Transforming Education with Digital Credentials Powered with Blockchain

Transformation requires thought-leadership

Oral Roberts University (ORU) has been on the forefront of thought leadership in regards to Blockchain technologies for the past two years. ORU has hosted numerous national conferences, issued some of the first Blockchain certificates for education, and been invited to the Department of Education’s 2019 Blockchain Summit.

Even though numerous publications both inside and outside higher education have highlighted ORU as one of the visionaries and thought leaders, ORU is not enthralled with the technology.

In fact, Mike Mathews, VP for innovation and technology states,

The technology of bitcoin, Blockchain, and cryptocurrencies have created unneeded confusion and caused the true value of Blockchain for education to be lost.

ORU’s Provost Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez adds,

Why does the technology field insist on confusing the real value of transformation, by wrapping multiple buzzwords and technologies around a simple concept. Blockchain is truly a golden goose for education, while digital credentials are the golden eggs. Education has the potential of being transformed through digital credentials that are managed by Blockchain technologies.

Ironically, back in 2015 ORU’s Michael Mathews and Dr. Andrew Lang took up a technology challenge by the Whitehouse Office of Science and Technology and explained the simplicity of transforming the academic records across higher education into trusted digital credentials. Even though the submission was pre-Blockchain, the concept was the same golden egg mentioned by Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez.

The recommendation of digital credentials through a new education transport layer received the following reply by then U.S. Whitehouse Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Nick Sinai,

The White House Office of Science and Technology and Department of Education continues to challenge the public to get creative to solve some of the most difficult decisions in education. We appreciate the creative submission on meta-data schemas by thought leaders like Michael Mathews and Dr. Andrew Lang at the national level. It will be thought leaders like this that continue to help solve the future student success issues for future generations.

Whitehouse Deputy U.S. CTO, Nick Sinai and Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez were both right about the golden egg being digital credentials that could be transported, transferred, and trusted. However, none of us knew that Blockchain would become the Golden Goose capable of delivering digital credentials, just a few short years later. The genius behind connecting the golden goose to the digital credentials (golden eggs) was waiting for the bitcoin and cryptocurrency craze to disconnect from the simplicity found within Blockchain-based technologies.

As ORU continued to wait and stay true to the thought leadership pathway, small miracles began to happen through ORU’s national conferences on Blockchain. Hundreds of other visionaries came to the conferences and realized the concept of digital credentials with Blockchain technology made perfect sense. Two of these small miracles include Dallas County Community College Chief Innovation Officer, Tim Marshall, and Sharon Leu, Senior U.S. Policy Advisory for the U.S. Department of Education.

Tim Marshall and Sharon Leu were issued a Blockchain digital certificate for attending, which allowed them to realize that Blockchain made learning and earning intelligence (credentials) fluid, as well as immediate.  The net result was in July 2019 — Dallas County Community College became the first major college district to not only have digital credentials, but capable of applying them across K12, higher education and local Industries; and Sharon Leu initiated the 2019 U.S. Department of Education Blockchain Summit for K12 and Higher education. These two miracles alone, have paved the way for others to follow.

In addition to the small miracles mentioned above, the higher education space has now seen the first Blockchain University (Woolf University) through Oxford University, and MIT forming a consortium of nine universities who will design and run their own Blockchain consortium. Outside of education, Blockchain has been endorsed as the new supply chain for Walmart, Coke-Cola, FedEx, United health and hundreds of others who realize the simple value of Blockchain technology.

In reflection, the initial years of thought leadership with digital credentials powered by Blockchain mimicked the great words of George Bernard Shaw’s,

You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?

What did ORU see that caused them to remain thought leaders in digital credentials powered by Blockchain?

Oral Roberts University has a passion to educate the 195 nations of the world. Even though they have seen the growth from 85 nations to 114 nations during the last six years, they know that only 6% of the entire world populace has any form of post high school degree, diploma, or certificate. This small number is far from the 46.5% of U.S. citizens having a post high school degree, diploma, or certificate. This realization has motivated Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez to create a concept of ‘fluidity’ while levering Blockchain. She says very poignantly,

why can’t we imagine 90% of the world, obtaining some form of education, knowledge, or intelligence as we integrate all the technologies to deliver and assess hundreds of modalities of education.

ORU recognizes that we live in a fluid world, with fluid economies, fluid governments, fluid education systems, and fluid jobs. This means if ORU desires to meet the needs of fluid world, their education and technology needs to be nimble to flow with students.

We are all moving forward at a fast pace, and to just ‘do technology’ is the wrong approach. We have to creatively find ways to leverage technology that creates less confusion, ease of use, and makes studies more gratifying

says Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez.

