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5 areas ripe for a blockchain boom in higher education

As the world increases uptake of blockchain, it is imperative that higher education keep pace with these innovative advances
By Keith Rajecki, Vice President, Industry Strategy Group, Public Sector, Education, Research, Oracle
June 15th, 2022

As the world increases uptake of blockchain, it is imperative that higher education keep pace with these innovative advances

Higher education’s history of manual, paper-based processes has burdened many institutions with issues of security, fraud, and identity management, leaving industry IT leaders wondering: is there a better way? In fact, there is.

Blockchain hasn’t been much more than a buzzword in higher ed.  But as the validity of blockchain is proven in industries like banking, automotive, and healthcare, higher education needs to examine ways it could be used to improve its processes.

In a nutshell, a blockchain is a distributed database comprising chronological groups of data stored in “blocks,” with each block linked to the data of the last. It is secure because any tampering or changes in the chain can be easily detected, because the block’s cryptographic hash wouldn’t match.

For institutions entrusted with some of our most valuable information–transcripts, diplomas, and more–not only can blockchain ease verification, but it can also improve auditability, privacy, and information sharing.

Here are some key areas where blockchain has the potential to solve challenges and revolutionize higher education.

1. Secure Credentials

Perhaps the most prominent area where blockchain is being used in higher education is credentials.  Historically, credentials like transcripts or degrees require a manual verification process that can take weeks and is prone to human errors and even fraud.

Blockchain streamlines the process by making it easier to verify transcripts, degrees, and certifications digitally. Delhi University (DU), for example, awarded its 2022 graduates with digital degrees through “Samarth e-governance” software with blockchain technology developed by the university.

Colleges and universities can use blockchain to manage both their student credentialing process and their verification of certifications and degrees when hiring. As the issuing entity, producing tamper-proof credentials is easy: simply issue credentials to be approved by an authority. They can then be accessed by students/alumni and shared with interested groups like potential employers. To verify degrees and credentials, institutions can access the blockchain to verify accurate degrees from other educational institutions. China Distance Education Holdings Limited (CDEL), for example, uses blockchain to share educational records and professional certifications across many educational institutions to help employers and recruiters verify the educational credentials claimed by individuals.

When technical credentials are verified using the blockchain, they come with the “stamp of approval” from the issuing institution, making them more powerful than just a line on a resume. So, whether they are granting a credential or looking to verify a degree for hiring, blockchain offers an easier way to be sure all parties are getting accurate information.

2. Learning and Curriculum

Blockchain can positively impact the teaching process and curriculum development by “gamifying” learning to keep students engaged, which can be particularly important in this era of remote and hybrid learning.

One potential use case is to develop a process that awards non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as students reach milestones in a course.  These NFTs can be used to reward students’ academic progress and inspire competition among students as they work to collect tokens. Whereas class discussions and assignments drive students toward one-time mastery of a topic, gamified learning can encourage continuous learning and engage, challenge, and entertain students.

3. Grants

Grants require accurate record keeping, especially when they are so often awarded with the requirement that their use be limited to approved programs and activities. Universities are subject to audit by the grantor and need an easy way to show how dollars were spent.

Today, this process is a pain point for schools wading in manual paperwork and spreadsheets. With the blockchain’s distributed ledger, schools can easily track applications, approvals, funding requests and expenditures, all while minimizing manual processes and freeing up valuable time for staff, researchers and funders. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Health and Human Services (HHS) are among the federal agencies looking to solve the challenge of tracking multi-tiered grant awards and keep researchers from spending more than 40 percent of their time on administrative tasks.

4. Accreditation

This technology has the potential to improve other paper-heavy processes like accreditation, a long endeavor laden with complex processes and loads of documentation. This information must be produced, certified, shared, and tracked every three years in order for an institution to pass accreditation.  Without it, institutions can lose federal funding or grant awards and students can lose the value of their diploma. The administrative burden of this process is immense, but the results are critical to the success of the institution.  So, blockchain can be used to certify documents and information that must be shared with accrediting bodies. Institutions could conduct the process at a lower cost with a high rate of accuracy. 

5. Student finances

Blockchain can streamline and secure the payment of tuition and fees. A few institutions–including MIT and the Georgia Institute of Technology–have experimented with accepting Bitcoin in places like the campus store. Some schools have put together ways to tokenize their campus payment cards, which can reduce operational costs associated with money transfers. Blockchain can also be used to facilitate the purchase of tickets for school sporting and entertainment events.   

While we have yet to see many uses of blockchain in financial aid, there are several ways in which the technology could improve the process. Blockchain could aid in collecting and verifying students’ information to streamline applications and allow federal departments and schools to more easily identify need and issue aid.

We can easily see how blockchain has the potential to greatly enhance the student experience and streamline operations for higher education institutions. Students can have more control over their academic data, and schools can ensure their data is more secure and accessible in real-time. While implementing blockchain technology may seem daunting, there are solutions emerging that provide flexibility and agility, with no need for a dedicated team of “blockchain scientists.” As the world increases uptake of blockchain, it is imperative that higher education keep pace.

About the Author:

Keith Rajecki is the Vice President, Industry Strategy Group, Public Sector, Education, Research at Oracle.

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