Convenient, reliable – and under the learner’s control: from certificates and e-portfolios to personal learning ledgers

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This blog post is the second part of an informal series of articles in the TIB Blog about the potential of blockchains in research and education. In the first part, we explained how P2P file systems and blockchains are set to influence the future of scientific publishing and the Big Data challenges facing digital libraries. Today’s article addresses the issue of how Mozilla’s “Open Badges” have digitised and decentralised certificates in the domain of education, how this can be furthered more consistently using blockchains, and how Open Badges and e-portfolios are already integrated on the basis of blockchains.

Let’s talk blockchain for science!

If you fancy exchanging ideas about blockchains in research and education, one of the places you’ll find me is at the OERcamp Nord at Universität Hamburg on 23 and 24 June 2017 as well as at the 2017 Global Learning Council Summit in Berlin on 29 and 30 June 2017. You may also have several opportunities to encounter other members of the Blockchain for Science think-tank, initiated by Sönke Bartling, at other events. The topic now seems to have reached Germany after all. 

The more frequently and diversely people learn, the more cumbersome and outdated certificates become

Nowadays, infinite learning opportunities exist. The job market dictates that learning is not an end in itself – in fact, every course attended, every work placement completed, and even every conference attended ought to be verifiable in the form of a qualification containing information such as the content learned, the extent to which collaboration or shared learning was successful and, finally, who bears testimony to these achievements based on which standards. Certificates in the field of education range from Master’s degrees awarded by renowned domestic universities to participation in a brief online webinar offered by an unknown education provider abroad.

And yet it is easy to determine the crucial elements from the perspective of user-centred design: the ability to request and display certificates should be inexpensive, enabling them to be used flexibly for even the simplest of events. What’s more, the system would have to be convenient and reliable – particularly from the point of view of the learner, who must retain maximum control over his or her own certificates. However, today’s reality is a very different one: even renowned education certificates, including the Master’s degrees mentioned above, are difficult to incorporate into a digital job application dossier. Paper-based certificates continue to be the norm, and yet they are notoriously vulnerable to loss and damage. The MIT Media Lab emphasises how refugees find it hard to furnish proof of their qualifications and to have them recognised, one of the reasons why it has introduced digital blockchain-based certificates.

Open Badges make all the difference: the example of the “Open Library Badge”

One major step towards resolving this problem using contemporary web technology was taken back in 2011 by producers of web browsers such as Mozilla, which introduced Open Badges. It is quite easy for anyone to issue certificates using the Open Badges infrastructure.

Figure 1: Open Badge Anatomy classhack.com/post/45364649211/open-badge-anatomy-updated CC BY SA Kyle Bowen

One good example of the easy use of the Open Badge is its application to the informal initiative Open Library Badge. (Full disclosure: I was actively involved in this project during the founding stage in 2016.) Libraries can use this system to have their open working practices certified by completing an online questionnaire to apply for the badge. Volunteers from the initiative then assess whether the criteria have been met and issue badges accordingly. It is then completely up to the libraries to decide whether and how they – as the holders of the badge – want to include the symbol on their website.

As the above example of Open Library Badges shows, Open Badges ensure simplicity and control of the process – not only for the certifying body but also for the holder of the certificate. The badge awarded in this way can be used to prove with certainty to an outside party that the certificate was issued by X for Y to confirm that criteria Z have been met.

Figure 2: Using Open Badges to show the world your skills. Graphic by Emily Goligoski (@emgollie)

Open Badges: already feasible in Web 2.0 …

Central gatekeepers, which drive up the price of certificates and increase their vulnerability, are no longer needed when Open Badges are used. And yet to what extent has the technical implementation of this model been achieved? “Open Library Badges” are hosted on a private server, for example, and the Open Badges infrastructure used by the initiative runs on the servers of a service provider. In this case, the strengths of Web 2.0 are exploited in an exemplary manner – no organisational effort or financial expense is involved, interested volunteers managed with ease to put their idea into practice.

… but fragile and far from perfect

Nevertheless, this approach is very fragile. What if the web host or the badge service provider ceases to exist or if they stop working as planned? In other words: can certificate holders depend on their certificates remaining unchanged, with only them being in a position to control where and how they are used or published? Admittedly, the privacy aspect plays only a minor role in this example. Those seeking to obtain an Open Library Badge do so for the purpose of PR. However, this is by no means always the case concerning our initial topic – education certificates. (The MIT Media Lab report linked above also addresses this topic.)

