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The usage of dlt in education

The usage of DLT in education

As the pace of technological development quickens the need for all of us to remain life long

learners increases. Therefore we need new ways to recognise and organise a broad range of

achievements in order to help us advance towards our goals. With the emergence of distributed

ledger technology the interest in digital academic credentials has made a huge leap forward. The

under lying infrastructure used by crypto currencies gave new ways to share and verify

credentials potentially offering the missing pieces for a decentralised digital credential ecosystem.

Currently the education system is based on a centralised governance where all educational

certificates are stored on data servers and the educational institution is the ultimate owner. The

present system of record keeping has not kept up with the immense technological progress of the

last three decades with the consequence that managing credentials has become slow”,

complicated and relatively unreliable and therefore bringing in lots of challenges. Financially, the

academic institutions need a lot of investment in IT to store credentials and to keep up to date

with new emerging technologies and let’s not forget the heavy paper documentation which is still

present across governmental, church and private schools. The education system imposes many

conditions of access like charging fees for verification of data, loss of certificates and

administration fees with respect to late applications of examinations, etc. If you loose your

certificate you will have to reapply for a new certificate waiting for days to be reissued and as a

result running the risk of loosing a golden job opportunity. Also data can be lost through disasters

such as a war, earthquake or a fire in the premises. As an example, Imagine that you have been

studying hard and have finally graduated in a masters of ICT. Suddenly a war broke off in your

country with both your house and the university that you’ve been attending to have been

destroyed by the bombs and fire. You migrated to another safe country but both your certificate

at home and the university’s database have been destroyed and therefore you have nothing to

show to the employer as a proof that you have a degree with the consequence that you can’t find

a job in your expertise. With a centralised database, personal data could be used by institutions

in an unauthorised manner or data can be internally manipulated either by staff who have access

to the database and can change the grades or by students compromising the database leading to

fraud damages to the entire ecosystem. Also, since digital data is only available through the

institutional systems it bringing lots of red tape and wasting a lot of time to go to the institution

and being passed through various channels to reissue a certificate. Ultimately the institution has

the sovereignty of preventing access to students over their metrics leading to disputes over

ownership of intellectual property.

Rather than having to rely on institutions to provide the official records, a decentralised system

provides a new technical infrastructure where records can be shared peer-to-peer and verified as

authentic on a blockchain system. Without going too much in deep, blockchain is a public

decentralised ledger whereby through a network of participants of which each has a computer

(also known as a node), each member will simultaneously have an identical copy of the database

at any moment in time on their computer. As data is read or written on the database, the correct

cryptographic keys are needed to complete the transaction. The public key is the address and

database where the information is stored and can be accessed by anyone. The private key will be

the user’s unique personal key preventing other people from changing or updating the information

on the wallet’s database. The database is updated when the correct credentials are applied

(private and public keys together). Data is then encrypted, validated and distributed to a

multitude of computers across the network by storing a complete copy of the full ledger which

includes all owners, their accounts and the corresponding balance on each computer, thus

making the technology immutable, impossible to loose data from and secured against somebody

who tries to corrupt or hack the database. There are different types of blockchains making part of

the distributed ledger technology. Bitcoin cryptocurrency is one type and transactions are

cryptographically validated using proof of work. Ethereum tokens is another type of blockchain

using smart contracts and the transactions are cryptographically validated using proof of stake.

Other blockchains either follow suite or use other proofs for validation.

Blockchain technology is forecasted 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 include the award of qualifications, licensing and accreditation, management of

student records, intellectual property management and payments. The proper usage of a

blockchain as a decentralised verification network will make the digital records more trustworthy

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and instantly verifiable anywhere in the world creating a reliable certification mechanism. It also

provides identity verification of both issuer and recipient. The document will be more secure

since the blockchain makes them tamperproof and therefore will protect the institution against

fraud and misrepresentation. Documents can never be lost again or destroyed since both parties

will have the exact same copy readily available on the blockchain. Learners gain control and

ownership of all their education data, their accreditation and portfolios of work in a secure place

and accessible to anyone who needs to verify them, for their entire life time. Documents can

easily be shareable with anybody thus creating a global accredited identity.

Malta is one of the first countries to deploy blockchain in education. In September 2017 the

ministry of education has signed an MOU with the Learning Machine a company based in the U.S

to use its decentralised digital credential platform over Blockcerts. The agreement binds an initial

pilot project with MCAST, NCFHE and ITS. By the end of 2018 the ITS students were the first

Maltese students to receive their digital certificates on a blockchain giving them full ownership.

The pilots will be monitored by the government due to their importance beyond education such as

eGovernment services like Identity Malta which issues certificates of birth, marriage, death, ID

cards, etc. This would provide proof of concept putting Malta as a role model in inspiring other

countries to adopt similar programs. Anchoring records to the blockchain will provide the most

advanced form of digital document security which is forecasted to be widespread by 2020.

