted, the college or university collects and validates personal, academic and governmental information. Eventually, when a student reaches graduation, they will have a multitude of validated assets that demonstrate proficiencies, competencies and skills within their area of focus. With graduates start applying for jobs, they can use their ePortfolio to provide employers with a complete picture of their skills and experience—perhaps without even conducting a formal interview. For the admissions department, one of the larger roles blockchain technology plays is with storing and recording forms and documents, verification of some of these items, and identity verification.

Blockchain would have certainly been useful in preventing the recent admissions scandals (a.k.a. Operation Varsity Blues) and briberies involving a growing number of universities. Wealthy parents use bribes to ensure their children are accepted to their university of choice or recruited by coaches when they have little athletic background—consider the latest plot at SAT and ACT testing sites in Houston and West Hollywood to falsely provide special accommodations (extended time) to students as a cover to cheat. Identity verification via high school transcripts, College Board scores, and IEPs recorded to the blockchain would have flagged all of these instances because the transaction would not have received a “consensus” or agreement. 

Below are some of the items admission departments work with: 

  • Transfer credit documents
  • Personal Learning Experience assets
  • Diplomas, certificate and licenses
  • Grades and transcripts
  • Financial aid
  • Badges and microcredentials
  • Writing samples
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Medical records/immunizations/IEPs
  • Verification of Identity – Proof of Residency/Address
  • Driver’s license

Registrar & Student Service: Using blockchain, an educational organization can issue a secure, unalterable, pre-validated credential to a student. Students no longer have to pay for their own official transcripts (paper or digital), and institutions no longer have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to third-party digital credential-issuing services. Blockchained digital credentials greatly reduce an already cumbersome and costly process to a single step. This makes accessing a digital credential easier and instant for students, governmental agencies, graduate schools and employers.

Blockchain also eliminates degree fraud, so employers do not need spend their time and money verifying an earned degree or credential.

  • Verifiable digital diplomas
  • Transcripts
  • Test scores
  • Prior Learning Experience evidence, and the assessment of those assets toward course credit
  • Documents and licenses from vendors and consultants

Interesting fact: Approximately 1,000 documents or diplomas can be uploaded to blockchain in “batches” for around $10. Just some more ways to save a few bucks.  It’s that simple!

Academics:Time-stamping and documenting, processes, procedures, instructor teaching and student learning activity data,faculty research and achievements, and administrative tasks are just a few of the benefits blockchain provides Academic departments. Blockchain provides a record of:

  • Student attendance
  • Student and faculty interactions
  • Student interactions with the course material
  • Portfolio artifacts
  • Accreditation evidence
  • OER books and other materials developed by faculty, staff and students
  • Syllabus
  • Objectives and competencies
  • Supporting documents (i.e. assignments, quizzes, projects, discussion board, etc.)
  • Research and publishing
  • Presentations
  • Conference Attendance 

Accreditation: Whether proving the correlation between learning objectives and the corresponding content or demonstrating compliance with industry standards, the accreditation process can be complex and difficult for all parties involved. It is not uncommon for accrediting bodies to take weeks or months, including on-site visits, to comb through documentation that took the institution itself months to compile. In aggregate, the accreditation process can be time-consuming, expensive and nerve-wracking for all involved. Blockchain captures, verifies and records all of the critical data used in the accreditation process. Some of this data include:

  • Self-studies and presentations of evidence to satisfy requirements of accrediting organizations.
  • Clear, corroborating and circumstantial evidence and associated documents
  • Peer review evaluations
  • Validated letter of decision
  • Verifiable accreditation award
  • Input from Industry Advisory Councils

Library: Currently, library data is locked in various silos by vendors and by policy governance. Blockchain represents, in part, a shift to distributed recordkeeping and person-centered portfolios. Person-centered recordkeeping will provide benefits to individuals and allow the entities that serve them to quantify the cumulative value that is obtained from services for individuals and at scale across all users. Also, when a new partnership has been established, blockchain instantly allows the two parties to trust each other during transactions with that partner. Other applications for blockchain in the library include:

  • Interlibrary loans
  • Identity management
  • Institutional repositories
  • Research workflows
  • Management of digital rights
  • Preservation of historical documents
  • Securing confidential information
  • Peer review process
  • Circulation, registrations, payment of fines and scheduling

Finance: As Blockchain technology is, by design, a digital ledger, a smart contract, and a verifier, finance and accounting departments are very well-poised for integration. There are a number of areas in which both Blockchain technology and cryptocurrency is affecting finance and accounting departments. Some examples include:

  • Contract processing
  • Single entry bookkeeping
  • Immutable audit trails
  • Accounts receivable
  • Storage of financial records
  • Documents and licenses from vendors and consultants
  • Internal supply chains 

Interesting fact: Universities use third parties for financial transactions that can get very expensive with the additional fees tacked on. Blockchain provides free transactions between parties.

Marketing: Some academic institutions are increasingly investing significant time and money in branding and marketing campaigns. However, there are ways in which marketing departments can cut costs and still maintain effectiveness with blockchain: 

  • Documents and licenses from vendors and consultants
  • Storage of digital assets
  • Record results from marketing campaigns
  • Record prospect information
  • Abandonment and conversion data
  • Content management

Institutional Research: The data that admissions departments collect onstudents’ demographic and academic information in turn provides institutional research (IR) departments with initial data that is continually built upon over a students’ academic journey. This longitudinal data is valuable as it provides insights on retention, progression and completion over time. In addition to student data, IR is the gatekeeper for other institutional data as well. However, if to envision IR as the manager of data and accompanying documents and reports, rather than just a gatekeeper, then we are beginning to grasp what a shareable, distributed, ledger is—it’s shared in real-time with those authorized to view it from all of the other departments. This aligns with our blockchain-as-an-ecosystem concept, and would therefore be fitting for an IR department.

