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Decentralized Education - by Alessandro Civati

Decentralized Education – A turnkey opportunity for higher education and universities.

With the improving quality of life across the globe, people are increasingly investing in education. Estimations reveal that more than 100 million learners will be in a position to access higher education by 2025. The challenges to greater access will arise due to high costs and unavailability of courses in their regions.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and governments worldwide seek to increase access to education for global learners. Moving forward, free digitalized teaching and learning materials will be critical to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.

The global COVID-19 pandemic compelled higher education to shift online. Higher education institutions have quickly turned their teaching and administrative tasks online. Furthermore, universities have been forced to examine their long-term strategies. The global pandemic made the year 2020 a catalyst for realizing three critical needs of university education:

  • The need to develop and deliver online courses.
  • The need to engage in international collaborative projects.
  • The need to create systematic, interdisciplinary problem-solving approaches.

Blockchain has the potential to offer novel and emerging use cases that help achieve strategic development goals. With the higher education sector plagued with fraud, identity, and trust that cripple learning and research, blockchain technology may become the ultimate solution to these longstanding challenges.

Despite the opportunities presented by the technology, universities have consistently failed to see the potential of blockchain in everyday operations. Most top-tier universities remain conservative in their approach and hesitant to embrace new technology to better serve educational, research, and student needs.

Existing Challenges:

Entrenched Traditions and Norms

The higher education industry is complex and is characterized by deeply established traditions, norms, and incumbents. The traditions and incumbents are the main barriers to innovation and embracing new technologies. Innovators and companies hoping to disrupt the higher education industry will need to consider this reality.

The four major areas for potential innovation in the higher education sector that will solve the challenges are:

  1. Research and innovation
  2. Validation and certification
  3. Student identity
  4. Integrated online learning environments

Each of these areas presents unique challenges. However, blockchain technology has matured and is capable of offering solid solutions.

Origin of Datasets

Datasets present the most complex challenges facing universities in embracing emerging technologies. University researchers often produce the datasets to be shared with the government and commercial stakeholders. Most higher education institutions consider these datasets proprietary property. These datasets may contain empirical research and important training data used for machine learning models. The importance of the datasets cannot be overlooked, and users must know where the data is coming from and if the data has been tampered with.

It’s critical to have a robust software supply chain that tracks datasets across an entire lifecycle – from creation, use, modification, and end of life. These traditional supply chains require the assurances of confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Access to some datasets that contain sensitive information needs to be carefully managed. Blockchain technology excels at tracking digital assets and eliminates the need for trusted third parties. Blockchains provide a ready-made solution for critical software infrastructure. Higher education institutions can play a crucial role in securing datasets.

Diploma and Transcript Fraud

Diploma fraud is yet another big challenge faced by higher education institutions. The challenge has grown immensely with the global COVID-19 pandemic. After universities could not welcome students through their gates, the traditional paper-based processes were suddenly exposed to insecurity and inefficiency. Traditionally, universities have issued diplomas and transcripts as paper copies. The attempts to print digital copies have resulted in insecure versions that can be tampered with or fabricated.

Blockchain technologies can securely record unique cryptographic hashes (unique fingerprints) of digital assets and solve the challenge of managing decentralized public critical infrastructure. Through blockchains, universities have a simple, turnkey solution that can be used to issue and manage university transcripts and diplomas. The use of blockchain technology will help lower associated administration costs.

Plagiarism concerns

Blockchain technology will undoubtedly help facilitate and secure collaborations between two or more researchers. With blockchains, original records cannot be altered or deleted. Any changes made to the original record can be traced since any new block in the chain is time-stamped. It allows the author to release their materials and resources without the fear of plagiarism or lack of attribution. The original creator of a specific material can be determined irrespective of how much their work is changed or reused. Since blocks on the distributed ledger are incorruptible, plagiarism is not possible.

Blockchain allows tracing, which means a resource owner can see when their work is being misused and can challenge the improper usage of their work. Transactions on the block cannot be hidden, and traceability is possible since every block or ledger is distributed on the network.

Potential Use Cases for Blockchain

Blockchain technology is recommended for potential disruptive use in the following cases:

  1. Decentralized education marketplaces
  2. Reputation management
  3. Educational incentivization
  4. Smart-contract test marking

Decentralized educational marketplaces are the most alluring of these opportunities. Blockchain will create a disruptive, low-friction, low trust environment supporting federated or multi-institutional degrees. Students would have a chance to choose the best education offerings (bottom-up) rather than the prescribed (top-down) curricula. The new educational marketplace can also enable subscription models for lifelong learning.


Blockchain in education-tech offers turnkey opportunities, future developments, and a green field of commercial opportunities. The higher education sector is characterized by few serious blockchain providers and little interest from would-be buyers. Policy-makers in the higher education sector need to work with stakeholders to explore different ways of addressing the above challenges. Concurrently, they need to advocate for the internet infrastructure needed to deploy and support blockchain technology.

Universities have many different ways of locking out competitors and have succeeded. Despite the presence of massive online open courses (MOOCs) and low-cost online universities, these options are yet to overtake the value of top-flight, brick-and-mortar university education. The biggest challenge faced by blockchain technology is disrupting the EduTech space. However, blockchain offers new education and research practices, greater access to investors, peer-to-peer education models, and other emerging uses such as citizen science.

Blockchain Intellectual Property Protection

Author: Alessandro Civati

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