The Catalyzing Impact of Blockchain Technology on Higher Education
Over the past few months, there has been a good amount of writing on blockchain technology and its potential application to higher education. These three articles are worth reviewing because they stimulate interesting conversation ranging from fear of the Byzantine General’s Problem to neo-liberal idealism.
However, we find the articles are missing the nuts-and-bolts detail of blockchain technology’s potential to revolutionize higher education institutions (HEIs). Our focus is on blockchain’s ability to fix antiquated, siloed, unfriendly technology, processes, policies and historical foundations by refocusing their mission on teaching. (Michael Matthews gives a succinct overview of Blockchain possibilities.)
The reference in one piece to the Byzantine General’s Problem reminds us of the student wandering through hallways in different buildings of an institution in order to get a bill paid, a student financial aid check credited to her account, and request a transcript. The opportunity for misinformation and misapplication of rules or requisites (first you do X before you can do Y) continues to put the student through a long chain of inconsistency, lineups, waiting periods, and not-so-friendly human interactions.
Now imagine a similar scenario in which the student is at the center of the interaction. Here, a digital ledger is tied to “computational logic” programmed by institutional gate keepers (department chairs, provosts, registrars, financial aid counselors) who have written algorithms and rules that will automatically trigger certain transactions once a student requests the transcript, applies the credit on her account or pays the bill.
We are not suggesting taking away the academic approval required by these processes—we are suggesting rethinking the processes themselves. The beauty of blockchain is that it will remove the intermediaries that currently slow down transactions.
What possibilities could we imagine if HEIs committed to putting data on a distributed ledger technology (DLT) platform? Can we imagine a distributed ledger across the HEI enterprise to include the registrar, bursar, provost, human resources, purchasing and continuing education divisions (just to name a few) who can all share in the stewardship of a student’s blockchain?
Some intermediary progress toward leveraging DLT would enable registrar-like offices to be the stewards of that portion of the chain, with distribution of credentials in ways universities never could have imagined. It remains to be seen what type of Trusted Third Party (TTP) providers may become “owners” or clearinghouse providers so that access is permitted to construct and distribute in whole or segments, or even provide access to employers, graduate schools, professional certifying bodies, etc.
Our vision of the application of DLT to HEIs focuses (for now) on these major functional areas within an institution:
DLT allows for a record of credentials that do not require re-verification because they are initially verified through their existence in an individual’s digital wallet (such a wallet has not yet been invented. See the new technology around the Apple iPhone X and student ID card technology on the phone throughout the HEI).
For faculty promotion and tenure, there is no longer the need to create a burdensome portfolio each time an applicant looks to advance. Instead, an individual’s record stays in one place, evolving as they as they progress from being a student to becoming a faculty member. Administrators, while employed at an HEI, also have a record that details the internal training and development activities they have achieved, both for internal promotion purposes as well as for verification (with permission) when the employee looks for a job elsewhere.
Processing student financial records through a DLT would enable an institution to manage multiple payments to a record without lengthy manual auditing and verification. Third-party payments from Workforce or other companies would be seamless. Student meal plans could be verified through the DLT without, again, having to verify with a human or provide access to an entire database by a TTP. Purchasing, invoicing, keeping track of supplies—all of this would be simplified by eliminating multiple software systems that do not speak to each other, as the heart of DLT is verification of transactions. And so much of a HEI’s operations is transactional.
The most task-laden student to admit (and to have credits applied to a degree) is a transfer student—whether between proprietary to public, public to private or even public within the same state system. With a DLT, a student’s educational documentation will be in their digital wallet, established by the institution(s) the student previously attended. No longer will paper transcripts have to be sent digitally or through the mail. The record will exist, and the HEI will be able to see it with the student’s permission. This will transform the admission process for the transfer student as they labor through collecting course descriptions and syllabi only to have credits fall to the unusable wayside of free electives. Special programs such as reverse transfer would be possible to implement if a student’s academic history is visible on the chain in their wallet.
Traditional freshman or graduate admissions will be simplified with the ability to post test scores, high school achievement, service activity and other significant admissions records into the student’s digital wallet. The HEI is able to access the student’s wallet, rather than forcing the student to submit materials. This democratizes higher education in an unforeseen way.
The operations of the admission function are complicated by significant digital paperwork. Scanning records? No longer necessary. All student records are verified on the chain, having been put there by virtue of the credential-awarding entity. The need for a bursar, registrar and other credential-verifying entity still exists, but the paperwork and extra staff will no longer be necessary. The bursar, registrar and other key employees at the HEI will create the scripts that write the credential to the student’s digital wallet.
Blockchain technology puts the student at the center. HEIs have to adapt. We are already trending towards students being able to customize their educational experience. Now, they will be able to control the documentation of their education. Right now, the value of degrees—of the credential—is at stake. With students in control of their records, employers will have to decide how to value these credentials, and employers will not have to use the institution as an intermediary to verify the credential. It will already be verified. With the growth of lifelong learning, the record in the digital wallet will not require students to go to every institution to re-authenticate their credentials, whether to transfer to another institution or apply for an internship or job. The student’s digital wallet will document their activities in one place. Remember the fight to put internships and extracurricular activities on a student’s record? That fight is now over. The student is the record. The wallet waits in their pocket ready to be shown to anyone who asks. Gradbase, for example, is a system designed by students that enables employers to verify student credentials.
Financial Aid Verification and Distribution
Financial aid is another extremely cumbersome function related to admissions and retention. DLT will assist in smoothing out financial aid verification and distribution, whether for first-time applicants or for institutions trying to verify sufficient academic progress. Financial aid counselors will not need to spend most of their time answering questions and verifying paperwork. Instead they will be able to spend more time actually counseling about potential loan burdens, grant opportunities or the significance of dropping to part time from full time to keep the student’s financial health on track.
The pressure that HEIs put on students to verify payment, academic progress, transcripts and ultimately achievement negatively impacts student retention. HEIs want the student to verify transactions, yet the institution itself does not have the capacity to verify transactions quickly. Evidence of the transactional pressures on students and the effect on retention is ample and not new (as cited by Neil Raisman). Moving toward blockchain will put students, again, at the center of the transaction. The verification will occur through the student’s wallet.
It is time to experiment at your HEI by pulling together a group to start imagining blockchain technology possibilities. We are excited about the possibilities for HEI operations. As for legacy systems that institutions are currently relying on, challenge those companies by asking them what they are doing with blockchain. Some of these systems will soon be obsolete, leaving HEIs to change processes and, in turn, fundamentally change the institution’s organization.
HEIs need to assess critical functions that involve keeping records at the core of its business.
HEI administrative functions will no longer be at the center of operations; students will be at the center—where we all say they should be!
Author Perspective: Administrator