ORU knows that to transform global education and technology into fluid modalities, it will require a trusted and fluid model for credentialing; thus the reason for digital credentials using Blockchain technology.

As a Provost and SVP for Academic Affairs, Kathaleen has the perfect smell and vision for solutions that will finally deliver fluidity in a personal and adaptive manner. Once she saw the ability of Blockchain to deliver at scale in a trusted and nimble manner — with global access and security — she knew they had finally hit pay dirt.

Added to the energy, enthusiasm, and global vision of Dr. Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, Mike brings his own perspective of thought leadership mixed with years of innovation.  Mike’s vision encompasses the vision of the Provost, but takes it from the realm of disruption for education, into transformation for humanity. Mike has already tested and proven that with digital credentials, every citizen around the world can own their own ‘personal value ledger’ that allows them to use augmented and virtual reality to take micro-bites out of their educational journey. With ORU’s new Blockchain platform, ORU is capable of letting anyone around the world leverage small pieces of intelligence and translate those into personal and adaptive learning experiences that begin to give hope to the 94% of the world who do not have any form of certified post high school experience. Without the ability to issue digital credentials in micro or macro fashion via the Blockchain, this dream could not be realized.

Mathews carries it one step further based on his years at Cray Research Supercomputer and SunGard Data Systems and says ‘Blockchain technology will allow the world to soon see an Education Vending Machine, whereby anyone with a computer, smartphone, tablet, or kiosk can insert their digital credit card or Apple Pay and personalize their own education journey. Thirty years ago, if you saw a Best Buy vending machine, it would seem out of place, but today it seems normal. It’s a great move, but currently it’s only about things. We are starting to see Blockchain universities leverage this same concept. Eventually, you will be able to order all your courses from a reputable college or university just like ordering products or services from a digital shopping cart or vending machine. Blockchain essentially is a digital vending machine, allowing people to shop and receive value from any organization around the world. The time has come where people can take education anywhere in the world, and match their personalities and interests to their career choice, and order it from a digital vending machine.

A model of education that comes close to a digital education vending machine will allow people to select various delivery models, learning objects, and the type of faculty they prefer. The reality is, whatever education organization can replicate the services of a Prime Amazon customer with the convenience of digital access, delivery, assessment, and credentials will dominate the global education space.

ORU’s Primer and Prediction on Digital Credentials with Blockchain

The potential and predictions of Blockchain is incredibly fun to watch due to its analogous of the Internet during the 1990s. In fact, in 1995, the inventor of the Ethernet protocol, Robert Metcalf stated “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”  As we all now realize, his prediction turned out quite the opposite.

The types of predictions by Metcalf and others hindered the initial impact and value of the Internet for education and learning for years to come. During these early years, I was a training manager at Cray Research and was just finishing up a Cray Research Supercomputer simulator that would change the way Cray Engineers were trained. It was an amazing breakthrough, yet we were wondering what the Internet would mean to reach engineers around the world. 25 years later the Internet has transformed most industries; while making a new way for many educational start-ups. Had we taken an early risk on the Internet and not listened to these type of predictions, we may have changed both corporate training and distance learning much quicker. At that time Cray Research was strategically engaged with many large universities known for their pioneering national distance learning programs. As strategic as we all thought we were, no one took the big leap to the Internet. Rather, educators were busy worrying if cell phones should be allowed in the classroom. Had we all been brave and taken the risk, the public university may have become the ‘uber’ of education.

The lesson learned from the Internet is very applicable to Blockchain due to the ‘neutral nature’ of both the Internet and Blockchain. If you observe technology trends, you will find there is a direct correlation to the longevity and transforming power of a technology based on how neutral it is perceived.  A prime example is the first web browser called Mosaic, which a short shelf-life; while the Internet thrives 25 years later. Over 52% of all internet-based products owned by companies have fizzled out, while the Internet itself has flourished. In the same manner the product called Blackberry has lost some sizzle, while the concept of the ‘smart phone’ has never been stronger.

We can easily classify the Internet as a neutral technology platform, as very few people understand who oversees the Internet; and no company owns it.  In the same manner, if I ask the question ‘who owns the book publishing technology that tracks the ISBN naming convention that leverages the MARC Code – many people would not know the neutral entity who oversees it. However, the ISBN platform and its underlying ‘trusted’ capability of checking in and out library books from around the world is one of the most phenomenal technologies over the past 40-years. The system is overseen by the U.S. Library of Congress and operates flawlessly with 700 fields of data behind each book bibliography. This ‘trusted’ system allows only one book, periodical, or journal to be stored in the same exact location — while tracking every book located within the digital globally interconnected library system. Never let the stereotype of a Librarian fool you, these folks are organized and smart.

