How to use blockchain in K-12 education

The technology is helping schools move from traditional, linear student transcripts to cumulative-skill chains
Wendy Oliver is a consultant with Partners for Digital Learning and is a featured speaker for DA's FETC 2020.
Wendy Oliver is a consultant with Partners for Digital Learning and was a featured speaker for DA’s FETC.

How many times have you heard about 21st-century global education or preparing students for college and career? The truth is that while we have made progress in disrupting the industrial model of education, we have not overcome the traditional, linear model. Yet in our personal lives and professions, we live in and depend on a globalized world that is connected and interdependent.  

For years, we have taught our students about economies of scale in senior economics classes. As technology expands, geographic divisions become smaller. And our globalized economy is reducing cultural and educational divisions. All of this creates more opportunities for employers to gain access to competitive employees.

We can see how geographic and cultural barriers are diminishing as a result of technology—through something as simple as ordering goods online. Have you ordered a product online after reading the reviews, and it came from China or another country? Are all of the parts in your vehicle made in the same country? Have you rented a car at an airport by talking to an agent in a different location via phone or screen, rather than in person? 

From linear transcript to cumulative-skill chain

In American high schools, student transcripts still comprise numerical grades for classes such as English 10, geometry, economics and biology—all of which are taught in isolation, with semester grades awarded for cumulative work. Given the shifts in the job market and expectations in industry, do employers ever ask for a copy of a transcript? No. Employers are looking for 21st-century skills, which do not appear there. The traditional, linear transcript is irrelevant for the 21st-century global workforce.

The traditional, linear transcript is irrelevant for the 21st-century global workforce.

So how do we accurately represent the global learner’s cumulative skills and accomplishments as well as industry certifications and job shadowing experiences in a way that will be portable throughout multiple employment and/or academic opportunities? How can we offer and document education in the way students learn—where, much like data, everything is interconnected?

That’s where blockchain comes in. 

Read: K-12 schools get ready for action with ed tech—and blockchain

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is a technology or database that allows people to share information through an open but verifiable and controlled system. What makes this technology unique is that the information being shared is on a decentralized network. Let me explain. When I print something from my computer at home, my computer is the centralized point of control. If you have computers “talking” to a server at the central office, then the server is the centralized point of control. With decentralization, data connects to different points, such as multiple servers, without having to go through any one mandatory point. For example, attendance information, academic data, library data, 21st-century skills, industry credentials verified by third parties, and assessment data can all live in one chain to provide the full profile of a student.

Because a snapshot of data is posted to multiple ledgers on the blockchain network, it is secure. That’s why banks use blockchain technology for financial records.

Why blockchain?

It is important to remember that blockchain is simply the technology that allows you to create a learner-centric digital architecture. 

There are two critical components:

  1. Once an agency—a school or industry partner for career and technical education—verifies or confirms data and releases it to a student’s profile, called a “wallet” on the blockchain, the student owns the data. There are no vendors involved after this. 
  2. Students control their data and decide with whom they will share it. They are not dependent on a school to send a transcript or a test score. Students have the verified documentation in a blockchain ledger, which means the documentation is secure (immutable) and cannot be modified. The students own their data records. The records are published on a public ledger and can be found on the internet.

Taking advantage of blockchain technology in schools creates student agency by giving students complete ownership of their own data. While blockchain is already being used in the healthcare and finance industries, its implementation will be a sea change for K-12 education.

It is important that we prepare students for the future workplace. To empower this generation—which will be made up of more contract workers, who will hold more jobs throughout their careers, than any other previous generation—we must not be afraid of change. And we must provide learners with their own data to successfully make this transition. 

Wendy Oliver is a consultant with Partners for Digital Learning and was a featured speaker for DAs FETC.

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