Here’s what an IT department gains from adopting the blockchain:

  • Visibility, integrity, security, and speed for data management
  • Grant compliance documentation
  • Research data
  • Documents / licenses from vendors/consultant

Legal: The legal profession has probably been impacted by blockchain the most. Drafting, reviewing, translating, negotiating allocating risk and control are typical aspects related to the processing of a contract. A well-developed contract is meant to form an underlying trust between the parties taking part in the transaction. Interestingly, “Legal Tech”(platforms, services and software developed for use by legal professionals) is aimed toward making the legal profession more and more of a virtual experience. Blockchain assists legal teams through: 

  • Verification and validation of contracts and other legal documents
  • Digital signatures establish identity and authenticity
  • Facilitation, and enforcement of contracts

Human Resources: Human resource departments are prime for blockchain because it eliminates many time-consuming tasks, processes and procedures. Efficiency means wasting less money. Here are some of the areas where inefficiencies can be reduced:

  • Education and employer verification
  • Verification of skills and knowledge
  • Professional license verification
  • Criminal background searches
  • Employer credit reports
  • Employee onboarding
  • Employee training
  • Employee reviews
  • Resumes, CVs and portfolios
  • Application
  • Internships and apprenticeships
  • References

Information Technology: Currently, your information—name, address, social security number, etc.—is stored in identity management systems and can share it with third parties. We can leverage blockchain to store permissions across the distributed network and only allow third-party systems access to this personal information. Rather than a third-party vendor, blockchain gives you absolute control over who you give your information to and ensures its security. 

This ultimately removes the responsibility for IT departments to manage users’ credentials since the employees manage their own. Also eliminated is the need for SSO, Active Directory, multi-step authentication and application-specific security. Yes, you read that correctly. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you to hop on the blockchain bandwagon, there’s more! It can be used to record, store, validate, and manage:

  • License audits
  • Licenses and license keys
  • Software assurance
  • Documents and licenses from vendors and consultants

Alumni Relations: Like other departments in an academic institution, alumni relations departments are also being encouraged to leverage innovation alongside tight budgets. Here are some ways in which alumni departments might consider blockchain:

  • Record, index and track giving patterns
  • Donor profile information
  • Annual reports
  • Publications
  • Estate planning or legal services for donors

Operations: Outreach and recruitment departments must collect and store significant amounts of data on prospective students—some of which they receive from high schools, College Board, and other partner organizations who assist in collecting transfer data from high school or college students. The data can be recorded, tracked and analyzed for patterns, thus informing institutions on the effectiveness of their outreach efforts.

  • Tracking and recording of online engagement data
  • Inquiry-to-applicant conversion data
  • Partner documents and transactions (College Board, Naviance)

Employers: After a student graduates, there is no need for an employer to contact the college or university to verify a student’s identity, diploma or accompanying credentials for potential employment. The student could simply send a link that takes the employer directly to their digitally blockchained portfolio, which virtually eliminates the possibility of resume fraud. The portfolio can include:

  • Resumes, CVs and portfolios
  • Application
  • Internships and apprenticeships
  • References
  • Research
  • Awards
  • Conference attendance
  • Education aerification
  • Skills and knowledge
  • Professional license verification
  • Criminal background searches
  • Employer credit reports
  • Employee onboarding
  • Employee training
  • Employee reviews

CONSIDERING BLOCKCHAIN?

Blockchain has transformational potential across the entire academic institutional infrastructure. When developing your own individual ecosystem, here are some questions each university department must ask to make sure blockchain satisfies the needs of the institution:

Data

  • Which data need to be shared with whom and when?
  • What kind of assets need to be transferred?
  • Where should data be stored?
  • Does it need to be authenticated or notarized?

Technology

  • What does the underlying existing technology landscape look like and how would it be impacted?
  • What does the underlying technology cost?

External Factors

  • Are there external factors requiring a refocus on current operations to do things faster, more cost effectively, and with more trust?
  • What factors need to be considered? 

Process

  • How is the process done currently?
  • How is consensus reached on the business level/data level?
  • Who is allowed to validate transactions? 

Security

  • Is the technology scalable?
  • Are security requirements met?
  • Does the transaction record need to trigger ongoing events (smart contract)?

 Business Case

  • What is the overall business case including the consideration of implementation cost?
  • What is the ROI?
  • Is there sufficient scale effect? 

Counterparties

  • Which entities create and post transactions?

 People

  • Which skills and organizational changes would be needed?

Regulatory

  • Does the technology address accreditation and regulatory requirements in a more efficient, cost-effective way?
  • Does your university measure efficiency among departments?

With this last question, one way to analyze the efficiency of departments that perform similar tasks is by using the Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA). Some departments may have similar inputs and outputs, and then others may have different processes for inputs to yield outputs, or may use different software. DEA includes all of the variables impacting a department’s performance, converts all of these inputs and outputs into a single efficiency measure. It is then able to identify the departments that are efficient, those that are inefficient, and individual scores for each that reveal any discrepancies or imbalances around input or output.

In particular, DEA helps with:

  • Resource allocation
  • Identification of best practice
  • Identification of poor practice
  • Target setting
  • Monitoring efficiency changes over time
  • Rewards for good performance
  • Planning site locations

In this 10-part series I will be providing questions like these that are specific to each department in the Higher Education Blockchain Ecosystem. They will serve as an evaluative starting point for you to consider if you are thinking about weaving blockchain into your institution’s infrastructure.

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