I was asked to do a bit of analysis of Blockchain technology for my job at CSU and investigate what the potential is at this point in time as a learning technology. I’ve been digging into Blockchain for quite a while now, the technology intrigued me when it first appeared and so too did the culture and ideology behind it. I’m a bit skeptical to be honest about the tech itself and after living through the first wave of hype fuelled inflation and crash, my skepticism seems worthwhile. I added some alternative ways of achieving similar things to what blockchain offers at the end of the document, which I personally wish would get perhaps more attention than Blockchain. This is the original draft – I decided to use this version as it’s more authentically my voice, rather than the version that was edited and circulated around the university.
Blockchain has a lot of hype around it – consider it on the upward side of Gartner’s Hype Cycle1.
For all intents and purposes, it remains all hype. There is yet to be a useful example of blockchain deployment in any sector. Many may point to Bitcoin as a success but in reality, it hardly paints a positive picture. Its wild ride began with it being the currency of choice for illegal markets, it’s been extremely susceptible to manipulation and then there was the massive inflation which was followed by crashes that has left many bankrupt. None of this paint Bitcoin in a positive light and it lacks the fundamental stability of a proven technology. You also have to also remember the piles of copy-cat crypto-currencies that were spawned and failed so fast they made Ponzi schemes jealous.
Blockchain is still a theoretical technology that more often than not, replicates existing technology. It can be incredibly disruptive technology, but not because it is radically different or new, but because it tends to change who the masters are, not by empowering the end users.
Watch & See – As of today there are very few applications of blockchain that would be ultimately useful in a learning and teaching context. Most that are available and on the horizon, seek to perform functions that are already part of the EdTech suite of tools currently deployed on most campuses. Doing something that is already handled by the LMS with blockchain doesn’t make it an improvement or a better product. There may well be developments in the technology that provide differentiated and improved functionality within the learning and teaching space – we’re just a way-off seeing those at this point in time.
Key concepts behind the Blockchain
- Distributed – rather than a single piece of infrastructure, the blockchain requires multiple network points to operate. So rather than a single database living on a server (which could be replicated, backed up, secured and disaster recoverable), a distributed system has a shared system of infrastructure to support it. This theoretically makes it more robust, but modern cloud infrastructure allows traditional databases to have similar functionality.
- Cryptography – The distributed infrastructure creates an overhead by requiring data to be synced and shared across multiple instances. To get around this issues, the blockchain uses cryptography to encode the data into a
blockof transactions that are linked together as a
chain. This cryptography allows data to be secure but requires a tremendous amount of processing power when compared to writing a record in a database.
- Immutable – This set of records, often referred to as a ledger, increases in size because it’s immutable. Data can’t be deleted or purged from the set, because they are cryptographically linked. If a name was stored, which may change due to marriage for example, there is no way to retrieve and change the record, the system doesn’t allow it. A traditional database has read, write and update functions available, with these limited by roles and administration. The blockchain replaces these traditional roles with technology. The blockchain and the software that write to it are the arbiters of data and maintaining the records. This opens up data to being “hacked” and changed without any authority or oversight of the central data.
- Trust – A central idea behind blockchain technology is that of trust. Many of its proponents suggest that the cryptographic component of the technology reduces the need for trust in institutions, and we can instead have trust in the code. This allows the point of control from institutions and established businesses to those who develop the code. Instead of replacing the need for trust, it replaces who it is you must trust.
Applications of Blockchain
There are plenty of articles available on the possible application of blockchain technology in education 2 3 4 5. The main applications listed include:
- Transcripts – Providing access via the blockchain to student transcript for verification, proof of learning and performance.
- Credentials – Support the recording of other credentials and attainments of study – such as badges, graduate learning outcomes.
- Student Portfolios – Providing a body of work that a student completed.
- Identity – Providing verification process for an individuals identity and their attainments and records as a student.
- Research Recording – Record and verify publication records and research records.
- Finances – Manage funding and spending using a currency. Could be useful for internal transactions and reduce shuffling money around actual bank accounts.
- Fund Raising – Use an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) to help fund raise for a specific cause. Holders of the coins could be similar to shareholders or crowd-funding programs, unlocking ownership or rewards through their investment. This application could be useful for funding research, new initiatives or gauging support and acquiring stakeholders.
Review of Blockchain
Lack of Proven Applications – There are very few proven applications utilising blockchain technology at this point in time. While the technology is still relatively new there just aren’t any scaled success stories that have wide adoption.
Lack of Differentiation – There are very few applications that utilise blockchain that couldn’t be achieved through other means. There is no “killer app” in terms of a sustained, stable and successful application of blockchain.
Distributed vs Centralised – As an institution CSU needs to ensure that a distributed model suits our operations. At this point in time a centralised model would be far more scaleable and cost effective. Distributed technology still requires infrastructure and infrastructure costs and there needs to be a clear purpose for the institution to seek a distributed model e.g. collaboration with other universities, education providers or government initiatives.