The Learning Machine issuing system allows the institution to design their credentials, import

recipient data and issue batches of certificates. The system can also act as a governance tool

that lets large institutions to centralise there credentialing operation across multiple organisations

under one federated account. Blockcerts can anchor to any blockchain and recipients don’t need

to buy tokens or join a proprietary network to receive, view and verify their records. Employers”,

governments and schools can instantly verify whether a Blockcert is authentic by clicking a

button or scanning its QR code. Also there are no fees to be paid to the issuing institutions or

software vendors to store and verify documents. The private portfolio can be managed through a

free open source mobile app called the Blockcerts Wallet which works on both android or IOS

mobile devices. The wallet stores, shares and verifies credentials from any institution that issues

blockcerts even if they don’t come from the Learning Machine.

Using this distributed ledger technology in education will bring up a number of tangible benefits to

institutions and new opportunities to learners, teachers, workers, employers and policy makers.

Learners will have joint ownership of credentials because once an education institution issues a

certificate on the blockchain, the certificate becomes jointly owned by the issuing institution and

the learner. The learner will gain self sovereignty in that he or she will no longer need the

permission of the issuing institution to share the certificate with third parties. Therefore this will

enhance the facility to quickly find a job opportunity. For example, an I Gaming certificate once

anchored to the blockchain can be shared with a gaming recruiting agency like Pentasia whom

after verification will ask for a short interview to built a portfolio about the job seeker. The

agency will contact him or her as soon as a job position that suits him or her will come out.

Blockchain provides transparency on the origin of a certificate. Therefore upon applying for a job

the employer can instantly check its authenticity by knowing if the provided certificate was issued

to the person who’s presenting it as well as whether the awarding body is authorised to issue it.

About privacy and protection of identity, learners can protect their identity and choose to share

elements of it depending on who they want to share it with. Also, one can share all or part of

personal data in return for access to services without the need of an intermediary to validate such

data or identity. Therefore, blockchain does not just provide a new way of digitising bits of paper

which have an intrinsic value like our credentials but it also provides the means to take control of

our identity online and manage it appropriately. Blockchain certification offers more flexibility

since it can be applied to a variety of learner certificates including diplomas, transcripts and

certificates at all levels of education bringing recognition of informal and non formal learning with

formal learning. Securing certificates and credentials to a blockchain will be future proof and

provides scalability because the certificates accumulated from primary school onwards will be

retained as proof of skills and knowledge in the future.

Since blockchain is trust-less by way of decentralisation, the technology can protect the awarding

bodies from future fraud and tampering of certificates. Once the certificate is on the blockchain”,

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the training institution won’t be involved in future queries pertaining to certificate copies”,

transcripts, etc. This means lots of savings concerning institution administration costs. MCAST”,

ITS and NCFHE will benefit a new form of marketing and analytics that arise from the sharing of

the blockcerts.

Blockchain may lead to the design of new models of higher education being delivered through

various channels such as virtual universities and plug and play models like accumulating credits

whilst working or during apprenticeship. As an example the University of Malta Centre of Liberal

Arts and Sciences delivers short term part-time courses which if accumulated can lead to a full

degree. Specialised courses on digital innovation, artificial intelligence and smart contract

programming are starting to be offered in both universities and private institutions. This could be

helpful for new emerging jobs in relation to DLT. In the U.S the demand for blockchain engineers

has increased by 400 per cent and salaries sky rocketed to an average of $150K per year. The

demand went up so high since big companies like Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft started

to work on projects that make use of this technology and currently not many programmers are

experts in this field. Some developers were quick to respond by attending to blockchain summits

around the world in an attempt to acquire a permanent job by showing off their skills. In October

and November of 2018, Malta hosted the Delta Summit and the Malta Blockchain Summit which

is a sort of blockchain trade fair hosting blockchain companies promoting their platforms and

projects, interesting talks by blockchain evangelists, strategists and governmental entities, and

last but not least a hackathon. This is an event in which software developers and other subject-

matter experts collaborate intensively to create a functioning platform by end of the summit. This

event which was powered by Crypto-Friends drew a lot of attention from blockchain developers

and students alike and participants were supplied with the necessary resources and were

grouped in teams to develop a decentralised application. The teams that managed to create a

dApp that satisfied the panel of judges were awarded Bitcoins the equivalent of €50″,000 split

between three winning teams and besides this the developers had the possibility to be hired on a

contractual job.

For those skilled learners or workers who are more dependent on their hands on expertise or DIY

projects rather than the certificate itself, records of expertise such as video clips showing proof of

work on customised projects or client’s testimonials concerning the quality of work can be

attached to a digital certificate. This could really be a more efficient and wide spread

advertisement for self employed like tilers, fitters, handymen, mechanics and so forth who

currently rely their reputation by positive communication through word of mouth.

Teachers can start doing custom teaching to each student, one to one teaching from the

commodity of home or teaching an open class online to students from the opposite hemisphere

thereby creating new models of learning. Smart contracts can be used for the execution of

teacher-student transactions to validate attendance or absence in classes or lectures, assignment

or project completion. This technique can also be used by employers to employee transactions

like in-house training, yearly achievements and performance appraisals.