The 25 year success of the Internet and 40 year success of the U.S. Library of Congress’ Marc Code system have been instrumental in increasing the amount of education, knowledge, and intelligence that has been packaged and disseminated around the world. However, as stated, many company products have fallen by the way-side. Human nature is prone to become biased towards product names and companies who own a technology product. However, very few people can become biased against the U.S. Library of Congress or the IEEE and nine other governing agencies who have overseen governance of the Internet.

This primitive and simple concept on neutrality is exactly why Blockchain technology is already transforming many industries without people understanding it. In fact there are 50 excellent use cases across industries delivering incredible value with Blockchain. These use cases benefit any organization who shares the ‘value’ of their product, money, or information within their partner ecosystems to improve their overall value. The aging concept of supply chain is now being morphed into a more supplicated and secure ‘chain of value’ operating within Blockchain technology.

Ironically, Blockchain entered the scene in a very neutral way, while bitcoin created all the noise, simply because it used an aspect of Blockchain. Bitcoin, cyber coins, and/or token concepts will come and go, just as the various forms of web browsers did. However, just as the Internet lives on, so will Blockchain. In fact, Blockchain may very well become the best of the Internet and IoT merged with the trust factor of the ISBN/MARC code concept. As history unveils, itself Blockchain will stand the test of time and become a form of a future generation of the Internet (i.e. Internet 4.0) without the need for cybersecurity.

With a positive prediction on Blockchain for future coupled with lessons learned from the Internet, Blockchain will become the single largest influencer on education. I have only gone on record of predicting two shifts in technology over a 5-10 year period of time, and both have come to pass now. This is my third prediction, with the greatest potential for transformation. The other two can be read in an article written by eCampus News.

My prediction is simply that the United States will lead in Education versus being ranked number 16, if Blockchain is adopted. This is an easy prediction as the U.S. Education is ranked low due to the processes that lead students up to, thru, and around education. To the credit of faculty, the academic content is exceptional. It is the clumsy, laborious, and painstaking processes that make education ranked so low. Blockchain will eventually solve the broken processes by finally putting them in a secure ‘value chain’. Imagine a day when no one is decrying ‘FERPA’ or nonsensical acronyms that prevent people from progressing into, thru, and at times around education to receive their personal value known as competencies and credentials, in order to get the best paying job they deserve.

Some may suggest that I have stepped out a little too far with this prediction. However, the true innovator and inventor would say that I am taking no risk at all. They would say this once they found out that the first Blockchain University created by Oxford University proves and validates Mike’s prediction. Woolf University will fully digitize all the broken processes that I referenced. They have documented their case studies to describe how this will happen. The end result will be analogous to a digital Best Buy vending machine at the Airport.  A piece to the puzzle is that few 6th graders do not wake up one morning and naturally say “Mommy and daddy, when I grow up I want to be a College Registrar, Financial Aid Director, Bursar, etc.” Added to this reality is that few, if any, colleges offer certificates or degrees for any college/university process-based jobs. This means most of the higher education processes are simply running of scripted language that was developed 30-years ago by the student information system vendors.  Until these process jobs become streamlined, the U.S. Education will continue to function off outdated and broken processes. The good news (golden goose) has arrived, and It is wrapped up in the neutral technology called Blockchain.  At the same time, Amazon has been designing Blockchain templates to reduce all the processes to allow educational decisions to become as easy as ordering and receiving Amazon products. This will happen when the education systems are completed transformed to the Cloud, or should I say vending machine.

The Major Shift for Education Supply Chain VS. Student Life Cycle

The reason companies jump on Blockchain quicker, is simply because they generally have very direct needs to leverage better connectivity and personalized computing to stay connected and competitive in the marketplace.  For over two decades, companies have had a need for supply-chain systems. In 2016 and beyond these same companies envision Blockchain as the next generation of being connected and competitive. In essence, the next ‘chain’ to connect people in a secure fashion is the Blockchain, as it increases reach, security, and trust in digital transactions. For this very reason FedEx, IBM, Walmart, United Health, Coca-Cola, and hundreds of more companies have embraced Blockchain as their next breakthrough to be connected and competitive.

As a simple example, Walmart has opted to force all vendors who provide produce to Walmart to be on their Blockchain by September, 2019. The reason is simple, they desire every consumer to scan the bar code on the produce in their kitchen to identify the exact farm the produce came from, and be aware if there are any recalls on that produce. In essence, Walmart is personalizing the supply-chain with Blockchain to speed up information to your home; with immediate and timely information.  Walmart is providing a ‘distributed-ledger’ of accountability between farmers and every consumer who purchases from them.

