Photo: (front) Francis Fabri, Permanent Secretary, Ministry for Education & Employment (L); Dan Hughes, COO, Learning Machine. (back): Hon. Silvio Schembri, Parliamentary Secretary responsible for Financial Services, Digital Economy and Innovation within the Office of the Prime Minister (L); Hon. Evarist Bartolo, Minister for Education & Employment)
Malta has just become the first nation-state to deploy Blockchain technology in education. Malta’s Ministry for Education and Employment signed an agreement on 22 September with Learning Machine for four distinct pilot projects within state institutions.
Blockchain technology is forecast to change any field of activity that is founded on time-stamped, record-keeping of titles of ownership. Within education, activities likely to be disrupted by blockchain technology include the award of qualifications, licencing and accreditation, management of student records, intellectual property management, and payments.
The Blockchain Story: Why Now in Malta?
The Ministry for Education and Employment (MEDE) has been investigating the potential of blockchain technologies for education since 2016. Parallel discussions on the accreditation of online learning with Philipp Schmidt from MIT Media Lab and Dan Hughes from Learning Machine got me interested in the Blockcerts standard being developed in partnership as an open standard by the two US organisations. While I worked on the blended and online accreditation framework for the NCFHE in Malta, the potential in notarising learning certificates on the blockchain using an open standard started to become a compelling proposition – Schmidt provides an excellent synopsis in this piece.
Rather than having to rely on institutions to transmit official records, the Blockchain provides a new technical infrastructure where records can be shared peer-to-peer and verified as authentic. Since these records are cryptographically sealed, recipients and third parties can be absolutely sure of the records’ authenticity, and that there have been no alterations since originally being issued: such verification can happen instantly by checking the Blockchain. Learners gain control and ownership of all their education data, their accreditation and portfolios of work, in a secure place but accessible to anyone who needs to verify them, for their entire lifetime. This provides an easy, ready-to-implement and secure way to issue official records in a digital format that recipients can own and use directly in their lifelong learning journey.
Successive Maltese Governments have been interested in the rapid deployment of ‘ready for use’ technologies which may benefit the citizen in the short and medium term, and enhance Malta’s emerging reputation as an island lab for the testing and deployment of new technologies. The blockchain in education pilots was identified as potentially contributing to Malta securing a competitive advantage over other jurisdictions looking at the blockchain for internationalisation of core products and services.
On 18 January 2017, at the end of a major conference on Digital Education, the Ministry and Learning Machine signed a Memorandum of Understanding to explore the opportunity for a world-first, nation-state deployment of Blockchain technology in education, using Learning Machine’s digital credentialing platform developed over Blockcerts. The contract just signed is for four initial pilots at MCAST, NCFHE and ITS (see below).
Learning Machine has developed a fully supported, enterprise credential management solution, Learning Machine Certificates, that uses the Blockcerts standard. To date, Blockcerts is the only Blockchain credentialing standard which gives learners full ownership of their official records, benefiting both institutions and individuals. The standard is free and available to all vendors and institutions who wish to develop, issue, use and verify credentials on the Blockchain.
Blockchain Benefits for Education Stakeholders
The deployment of the Blockchain for education is forecast to have a number of tangible benefits for stakeholders in education:
Benefits for Learners
- Joint-ownership of credentials. Learners secure more control over the certificates and credentials they earn. Once an education institution issues a certificate and notarizes it on the Blockchain, that certificate becomes jointly-owned by the issuing institution and the learner. The learner will download an app, and in conjunction with his/her use of a private key, will be able to access the digital certificate notarised on the Blockchain.
- Self-sovereignty. The learner gains in ‘self-sovereignty’ in that he/she will no longer need the permission of the issuing institution to share the certificate – or elements of it – with third parties in the future. For a more academic interpretation: the public blockchain facilitates self-sovereignty in that individuals become the final arbiter of who can access and use their data and personal information. Within an education context, the term is becoming synonymous with the empowerment of individual learners to own, manage and share details of their credentials, without the need to call upon the education institution as a trusted intermediary.
- Privacy & Protection of identity. Learners can protect their identity, and choose to share elements of it depending on who they want to share it with. As an example, citizens acquire significant ‘self-authority’ over the way personal data and identity is shared online, and being able to choose to release all or parts of it in return for access to services they want – again, without the need of constant recourse to a third-party intermediary to validate such data or identity. As opposed to, for example, the private algorithms deployed by Silicon Valley giants to maximise the commercial use of users’ personal data on social media, the strategic use of blockchain technology and cryptography can lead to a situation where ownership and control of personal data is ‘wrestled’ back to the individual user. People, businesses and institutions can store their own identity data on their own devices, and provide it efficiently to those who need to validate it, without relying on a central repository of identity data. The Blockchain does not just provide a new way of digitising bits of paper which have an intrinsic value, such as our credentials – it provides us with the means to take control of our identity online and manage it appropriately.
- Transparency. Technology facilitates ease of sharing while providing transparency on the origins of a certificate. Once the learner has downloaded the digital certificate via the app on the wallet, he/she can share it in a variety of formats – PDF, JPG etc.
- Security. The Blockchain is currently the most secure known notary, impervious to hacking and fraud.
- Flexibility. The blockchain certification project can apply to a variety of learner certificates – including diplomas, transcripts, certificates at all levels of education – for instance, PS is keen to explore how we can use Blockchain to also notarise SSC&P certificates (and bring the recognition of informal and non-formal learning with formal learning). Hence, communication packages can be targeted at specific learners.
- Future-Proof. Some institutions come and go (think of Syrian universities and 5m displaced Syrians who need to prove their credentials; or professional training colleges that may go out of business and where through no fault of their own, learners have difficulty in the future in proving that they did earn credentials); the blockchain is as future-proof as it gets in securing certificates and credentials issued now for the future and provide learners with peace of mind.
