The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enhancing frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not coaxed there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Ordinary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very ordinary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites embarked accepting the currency, as investors began funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox proclaimed bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a semi-transparent and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, however, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch sides seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very plain definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it firmer to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Trio) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network contest to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enhancing complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a private home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses toughly enough electro-therapy to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Playmates, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Originally inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project shows up to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “wise contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform stir”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “flawless machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more accomplish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Legitimate million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are beginning to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s most likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to investigate in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our clever contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also began to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s most likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is amazingly overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting figures, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to budge forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed adequately trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited bods have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the forearms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we truly want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or liquidated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh embark”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enhancing frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not persuaded there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Ordinary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very elementary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin truly took off in 2013, as more websites began accepting the currency, as investors embarked funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox announced bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a semitransparent and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, however, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch sides seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very plain definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it tighter to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Trio) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network rival to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enlargening complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a individual home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses toughly enough electrical play to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Playmates, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Originally inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project emerges to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “brainy contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform budge”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “flawless machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more finish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Legal million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are commencing to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s most likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to investigate in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our wise contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “brainy contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also embarked to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s very likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is exceptionally overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting figures, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to stir forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed reasonably trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited figures have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the forearms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we indeed want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or eliminated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh embark”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enlargening frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not coaxed there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Ordinary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very elementary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites began accepting the currency, as investors embarked funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox proclaimed bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a semitransparent and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, however, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch sides seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very plain definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it firmer to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Trio) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network contest to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enlargened exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enhancing complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a individual home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses toughly enough electro-therapy to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Playmates, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Primarily inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project emerges to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “clever contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform stir”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “flawless machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more accomplish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Legitimate million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are embarking to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s very likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to probe in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our clever contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also began to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s very likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is exceptionally overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting figures, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to stir forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed reasonably trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited figures have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the forearms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we truly want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or eliminated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh embark”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enhancing frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not wooed there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Plain Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very elementary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites embarked accepting the currency, as investors embarked funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox announced bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a see-through and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, however, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch sides seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very ordinary definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it tighter to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Three) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network rival to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enlargening complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a private home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses harshly enough electric current to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Fucking partners, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Originally inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project shows up to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “wise contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform budge”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “ideal machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more finish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Eighteen million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are beginning to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s very likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to examine in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our brainy contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also began to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s very likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is exceptionally overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting bods, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to stir forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed adequately trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited bods have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the palms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we indeed want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or eliminated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh begin”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enlargening frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not coaxed there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Elementary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very plain definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites embarked accepting the currency, as investors embarked funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox proclaimed bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a see-through and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, tho’, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch roles seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very plain definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it firmer to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Three) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network contest to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enlargening complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a individual home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses harshly enough electro-stimulation to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Playmates, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Primarily inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project shows up to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “clever contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform budge”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “ideal machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more finish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Eighteen million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are beginning to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s very likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to examine in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our wise contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also embarked to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s most likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is amazingly overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting figures, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to stir forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed reasonably trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited figures have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the forearms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we truly want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or liquidated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh embark”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enlargening frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not coaxed there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Elementary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very elementary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites began accepting the currency, as investors commenced funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox proclaimed bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a see-through and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, tho’, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch roles seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very elementary definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it stiffer to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Trio) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network challenge to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enlargening complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a private home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses harshly enough electro-therapy to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Fucking partners, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Primarily inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project shows up to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “brainy contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to Observe in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform stir”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “ideal machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more finish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Eighteen million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are embarking to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s very likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to examine in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our clever contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also commenced to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s most likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is amazingly overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting figures, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to budge forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed reasonably trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited bods have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth resumes to be concentrated in the arms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we indeed want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or eliminated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh commence”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction

Is blockchain poised to be “the next big thing” in education?

This has become a question I hear with enhancing frequency about a technology that, up until fairly recently, was primarily associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. The subtext to the question, I suppose: do educators need to pay attention to the blockchain? What, if anything, should they know about it?

