by Evan Sixtin
Malta's Ministry for Education and Employment (MEDE) is working with Learning Machine Group (LMG) to put University degrees and earned credentials on the Bitcoin blockchain using the Blockcerts open standard. The government of Malta issued a press release on January 24 stating that MEDE has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with LMG, signalling the intention of both parties to develop and implement a Malta pilot of LMG’s nation-state technology platform. This agreement coincided with "The State of Digital Education: Engaging with Connected, Blended, and Open Learning" conference which was recently held in Balzan, Malta.
Blockcerts Begins to Make its Mark
Blockchain tech is exploding in multiple industries and institutions which have been hitherto restricted by legacy systems and inefficient procedures. In the area of education, it is initially being adopted as a means to restructure how proof of academic and professional achievements are created, issued, viewed, and verified. This breakthrough was made possible through the work of the MIT Media Lab headed by Philipp Schmidt and Learning Machine, a privately held company. Blockcerts is an OBI-compliant decentralized credentialing system released in October of 2016. With Blockcerts, diplomas, transcripts, certifications, awards, and memberships can be accessed and verified instantly for streamlining and simplifying job applications, university transfers, immigration, and many other purposes.
Dr. Dan Hughes, Co-Founder and COO of Learning Machine, describes the most important reasons why we need Blockcerts, "Collecting and validating test scores, transcripts, diplomas, and other official documents was, and remains, a messy and pain-filled experience."
"The loss of time and money in the document request and verification process often translates into missed opportunities-to the detriment of educational institutions, employers, and the wider societies they function in. Also, the tragedy of the Syria conflict, which has produced the largest refugee flows the world has seen since World War II, further emphasized to us the need for learners to be able to take proof of learning with them-proof that remains verifiable even if the educational institutions or governments which issued the credentials cease to function."
As opposed to the traditional system where the registrar holds and controls graduates' credentials and transcripts, and the graduate must request copies every time they are needed, the person who has achieved a Blockcert for a certain achievement will own and control his/her own certificates, they are learner-owned certificates. The certificates will live on the Bitcoin blockchain but can be organized and viewed in a mobile app on your smartphone. Let's take a look, briefly, at how someone would receive a blockchain credential:
1) After program registration, an email invitation is sent to the student (learner) by the university (issuer) which allows the learner to download Learning Machine's mobile app and contains a token which automatically adds the issuer to the app and sends the learner's public key to the issuer.
2) After the credential is achieved, the issuer uses Learning Machine's software to create and issue a certificate, which can be designed to look just like a traditional diploma, and sends it to the learner's public key. At issuance, the software uses www.blockchain.info's API to cryptographically sign each certificate with the private key of the university or organization issuing the credential.
Once a credential is issued, it is permanent, and it cannot be edited or deleted, however there is a method for the issuer to revoke a certificate. After confirmation on the blockchain, the credential becomes available for display and verification instantly and globally. All your official records of education, certification, achievement, and award can then be viewed in your mobile app on your smartphone in the same way that your bitcoin balance can be viewed in your mobile wallet, but is stored as an immutable record on the Bitcoin blockchain.
It is also important to note that Blockcerts is "blockchain-agnostic," it can work with any blockchain. The Bitcoin blockchain was chosen because it "has been the most tested and reliable blockchain to date; in addition, the relatively robust self-interest of miners, and the financial investment made into Bitcoin (and Bitcoin related companies) make it likely that it will be around for a good while longer." In the future, Blockcerts may live on multiple blockchains. Currently, Ethereum-based side-chains are being considered to reduce transaction costs and expand functionality.
Why an Open Standard is Important
Blockcerts is open-source software for a reason. A blog post by MIT Media Lab explains it best, "Only an open standard allows individuals to remain fully in control of their own academic history. That is important, because academic certificates are markers of our lives. They can be tickets to a better job or education... Through collaborating around an open standard, we can help to insure an interoperable credentialing ecosystem. The Bitcoin blockchain is still a relatively new technology and its complexity and immutability make it important to carefully consider the long-term effects that small design decisions can have. Letting others review and contribute will make Blockcerts more robust and reliable."
Some countries, like Kenya, want to utilize blockchain for certification issuance in order to overcome academic fraud. In Malta, Blockcerts can help progress the open education movement, which is gaining ground all over Europe. Blockcerts are not just for students of traditional universities, they are also for graduates of online courses and programs, including MOOCs (massive open online course) and other forms of open digital education.
Dr. Dan Hughes eloquently expressed the goal of Learning Machine:
“It is not often thought of in this way, but ultimately structural interoperability creates the conditions for an emancipatory self-sovereignty. The systems and the individuals momentarily inhabiting them benefit together. That is our aim.”