Tokenization in private or church schools can make sense since issuing utility tokens through an

ICO to school members and parents could fund projects for expansion like building new blocks or

buying new equipment. As an incentive, air drops with free tokens could be sent by email from

time to time like for example in Christmas as an encouragement to join the network. Eventually

token holders would benefit from voting rights, buying or selling second hand workbooks or

uniforms, effect payments for pupil outings or send donations by utilising the tokens.

Like all other technologies, decentralisation since it is an innovative technology and still in mature

state brings its own challenges. Teaching blockchain in educational institutions requires many

lecturers holding different expertise in various fields in relation to DLT. This is being tackled by

inserting new specialised academic courses offered by various educational institutions. In Oct’18

the University of Malta Centre of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) and through the newly opened

centre of DLT launched a short term part-time course named introduction to Blockchain directed

to people who have a basic in marketing, finance, gaming, economics and other sectors in which

blockchain could be embraced. Moreover in the beginning of 2019 will launch a Masters in

Blockchain. With regard to digital certificates, for the time being not many credentials have been

digitised globally and there is no aggregation of credential data. This could be due to the fact that

not all the countries are ready to embrace such technology. In fact many of the big countries are

keeping a step back by waiting and observing other small countries like Estonia, Gibiltrar and

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Malta who currently are amongst the trail blazers in digital innovation and DLT because being

small countries they have little or nothing to loose. Last May 2018 Malta took a step ahead by

launching 3 bills of which are the Innovative Technology & Services act, the establishment of the

Malta Digital Innovation Authority and the VFA act through MFSA to regularise both crypto

currencies and virtual financial assets.

There are other more important challenges concerning blockchain in education. The loss of

private key could have the e-wallet locked forever without accessing the digital credentials.

Therefore it could be wise that two persons know the key.

Since the rate of blockchain transactions validation is preset in minutes ( for example Bitcoin hash

rating per minute is set to10 minutes), the transaction speed is by far lower when compared to a

Visa which transacts thousands of transactions every second. Luckily this does not affect a

storage credential platform since operations are not time critical.

An anomaly that is rare but represents one of the biggest treats is a 51% attack. If for example a

central educational authority issues utility tokens through an ICO for internal funding projects”,

there could be the remote possibility that somebody would have the majority of the tokens. If one

person possesses at least 51% of the issued tokens, he could automatically control any vote that

will take place whereby he could also manipulate or falsify digital certificates fundamentally

damaging the usefulness of the digital ledger system and people’s trust in it. This attack can be

overcome by anchoring the certificates to a system that is not token dependant like for example

Blockcerts Learning Machine.

Also last year has been memorable for lots hacks, cyber attacks, ransomware and malware on

crypto currency exchanges thereby giving a bad reputation to blockchain and keeping businesses

wary of whether they should embed this innovative technology as part of their business strategy.

Crypto currency exchanges located in South Korea suffered the most cyber attacks claiming their

neighbouring country North Korea responsible for many of those attacks in order to fund the

communist state after heavy sanctions were imposed by the US and EU.

One big challenge could be the General Data Protection Act which is designed to protect data of

citizens living in EU. GDPR mandates individuals to have access and control over the use of their

data by editing or deleting parts of it. Blockchain on the other hand is built on a foundation of

immutability to secure data on a distributed ledger. It is a direct clash of functions but ultimately

both are seeking security with respect to data controllers, data processors and sub-processors

whereby under GDPR are held to high standards and with blockchain the encryption and

decentralised structure makes the network temper resistant. Ultimately the relationship between

blockchain and GDPR can work because the end goal is the same, but it is how do companies

that are embracing blockchain go about complying and how GDPR is interpreted. For example in

schools the data protection officer acting as data controller should state what personal data is

collected and inputted on a platform and give reasons.

Nowadays as time goes by, blockchain has been evolving to become more trustworthy and

secure from one generation to the other and many countries and companies are finally outgrowing

their fear of blockchain. Blockchain is now appearing in nation’s strategies and is making part of

the agenda of think-tank sessions. Separating cryptocurrency from blockchain is a progressive

sign of maturity. Last year the EU parliament stressed out some important points on building trust

with disintermediation. Of these are the DLT potential in academic qualifications, credentials and

certification, the need to establish non profit making entities specialising in DLT to perform

educational functions and the introduction of curricula in both university and possibly secondary

level in member states through targeted training and education. Also the parliament stressed out

the point that lack of knowledge on DLT inhibits the usage of DLT in businesses and overall life.

All the member states should explore the possibilities to create an EU wide scalable and

interoperable network making use of DLT to share data through member states. So far, Malta

alongside six other countries have signed an agreement to help promote the use and benefits of

distributed ledger technology and are expected to be at the forefront of its growth and

development. To this end, those seven countries have made a commitment to create and

disseminate information as well as educate their citizens on the technology’s benefits and

potential. Further on, this year those countries will start to meet periodically to review their

progress reports, share best practices and explore the possibilities of bilateral or multilateral

blockchain projects.

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