What does blockchain mean for learning?

by Ger Driesen
17 October 2017

It seems that blockchain technology is presented as the ‘new magic technology’ in many areas today. But, what does it mean for learning? Let’s find out.

Finding answers at the Blockchain in Education conference

Some say that blockchain will cause a revolution that is comparable with the introduction of the Internet. Exciting stories around the best-known blockchain application, ‘Bitcoin’, support the hype. I’m always interested to explore what the influence of a new, disruptive technology might be on learning. And so, I joined the ‘Blockchain in Education’ conference in early September 2017 at the University of Groningen, where 250 professionals, representing different educational organisations, gathered to explore the topic.

Event image blockchain in education

What is blockchain technology?

Let’s start with the introduction of the concept of blockchain technology. Often, it’s described as ‘the trust protocol’ that makes transactions of ‘value’ (money, ownership of goods or land, diplomas) possible, without any middlemen such as banks or governments. It is a big database, a hyper ledger, which is decentralised and open, so it can be viewed by everybody. It sits not on one computer but on many, many computers around the world at the same time, so nobody ‘owns’ it. If you want to hack it, you need to hack the majority of all these computers at the same time. This, together with cryptography, makes it a very secure system.

The video below explains the blockchain briefly.

Blockchain and credentials

Now that we understand the central idea of blockchain technology, the question is how education might benefit from these new possibilities. The most obvious application is related to credentials, diplomas and certificates. The main advantages are:

  • Diplomas and certificates are secure and traceable on the blockchain. If an issuing institution loses her files or the institution no longer exists because of a merger, bankruptcy, fire, a catastrophe, war or any other reason, the information is still available on the blockchain. Think of the recent stream of refugees from the Middle East entering Europe. In many cases, it’s hard to get clear information of the refugee’s formal qualifications, thus, hindering integration in their new situation and landing them in jobs that do not suit their level of knowledge and experience.
  • To prevent cheating, Speaker Natalie Smolenski explained that in the US, many people create and use fake certificates. The traceability and security of the blockchain makes it easier to check the origin and status of certifications.
  • Ownership of diplomas and certificates. Today, if you lose your paper diploma, you have to go back to the issuing organisation to try to get a new one. They own the information underlying your diploma or certification – at least, you hope so. With blockchain technology, institutions can hand over that information to you in a transparent and safe way. When it’s you who owns the data of your diplomas and certificates, you can create your own portfolio and share as much as you like with relevant other parties. Third parties can verify the authenticity via the blockchain.

Today’s blockchain examples from educators

MIT delivered the first credentials via blockchain this summer and the Government of Malta launched a project for their educational system recently. The Open University of the UK is experimenting with ‘open badges’ as credentials. These are focussed on soft skills and can be earned in a ‘peer-to-peer’ way: the peers you work with during assignments can give you credentials for the soft skills that you applied during teamwork.
There is technology (software) involved to make these blockchain applications work (issue credentials by an institution and receive and safely store credentials in a ‘wallet’ by recipients). To prevent ‘vendor lock in’, an open-source app called ‘Blockcerts’ was developed. As Blockcerts explains on her website: ‘Blockcerts is an open standard for building apps that issue and verify blockchain-based official records. These may include certificates for civic records, academic credentials, professional licenses, workforce development, and more’.

Blockchain and learner experience

Along with my professional colleague, Wilfred Rubens, I was on a quest to find ideas, examples, experiments or clues on how the blockchain can support learner experience in new ways. We asked about that during different sessions at the event. Let me explain the idea behind it.

During the early days, the Internet was a rather ‘dull’ experience: scientists sending messages and sharing data from their research. Important but not very attractive for a large audience. In those days, no one could see the exciting implications of what the Internet became: a global online library, a global online marketplace and an unbelievable global repository of learning opportunities. If the blockchain will cause a revolution comparable with the introduction of the Internet, it must bring exciting new possibilities for learning technology applications and learner experience. I don’t see them yet, and as far as we could figure out, no one at the conference sees them yet. That might come across as disappointing – and for a part, it is. But it also hold some excitement because ‘the golden treasure’ hasn’t been found yet, and we all have the opportunity to be the one who finds it, first.

Blockchain applications for educators are in their infancy

Blockchain applications in their infancy

Besides the excitement and the hype, some concerns were also raised during the day. The most common one was on the privacy and security of personal data. The blockchain concept is smart when it comes to security but smartness and computer power are also increasing at ‘the bad guys’ side’. The other concern is about the energy consumption of the blockchain technology: the Bitcoin system uses as much electrical power as the whole country of Denmark! At the end of the day, the message that Andreia Inamorato dos Santos, Researcher at the Joint Research Centre of the EU, conveyed during her morning session pretty much said it all: blockchain applications for education are still in their infancy. She announced an EU report that will be out towards the end of 2017. The main conclusion in the report and of the sessions during the day shows that the phase we are in is very much about creating awareness.

I hope with this post, I did a little bit of just that.


Ger Driesen

Ger Driesen, Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring
Think of connecting people, ideas and inspiration in the global L&D community and you’ve just created the perfect description of Ger Driesen. In his role as Learning Innovation Leader at aNewSpring he focuses on motivating and guiding professionals to build inspiring learning journeys. During his career he has had a variety of L&D roles, from consultant, trainer and facilitator, to L&D manager and entrepreneur. He’s also known as ‘the Dutch L&D trendcatcher’. Keep up with Ger on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Ger Driesen
Learning Innovation Leader