One solution to this problem could be a distributed blockchain-based database for badges. Any information entered in such a distributed database can then never be deleted or changed. (In the previous blog post I explained how this works in greater detail.) The arrangement given in the successful Open Badge concept can be implemented even more consistently than before using blockchains: compartmentalised, convenient, reliable education certificates with no gatekeeper, under the full control of the learner.

Wave of experimentation starts rolling: from BadgeChain to Personal Learning Ledger

The scenarios described above may sound like science fiction, but a wave of experimentation started rolling in 2015. A wide range of educational institutions already offer blockchain-based education certificates. An overview is given by Audrey Watters and Doug Belshaw. Carla Casilli, Serge Ravet, W. Ian O’Byrne and colleagues talk of the „BadgeChain“. They also take up the concept of the e-portfolio – a digital learning ledger that enables a learner to record all kinds of digital products on which they have worked or collaborated, for the purpose of displaying them to third parties. Learning achievements recorded in Open Badges are often already linked to artefacts in the respective learner’s e-portfolio. A self-managed portfolio containing one’s work outcomes, linked to the – more or less formalised – recognition of these achievements by a third party would be an “OpenLedger” (Ravet 2015) or a “Personal Learning Ledger” (O’Byrne 2016). Ravet summarises the benefits of such ledgers as follows:

One of the main benefits with blockchains is a clear separation between data (stored in the blockchains) and the applications serving/exploiting the data. The blockchain contains all the data from the whole network, which is a radical difference with today’s Open Badge infrastructure where the data is fragmented across the various badge issuing platforms (hosting assertions) and various storage platforms (hosting badges) (…). Having the data in a blockchain frees innovation, the same way the opening of public data does: the blockchain is the solution to opening up personal data while keeping full control over its exploitation. The blockchain is an invitation to create new applications and services from the wealth of data they contain.

Figure 3: “Blockchain-based e-portfolios, feedback and accreditation.” From: Open BlockChain – The Open University. http://blockchain.open.ac.uk/

The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) may perhaps boast the most advanced implementation of an integrated system of blockchain-based Open Badges and e-portfolios (in this case, the Ethereum blockchain). According to KMi Director John Domingue (see also the video at the top of the linked website), the blockchain in this scenario intends to dispense with the need for an intermediary entity between the learner and the teaching institution, enhancing the university. The next step would be to ensure that other British educational institutions sign up to the model.

The potential offered by blockchains and P2P file systems in relation to Treloar’s Data Curation Continuum resembles the potential of a “Personal Learning Ledger” to a great extent. It is essential in both contexts to map a smooth transition from information objects from the researcher’s or learner’s private domain to the public domain. Also, it should be possible to easily add peer reviewed and curated collections (in the context of scientific publishing, digital archives and libraries) or grading and assessments (in the context of qualifications and teaching) in both cases using modular services.

Outlook: what next?

It is very clear from FirstPartner’s 2016 Blockchain Ecosystem Market Map that blockchains are mainly gaining in importance as an investment tool. After all, ISO has been driving the standardisation of the technical foundation since 2016. As early as 2015, a survey of experts by the World Economic Forum (WEF) identified the blockchain as a momentous concept for society. And yet no mention of the possible application of blockchains in education and research is made by FirstPartner, ISO or WEF. It seems that they are at an early stage of development.

The last “Hype Cycle for Education” published by the Gartner Group in October 2016 stated that the topic of the “blockchain in education” was at the earliest stage of the “innovation trigger”, i.e. at the very beginning of the cycle, predicting another five to ten years before it would be accepted by the mainstream. Whether the initiative will be taken further, and how, will also be discussed at the “International Open Recognition Day” in Bologna from 25 to 27 October 2017. One way of finding out how to truly drive this development is to look to the Netherlands, where a grand coalition of industry, NGOs and educational institutions hosted a major Dutch Blockchain Hackathon in February. (Thanks to Theo Mensen, Stichting ePortfolio Support, for bringing it to our attention!)

Update (13.6.2017)

After the writing of this article, I discovered Blockchain brings democratized education: A paradigm shift in learning, a recent article from Phaedra Boinodiris, IBM’s global lead for serious games and gamification at IBM. The article gives a quick and vivid explanation of IBM’s „skills hyperledger built on blockchain“. Highly recommended.

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