The one change that education missed over the past 20-years was the adoption of a supply-chain. Very few education entities saw the need to connect students before and after the journey through their college or university. Most saw themselves as a stand-alone entity that only needed to be concerned with the Student Life Cycle within the institution. This approach caused the number one document (Transcript) that students paid for to become an ongoing stumbling block.

The transcript, which represents the credentials, grades, and degree that they invested in, and earned to be held up by the Student Information System (SIS) and each individual institution. When students desire a copy of their transcript, they cannot easily make it transportable to their prospective employers or other educational institution. For the 75% of all students who attended more than one college, the problem gets magnified. In a supply-chain model, this issue would have been solved — as the SIS vendors would have seen a broader view of the student’s needs that extend beyond the student life cycle.

Blockchain, may solve the two largest challenges for education

Blockchain will drive the future of education much like the IPod started driving the shift in the music industry. It is important to note that there will be a few generations of Blockchain just as the iPod morphed into a few devices including the smart phone as the music industry changed. Oxford’s Woolf University is the first university to put a line-in-the-sand and claim that the shift in the education industry with Blockchain is underway. This video on Blockchain and the Best-Buy Vending Machine will help show how this is all plausible in 2019 and beyond. Just as importantly, it will show why MOOCs and other online models could never break-open the new education paradigm.

Just as the smartphone eventually became a vital device for students on campus, Blockchain will become the number one transformation in education. The hindrance to full adoption of Blockchain technology in education will be based on the following two issues that will eventually be overcome.

  1. SIS and LMS companies have designed their system around the theory of ‘student-life’ cycle versus the theory of a supply-chain.
  2. SIS and LMS platforms are priced on a per student basis making it unaffordable and difficult to extend access to the system(s) to everyone in the supply-chain.

Just like the iPod, IPad, and smartphone finally broke apart the music industry, Blockchain technologies will eventually break-apart the systems we have been using. The ability to put purchased data such as music in the hands of users eventually changed the systems and devices that were once needed. The whole music industry shifted the way songs were purchased and delivered once the supply-chain was created to accommodate the devices.

The global workface with the ability to integrate systems and people across society will eventually mandate that SIS and LMS companies consider how to connect students beyond the student life-cycle, within the college or university. To prove this point, every college or university that has desired to offer supply-chain style connectedness with their data has found it extremely difficult to integrate back to the SIS and LMS systems. The data that would be nice to integrate includes K12 transcript data, workforce data, NCAA data for athletes, veteran-related data, alumni data, grant data, donor data, pre-credentials, benchmark data, regulatory data, federal and state data, assessment data, accreditation data, vendor comparison data, student success data, post-graduation employment data, etc.

All these non-integrated types of data in a normal business would be included in a supply-chain style eco-system that allows transportable data between all the organizations. Blockchain provides a fresh start to bypass the first generation of supply-chain ecosystems. Oxford’s Woolf University has proven this theory and started the first Blockchain University. Central New Mexico Community College has become the first Blockchain-based community college to issue all certificates, diplomas, and degrees via Blockcerts; the open standard for Blockchain certifications (transcripts) by Learning Machine Systems.

The Blockchain movement has progressed to Canada, where a mere mention of the value of Blockchain to Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s President, David Ross, CIO, Dan Duffy and Registrar Neera Arora, caused them to become the first Blockchain issuing higher education institute in Canada. The value statement is simple for any CIO, Registrar and President who desires to help students possess the information and data that they are investing in — in a secure fashion.

President Ross stated,

At SAIT we are thought leaders and this is a strong example of how we’re increasing our value proposition for graduates and employers. This is only the beginning as we continue to put the potential of Blockchain technology into practice.

There are two huge pay-offs with Blockchain in education. The first one is obviously the transcript and credential processing being delivered directly to the smartphone via a three-way matching identification in Blockchain. This is already happening at numerous institutions, and IBM is issuing a million Blockchain-based educational certificates annually, which are being passed to their higher educational partners. The second and largest payback will be when the SIS and LMS systems are put in the AWS Cloud. Once they are in the AWS cloud, major components classified under ‘order processing’ can be replaced with a pre-built Amazon Blockchain template. AWS has many predefined Blockchain templates to accommodate order processing. These templates will streamline areas such as admissions processing, articulation decision-making, degree pathway processing, and help-desk service functions.

A Blockchain template is simply the process of automating the decision-making process that is documented in the distributed-ledger that executes the functionalities on campus that are routine and/or mundane. In essence, many of the old SIS functions that took days to process due to the many manual decisions and validation tables will be replaced by Blockchain templates. The payback will be the ability to treat students as ‘Prime students’ in much the same way that Amazon treats its clients as Prime Customers. One could imagine that with enough Blockchain templates and Amazon’s expertise in systems, data, and order fulfillment that the elimination of an SIS and LMS system may be around the corner.