Admittedly, I haven’t bothered to learn much about blockchain or Bitcoin either, despite the last few years of zealous headlines in various tech publications. I haven’t included either in any of the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series I’ve written. And frankly, I’m still not persuaded there’s a “there” there. But with the news this year that Sony plans to launch a testing platform powered by blockchain, with some current and former Mozilla employees exploring the blockchain and badges, and with a big promotional splash at SXSWedu about blockchain’s potential to help us rethinking learning (as “earning” no less), I realized it was time to do some research (for myself) in the hopes of writing a clear explanation (for others too) of what blockchain is – one that isn’t too technical but that doesn’t simply wave away significant questions by resorting to buzzwords and jargon – that blockchain is “the most significant IT invention of our age,” for example.

This is the early result of that research. It’s meant to serve as an introductory guide for those in education who are interested in learning a bit more about the blockchain and its potential applications in ed-tech.

A Very, Very Elementary Definition: What is the Blockchain?

The blockchain is often described as digital ledger. And perhaps a very, very ordinary definition should just leave it at that. It is a ledger, a distributed, digital ledger.

A more wordy definition:

The blockchain is a distributed database that provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. Each block aggregates a timestamped batch of transactions to be included in the ledger – or rather, in the blockchain. Each block is identified by a cryptographic signature. These blocks are all back-linked; that is, they refer to the signature of the previous block in the chain, and that chain can be traced all the way back to the very very first block created. As such, the blockchain contains an un-editable record of all the transactions made.

See below for more details about the technology of the blockchain. See also: “What is Blockchain?” by W. Ian O’Byrne – that article has helpful graphics.

The History of the Blockchain

The blockchain was very first defined in the original source code for Bitcoin. While the latest interest in the blockchain often attempts to separate it from that, it’s worth looking at this history – the two, together.

Bitcoin is a virtual currency, invented in October two thousand eight with the publication of “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” a paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto (an alias. The real identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor(s?) of Bitcoin remains unknown, despite several well-publicized – and failed – attempts to “out” him). The code was released as open source in January 2009. (The next section of this guide examines the technology of Bitcoin and the blockchain in more detail.)

Thus, the Bitcoin network began in two thousand nine when Satoshi Nakamoto “mined” the very first Bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared from the public – that is, from Bitcoin forums, papers, and code contributions – in April 2011. But even in Satoshi Nakamoto’s absence, Bitcoin continued to be developed and marketized, with the community working to address various issues with the code (including, for example, a technical glitch in two thousand thirteen that caused a fork in the blockchain).

Bitcoin indeed took off in 2013, as more websites began accepting the currency, as investors embarked funding more Bitcoin-related startups (more on investment in a section below), and as the price surged, hitting a record high of $1108 per Bitcoin in November of that year. But as its popularity grew, Bitcoin also faced scrutiny from law enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security shut down the Bitcoin exchange (formerly a Magic the Gathering exchange) Mt. Gox in 2013, which was at the time treating almost 70% of Bitcoin transactions. Mt. Gox announced bankruptcy the following year, amidst reports that some 744,000 bitcoins had been stolen from the site.

(Some of this history might seem a bit extraneous to a discussion about the blockchain in education, but I’d argue that it’s all significant to consider when we think about the security, the infallibility, and most importantly ideology of blockchain – the latter the topic of a subsequent article in this research project.)

Other cryptocurrencies have been developed based on the Bitcoin technology – Litecoin and Dogecoin, for example – albeit their volatility has made some investors and pundits wary. That volatility – in the code and in the community – has in latest months led many well-known Bitcoin developers to call it a failure. In a widely-circulated blog post published in January of this year, Mike Hearn wrote that “In the span of only about eight months, Bitcoin has gone from being a translucent and open community to one that is predominated by rampant censorship and attacks on bitcoiners by other bitcoiners.” In its coverage of the fallout, The Fresh York Times cautions that “The current dispute, tho’, is a reminder that the Bitcoin software – like all computer code – is an evolving product of the human mind, and its deployment is vulnerable to human frailties and divergent ideals.”