Privacy – There are issues with key concepts of blockchain that present risks in terms of student and staff privacy. The idea of immutable data means that a permanent record is now available in perpetuity and the right to be forgotten and the idea of youthful indiscretions will be lost.
Legal Changes – The immutable data also presents significant challenges if there are changes in the Law. Given recent data breaches it is not unimaginable that there will be a significant review of laws around privacy and data. There are currently questions around blockchains compatibility to existing international laws like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Part of a Stack – It’s important to note that blockchain often only describes one layer of a specific application or service. An application usually has a “stack” of different layers that perform specific function – database, credentialing, user interface, etc. So an app may work in a completely traditional centralised way for the vast majority of its functionality, but publish its final data as an export function to a blockchain. This ledger can then be used to query or verify against, so support a different part of a service. So the blockchain is only used to store specific data for one specific function. Many companies have overemphasised their reliance and important of the blockchain to play to the hype and get
Questions for Blockchain
Immutable Data – This concept requires a rethink of what data is being stored and what is it being used for.
– How do you keep data up to date?
– How is this useful beyond transaction records?
– Do we want to keep transactions records?
– How does this benefit our staff and students?
– Will legacy files just become a drain on resources?
– How do you address a “take down notice” e.g. Privacy Notice, Copyright, Content Issue?
– What data should be immutable?
– Immutable data also has an effect on changes to technology. As technology evolves it tends to get smarter and perform better. Will blockchain data be able to do that?
Privacy and Security – The distributed nature of the ledger means it is more open and vulnerable.
– How can you ensure privacy and security while maintaining an accessible system?
– How can you prevent nefarious access and use of the data?
– How do you ensure anonymity?
– What links between data are required?
– What happens when data is required to be taken down?
Power and Resourcing – The simple fact is that creating cryptographic record requires far more energy than a traditional database. The Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index provides some simple explanations as well as some of the issues and current usage of the technology.
– How does this fit with CSU’s Green image?
– Do we need to compete this measurement in future procurement processes?
– How does this energy drain effect users of the system?
Alternatives to the Blockchain
While the hype seems focussed on blockchain based technologies, it is important to note that similar functions, performance and applications could be developed using alternative approaches:
- Federation – There has been a massive growth in the number of federated applications. These applications utilise an agreed upon standards of operation in a collective fashion which allows multiple instances of applications to be run, including internally, and connected with others. These systems provide data and identity portability as well as networking and collaborative features.
> e.g. Mastadon is a popular Twitter alternative. CSU could run it’s own instance of Mastadon for staff and students, who can connect to the local network, but also to other instances. Moodle.Net is a product current being developed along this model and aims to create a “new open social media platform for educators, initially focused on the collaborative curation of collections of open resources”.
- Common Standards – Many of the benefits alluded to by blockchain in terms of data could be achieved through more rigorous adoption of common standards and protocols. These collective approaches require effort and negotiation to occur, which often slows down the process, but some of the most useful components of the internet have come through this approach.
> e.g. The W3C group overseas web standards which are developed collectively and then rolled out via web browsers. These standards provide more interoperable tools to develop upon and more robust support than proprietary ones.
- Cooperative Approaches – Some of the appeal of blockchain is that it can disrupt control of existing systems and protocols. For many the main appeal of Bitcoin was not the technology, but the fact that it wrested control over currency transactions from the Banks. When it comes to developing new standards and tools these could be done in a cooperative way instead of a competitive one.
> e.g. One of the applications of blockchain for Higher Education is the validation of an individuals certification. Rather than rely on unproven blockchain technology the university sector could all work together to produce this tool that the market is seeking. The existing institutions would remain in control of their data and could charge a fee for service to maintain it.
- Self Sovereign Technologies – A further evolution of the federated concept is for Self Sovereign Technologies, ones that are not led or owned by institutions – but at the individual level. These systems could allow students to aggregate their data into a platform that they control and provide access to institutions rather than vice-versa.
> e.g. A self sovereign learning application would allow the student to upload their assessment task into their own app, and then forward that on to the intuitional LMS. The marks would be carried out at the institutional system and then relayed back to the student. With this kind of system the student always retains a copy of their work, as well as the materials provided by the institution and any interactions they may have.
Some interesting things that others have said about Blockchain.
Is blockchain a false idol? – ANZ Report
The truth is blockchain is not the solution for every project that needs a database. A 2018 study out of China showed despite the plethora of blockchain-related projects entering the market, 92 per cent failed – and did so in an average of just over a year.
DTA dunks on blockchain hype saying for every use there is a better alternative
Quotes from Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Agency
“Blockchain is an interesting technology that would well worth being observed but without standardisation and a lot of work to come — for every use of blockchain you would consider today, there is a better technology — alternate databases, secure connections, standardised API engagement,” Digital Transformation Agency chief digital officer Peter Alexander told Senate Estimates on Tuesday.
”Blockchain: Interesting technology but early on in its development, it’s kind of at the top of a hype cycle.”
What does the indelible nature of blockchain mean for students learning? Is their content always available?