- Scalability. Young people will have to keep accumulating proof of education and professional experience throughout their lifelong learning journey. In a nation-state context, certificates that are accumulated from primary school onwards will be retained as proof of skills and knowledge in the future, including knowledge which at the moment is not automatically recognised. The university of the future may well look very different to what it looks now.
Benefits for Education Institutions
- Trust. Blockchain technologies can protect the education institutions from future fraud, tampering of certificates etc. By replacing middlemen with mathematics, the Blockchain also can go some way towards maintaining trust. Participants on the blockchain are linked together in a market place where they can conduct transactions and transfer ownership of valued assets with each other in a transparent manner and without the assistance or intervention of third party mediators or intermediaries. A value network operates without a defined central authority.
- Flexibility. Technology offers institutions to also issue time-linked credentials (for instance, such as warrants which are tied to payments of fees – as for accountants – and / or completion of Continuing Professional Development).
- Value-add / differentiation to learners. The solution provides learners with the means to own full-transcripts of diplomas, degrees etc – without needing to go back to the institution for validation
- Lower administration costs. Once the certificate is notarised on the blockchain, the institution does not need to be involved in future queries relating to certificate copies, queries, transcripts etc. This will translate into savings for the institutions.
- New means of recognising credentials. Certification of short courses, informal and non-formal learning as well as professional certification (e.g. CISCO, Microsoft, Google training) will also be notarized on the Blockchain.
Benefits for Employers & Third parties needing to verify a Learner’s credentials
- Reassurance & Proof of Ownership. The combination of the above factors provides these parties with additional reassurance that a candidate’s certificate is bona fide, and has not been tampered with.
- Speed. There is no need to wait for a candidate to secure third-party validation from past education institutions, training colleges etc.
Benefits for Policy-Makers
- New Approaches to Identity and Student Records. The technology encourages policy-makers to re-think how students are identified; how their privacy is protected; how accomplishments are measured, recorded, and credentialed; and how those records are kept secure
- New Pedagogy. Policy-makers can start to make progress with customising teaching to each student and create new models of learning
- New Thinking of Education Costs. Policy-makers can re-think how we value and fund education and reward students for the quality of their work.
- New Thinking on the Meta-University. Experiments with the blockchain may lead to the design of entirely new models of higher education. In the future, higher-education is likely to delivered through various channels, including virtual universities, plug and play models (accumulating credits while working). The strategic use of the blockchain certification project can significantly contribute to myjourney.gov.mt . At the University of Malta, the Centre for Liberal Arts & Sciences (CLAS) already delivers short term courses which are certified and which if accumulated can lead to a full degree.
The Blockchain Pilots in Malta
- MCAST (Diplomas)
Learning Machine will provide MCAST an issuing workspace to design diploma templates, approve recipient lists, and issue digital diplomas to graduates through an opt-in process. Recipients who choose to receive their diploma in this format can share them online or directly with others (schools, employers, etc.) in a format that can be independently verified as authentic. MCAST benefits from fraud protection and a new form of marketing & analytics that arise from the sharing of these digital diplomas.
- ITS (Training Certificates)
Similar to MCAST, Learning Machine will provide an issuing workspace to ITS for conferring digital certificates of completion/achievement to students. These official digital certificates can be provably owned by graduates and contribute to their lifelong record of learning. ITS benefits upgrading digital infrastructure with latest technology that ensure fraud protection and public presence that raises the profile of ITS.
- NCFHE (Equivalency Statements)
Learning Machine will provide issuing workspace for the NCFHE to create templates and issue statements of educational equivalency to learners upon request, to replace the PDF-based process currently used. The benefits of these blockchain-based records are fraud protection for the NCFHE and instant verification for any entity that wishes to check the authenticity of the statement. These equivalency statements are owned by the NCFHE, not recipients, so the implementation process is relatively simple.
- NCFHE (Accreditation and Licensure)
Learning Machine will provide a second issuing workspace for NCFHE to issue certificates of accreditation to their 100+ member institutions. The benefits of these records are fraud protection for the NCFHE and more convenient verification of institutional accreditation for providers that operate outside of Malta’s borders. Process integration accreditation updates that are required with new course update needs further planning.
About Learning Machine
Learning Machine is a private software company with offices in Cambridge and Dallas (US). The company is owned and led by three operating partners: Chris Jagers, Dr Dan Hughes, and Ted Wehner. Best known for the SlideRoom product, in use by some 750 enterprise clients around the world, Learning Machine has traditionally served the needs of Higher Education (enrolment management and faculty hiring), HR (corporate hiring), and the Arts (grant/award/residency management). Learning Machine has had a long and unique relationship with MIT Admissions and the MIT Media Lab in the form of two formal partnerships. The Learning Machine offices in Cambridge are in an MIT building across the street from Google and Microsoft.
Blockchain Beyond education
The pilots will be monitored by Government because of their importance beond education. The notarization of certificates on the blockchain could contribute significantly in the future to improvements in eGovernment services beyond education. As an example:
- Certificates – births, deaths, marriages, police conduct
- Taxation – Income returns, VAT declarations, National Insurance
- Customs – Fees, Trade Records
- Health Records
- Criminal Records & Crime Prevention
- Licenses – Driving, Trade, Professional
- Identity – Residency, Passport, Company Registration
- Ownership Titles – Land, Property, Vehicles, Ships, Aircraft
- Intellectual Property – Copyrights, trademarks, patents
- Notarisation, Power of Attorney, Wills and Succession
- Election registers and voting
- Tendering, Purchasing
- Benefits disbursements
- Veterinary services
Featured Image courtesy: Clodagh Farrugia O’Neill, DOI, Malta