As interest (and arguably and, yes, ironically, trust) in Bitcoin has waned, the switch sides seems to be true about the blockchain, the technological underpinning of the cryptocurrency, which in the last year or so has received interest from banks, businesses, and governmental organizations alike.

The Technology of the Blockchain

Let’s expand on the very, very elementary definition of blockchain at the beginning of this article: the blockchain is distributed, digital ledger.

One of the key features of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database; that is to say, the database exists in numerous copies across numerous computers. These computers form a peer-to-peer network, meaning that there is no single, centralized database or server, but rather the blockchain database exists across a decentralized network of machines, each acting as a knot on that network.

Transactions on the blockchain are signed digitally, using public key cryptography. (And now a brief description of that technology: public key cryptography uses two keys, which makes it tighter to crack. There is a public and private key – related mathematically but because of the complexity of that math, almost unlikely (or at least computationally infeasible) to guess. The public key can be used to sign and encrypt a message that’s being sent; the recipient – and only the designated recipient – can decrypt that transaction with their private key. (Here’s my public key, by the way.) In addition to encrypting messages, public key cryptography can be used to authenticate an identity as well as to verify that the message – or in the case of a transaction on the blockchain – has not been altered.)

Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain database, data about all fresh transactions must be propagated to all knots on the network so that the blockchain stays in sync as one “world broad ledger,” and not as many conflicting ledgers. That means that in order to update the blockchain, these numerous, distributed copies of it must be reconciled so that they all contain the same version. This happens in the blockchain via a consensus process: the majority of the knots in the system must concur. (Note: there are other synchronization methods for distributed databases.) This consensus process is one of the key innovations of the blockchain: it is “emergent,” rather than happening at a scheduled time or interval as each fresh transaction and block is verified computationally.

Each block of the blockchain is made up of a list of transactions. Each block also contains a block header. That header, in turn, contains (at least) three sets of metadata: 1) structured data about the transactions in the block; Two) the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm (this is how fresh blocks are mined and verified – more on this in a minute); Trio) a reference to the parent block – that is, the previous block – via a “hash” (in order words, a cryptographic algorithm). This creates the “chain” part of the blockchain. Each block in the blockchain can be identified by a hash of its header.

Fresh blocks are created by a process called “mining,” which validates fresh transactions and adds them to the chain. In Bitcoin, a fresh block is mined every ten minutes (that rate is different for different cryptocurrencies’ blockchains). The miner (the machine) that mines the fresh block is rewarded financially – in the case of Bitcoin, the miner receives Bitcoin (presently twenty five per block, but that figure will halve later this year), as well as a cut of the transaction fees for all transactions on the block.

To mine fresh blocks, miners on the network contest to solve a unique, difficult math puzzle. As noted above, the “proof of work” of that solution is included in the block header which permits the block to be verified. Solving this math problem is nontrivial. Since Bitcoin’s creation, the difficulty of this problem has enhanced exponentially, as has in turn the computational power needed to solve it. Blockchain.info estimates that Bitcoin miners are now attempting four hundred fifty thousand trillion solutions per 2nd to solve these puzzles. As such, in 2015, O’Reilly Media estimated that it takes about $600 million a year to maintain the mining infrastructure of the Bitcoin system.

One of the benefits of the enlargening complexity of the “proof of work” algorithm is that Bitcoin (purportedly at least) becomes ever more secure. But now, it is unlikely to mine Bitcoin on a individual home computer; most mining operations are that, operations – vast farms of pooled computing resources. (I wrote “purportedly” in that last sentence because of fears that these mining pools make Bitcoin susceptible to a “51% attack,” whereby an entity that has majority control could alter the blockchain.)

While cryptocurrency might be virtual, all this mining and computational puzzle-solving obviously takes an enormous amount of energy. According to one Motherboard estimate, “each Bitcoin transaction uses toughly enough tens unit to power 1.57 American households for a day.” Bitcoin presently treats about 360,000 transactions per day. You do the math.

Who’s Investing in the Blockchain?

For the last few years, blockchain and Bitcoin have been hailed as “the next big thing,” and there have been slew of predictions about a coming boom in funding for the sector. The Bitcoin news site CoinDesk has compiled a database of investments in Bitcoin- and blockchain-related startups, and from that (in mid 2015) it created a list of the ten most influential venture capital firms in the industry.

Albeit many of those on CoinDesk’s list are VC firms that are interested primarily in the financial sector and in financial technologies, there are some familiar names among them, including some of the most high profile Silicon Valley investors. Those who also have substantial investments in education technology include Union Square Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lightspeed Venture Playmates, and Andreessen Horowitz.

The latter has invested $227 million in Coinbase and twenty one Inc, which according to CoinDesk, “more than $1 in $Four so far invested in the industry.” It’s hardly a surprise then that Marc Andreessen has become one of the most vocal proponents of Bitcoin, calling it in a Fresh York Times op-ed in 2014, one of the most significant technologies since the advent of the Internet.

(Of course, Andreessen also once called the now-defunct Kno “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So grain of salt and such.)

Albeit many of the proponents of the blockchain contend that it can be separated from Bitcoin – that is, it can be utilized for something other than an alternative currency – Andreessen has argued that the two are inextricable: “a distributed ledger naturally both creates and requires a corresponding currency.”

And while much of the most latest excitement about the blockchain’s potential relevance to education does not involve Bitcoin, there has been (at least) one example of an education-oriented cryptocurrency: EduCoin. Originally inspired by a college student at a football game holding a “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” sign, EduCoin sought to become a fresh way to finance one’s education. In 2014, EduCoin described itself this way: “We need a digital currency that can help students, educators, and third parties make secure transactions without fees, rates, or long approval times. EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for student transactions in the learning economy.” (Several years later, this project emerges to no longer be maintained or active.)

As noted above, as the popularity of Bitcoin and related cryptocurrencies has waned (arguably at least), interest in the blockchain has remained if not grown. Blockchain-related startups now concentrate on things like identity management and “clever contracts.” The next section will look at some of the possible applications of the blockchain in education in more detail, but clearly these two elements – identity and contracts, particularly in the form of transcripts and assessments – have particular relevance in education. To see the breadth (or lack thereof) in the types of startups suggesting blockchain-related products and services, you can view a sample of 200+ of them via the funding website AngelList. Elsewhere, fintech investor Collin Thompson has posted his list of “The Top ten Blockchain Startups to See in 2016” on LinkedIn.

One of the names that comes up with increasingly frequency here is Ethereum, developed by a Swiss non-profit the Ethereum Foundation. (Its founder, Vitalik Buterin, dropped out of Waterloo University and received a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship for his work on the project.) Ethereum isn’t a startup per se, albeit it’s clearly what tech industry folks would call a “platform budge”: it’s building a blockchain – an alternate blockchain, to be clear, that isn’t connected to Bitcoin – for others to build their own startups upon in turn.

Ethereum describes itself as moving beyond a “world ledger” – it’s a “world computer,” a “ideal machine.”

Ethereum was very first proposed by Buterin in 2013, and the 2nd version of the Ethereum platform, called Homestead, was released earlier this year. (Here is a more finish history of Ethereum via the Ethereum Foundation’s blog.) The organization now boasts the fifth largest crowdfunding campaign ever, having raised over $Legal million for the project in two thousand fourteen by the sale of “ether,” Ethereum’s currency.

Ethereum seems to be the platform upon which many big companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are beginning to experiment with the blockchain.

And it’s most likely worth noting that, to date, it’s been a big company rather than a little startup that’s made the very first overtures towards blockchain-in-education. The company in question: Sony, which announced in February that it plans to develop a blockchain-based platform for assessment. Sony’s press release doesn’t give much indication of what this will look like – if it plans to use Ethereum, for example, or build its own blockchain.

To clarify the heading of this section: when we consider who is “investing” in the blockchain in education we should look at venture capital funding, technological contributions, product adoption, and, of course, marketing.

Education and the Blockchain

And to be clear, most of what we’re hearing right now about the blockchain and education is precisely that: marketing. There are only a very, very few organizations presently utilizing the blockchain for educational purposes, albeit many claim they’re actively exploring the possibility.

The blockchain had a big marketing splash at SXSWedu this spring, for example, thanks to two think tanks, the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and the ACT Foundation. They introduced the idea of “the Ledger” as a fresh technology that could tie learning to earning. Onsite in Austin, the promotion of the “Learning is Earning” initiative was framed as a “think like a futurist” game and intertwined with a keynote delivered by well-known game designer and writer Jane McGonigal, who is a research affiliate at the Palo Alto-based IFTF.

Welcome to the year 2026, where learning is earning. Your ledger account tracks everything you’ve ever learned in units called Edublocks. Each Edublock represents one hour of learning in a particular subject. But you can also earn them from individuals or informal groups, like a community center or an app. Anyone can grant Edublocks to anyone else. You can earn Edublocks from a formal institution, like a school or your workplace. The Ledger makes it possible for you to get credit for learning that happens anywhere, even when you’re just doing the things you love. Your profile displays all the Edublocks you’ve earned. Employers can use this information to suggest you a job or a gig that matches your abilities. We’ll keep track of all of the income your abilities generate, and use that data to provide feedback on your courses. When choosing a subject to explore in the future, you may wish to choose the subject whose students are earning the most income. You can also use the Ledger to find investors in your education. Since the ledger is already tracking income earned from each Edublock, you can suggest investors a percentage of your future income in exchange for free learning hours. Our brainy contracts make these agreements effortless to manage and administer. The Ledger is built on blockchain, the same technology that powers bitcoin and other digital currencies. That means every Edublock that has ever been earned is a permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.

There’s a lot to unpack ideologically in this vision of the future of education and work (and as I noted above, I’m going to look more closely at the ideology of the blockchain in a follow-up article to this guide). But the movie hits on many of the key themes that are echoed across various other education-related blockchain discussions – that is to say, the blockchain could be utilized to better manage assessments, credentials, and transcripts. (See, for example OTLW or BadgeChain.)

These claims dovetail fairly neatly with those made more broadly about the future of the blockchain – that it will be utilized for identity management and for “wise contracts.” They also dovetail fairly neatly with areas in education that are already backed by funding and by policy (by money and politics). (From my list of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” for example: “Standardized Testing” and “Credits and Credentialing” and, to borrow a phrase from George Siemens, “The Employability Narrative.”)

For their own part, a handful of schools have also began to experiment with the blockchain, primarily in creating cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. These include MIT (the Media Lab, specifically), the University of Nicosia in Cyprus, and the (unaccredited) Holberton School, an alternative, teacher-less software engineering school in San Francisco.

(It’s very likely worth noting here too that at the height of the Bitcoin madness, several universities, including the University of Nicosia, The King’s College in Fresh York, and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, also announced that they would accept the cryptocurrency for tuition payments.)

(You can find links to more articles on education and blockchain here.)

Things to Consider…

Let’s be fair: blockchain-related projects in education are still very much in their experimental stages. Nevertheless, the blockchain itself is exceptionally overhyped, with fairly wild claims about “revolution” and a radical decentralization of key institutions – in the case of education, of universities as well as their accrediting bods, for example. If you believe the spin, all functions – economic, civic, scientific – will soon be blockchained.

Late last year, Gideon Greenspan, the CEO of a blockchain platform Coin Sciences, suggested a list of eight conditions that should be met in order to avoid “pointless blockchain projects.” These include needing a database, having numerous people writing to that database, having some interactions inbetween transactions, operating with an absence of trust, and not needing a trusted intermediary. Riffing on that article, BadgeChain team member Doug Belshaw recently wrote a follow-up about “Avoiding pointless (Open Badges-related) blockchain projects,” in which he used Greenspan’s list to argue that, indeed, Open Badges meets all the Coin Sciences’ requirements to budge forward with the blockchain.

And maybe it does.

Or maybe we are layering one technology (and its correspondent ideology) onto another technology (and its correspondent ideology) and expecting (or hoping) institutions be disrupted. There are many underlying assumptions that are made about institutions and their practices when we talk about using the blockchain, and I think scrutinizing these assumptions, not simply checking off a list written by a blockchain company, is fundamental as we consider the applicability of the blockchain to education.

With that in mind, here are a handful of the concerns I have about the blockchain in education – some of these are technical, but most of them are not:

Is learning transactional?: The blockchain is a ledger, and we most often think of ledgers as containing financial transactions. As the blockchain moves beyond financial technology to other sectors, it’s still used to record transactions of some sort. What are those transactions in education? Completing an assignment or a course? Publishing a blog post or a book? Talking, favoriting, retweeting, liking? What is gained and what is lost as we increasingly record (and assess) these transactions or activities? (See Amy Collier on “Not-yetness and learnification.”)

Who is trusted and mistrusted in education?: “The spread of blockchains is bad for anyone in the ‘trust business’ – the centralised institutions and bureaucracies, such as banks, clearing houses and government authorities that are deemed adequately trustworthy to treat transactions,” The Economist argued back in 2015. A “decentralized trust” would, proponents argue, then serve as a challenge to the centralized authority that, say, accrediting and accredited bods have in issuing degrees. But this strikes me as a very shallow analysis of how trust and prestige operates in educational signals like degrees.

Furthermore, discussions about “trust” and the blockchain in education often framework students (and/as potential employees) as being untrustworthy – as lounging about their degrees or their abilities. (And a lot of ed-tech certainly views students as cheaters.) The blockchain would purportedly verify those credentials. But it’s worth asking too if institutions are trustworthy. Which students, which institutions are and are not trusted? Why? By whom? What is actually the source of “trust” in our current credentialing system? (Spoiler alert: it’s not necessarily accreditation.) How would the trustworthiness of blockchained credential-issuing institutions be measured or verified? If it’s by the number of transactions (eg. badges issued), doesn’t that encourage diploma milling?

The blockchain is based on a computational sort of trust, we’re told – but why trust “code” and not, say, democracy?

Is education (teachers, students, schools) ready to treat the complexity of the blockchain?: It’s two thousand sixteen and “123456” remains the most popular password. Is education ready for public key cryptography? Can it afford the necessary computational power to run blockchain knots? Can it treat the complexity of working with blockchain technology? Can individuals? Does any of this improve upon existing practices? If so, how? I’d note here that this is one of the rhetorical sleights-of-hand of the word “decentralization” in technology circles: skill and wealth proceeds to be concentrated in the palms of the technological elite.

What is the incentive to mine in an education-related blockchain project?: As I explained in the technology section of this guide, mining is the process in which fresh blocks in the blockchain are created and validated. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin award coin to those who solve the necessary cryptographic puzzle to create a fresh block. This is the incentive for throwing the massive amount of computational power at the problem. Will education-related projects go after this model? Will they utilize third-party platforms, like Ethereum, to build their projects? What does it mean to build financial incentives into these fresh educational models? And what are the implications of relying on third party platforms for what some are arguing is going to be “the future” of identity management and legal paperwork?

What happens to privacy in a “world ledger” of education transactions? Do we indeed want education records to be unalterable?: When Sony announced its plans for a blockchain-based assessment platform, Sony Global Education President Masaaki Isozu told Education Week that “We want to keep life-long learning records … securely in the cloud forever. While these records are usually held privately, we want to make it possible for students and educators to securely share verified, trustworthy information with others. Trading these records securely would be an all-new service in the education sector.” “This will go down on your permanent record.” We recognize the threat, I’d wager, but we quickly recognize that there are many ways in which it’s an empty one. But the blockchain would create a permanent record where data cannot be switched or liquidated. This raises all sorts of problems for education, particularly if we view learning as a process of growth and switch.

The question of who wields education data remains unresolved – indeed, the US Department of Education says that schools do, albeit they need to act as good stewards on behalf of students. So would students have control of the privacy of their data on the blockchain? Or would this be something that schools would negotiate access to with their vendors? What happens if the data on the blockchain is wrong? What happens if the data is prejudicial, re-inscribing the prejudices that data collection and school practices already enact?

What happens if a student wants or needs a “fresh commence”? (What happens, for example, if they transition or seek gender confirmation surgery? What happens if they have a stalker or need to obscure their identity because of an abuser?) How might we design education technologies (including those that would use the blockchain) so that they protect privacy by design?

How might a request for transparency about data be a question or power and privilege?

What problems can blockchain solve in education? What problems – technologically, ideologically – might the blockchain’s adoption in education create? Even if we understand how blockchain “works,” there remain a lot of unanswered questions.

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