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Blockchain: Education & Ethics 17 January, 2020   

In Feb 2019, one of the most ardent promoters of blockchain technology, Malta Islands, became the first country to put its education certificates on the blockchain. This step reaffirms the nation’s commitment to encourage blockchain technology and endorse it. The project is an expansion of a two-year-old pilot run to put all educational certificates on the blockchain that will scale up further to cover all schools in the system. The Maltese government signed a two-year contract with a blockchain company, Learning Machine, that kicked-off the pilot project in September 2017.

Blockchain and Education – Hand in hand

Since Bitcoin’s inception in 2009, blockchain technology has catalyzed almost every industry and reformed the outlook towards money and technology. It can integrate with other leading technologies and is transforming supply chains of some of the oldest industrial sectors like energy, agriculture, and now education. Blockchain is gaining massive popularity and heading towards mass adoption. Deloitte Insights in its ‘2019-Global Blockchain Survey’, published that 86% of participants agree that blockchain technology is expandable and will eventually lead to mainstream adoption. Blockchain has successfully moved beyond its image of a crypto-facilitating back-end technology and provided innovative changes on a larger scope. From banking to retail and even law, enterprises have realized the potential of blockchain applications. The education sector and institutions are a vital component in not only strengthening a nation’s foundation but also encourage the development of new technology, its adoption, and application across other industries. With improvements in technology, users can now create, share, and verify digital records. These records are stored on a blockchain and are encrypted. In one such attempt, the University of Bahrain will issue diplomas on the blockchain by implementing blockcerts open standards in alliance with Learning Machine.

Scope expansion – blockchain is a treasure chest

Even Satoshi Nakamoto wouldn’t have realized that blockchain would become one of the most optimal technologies of the future. Apart from transforming some of the major industrial sectors, blockchain is set to revolutionize the education sector. This is a huge achievement for a technology once considered an outcome of desperate measures. From degrees and courses to enrolment and data storage, blockchain is disrupting the age-old methods of the education system. Blockchain’s decentralized nature is one of the cornerstones for its growing popularity and success. DLT technology’s immutability and cryptographic storage not only provide security but add value to the stored information and make it tamper-proof and outcast intermediaries.

Some of the unique and remarkable applications of blockchain in the education sector are:

-          Fujitsu and Sony’s blockchain field trials: A joint venture of Sony Global Education, Inc., and Fujitsu Research Institute initiated an assessment of blockchain technology’s utility. The trial will be conducted in collaboration with Human Academy, an educational institution and aims students who wish to study abroad in Japan. These students will take a course and exam in Nihongo Kentei language proficiency and their data will be put on blockchain as certificates.  The project aims at identifying blockchain’s usefulness in:

o   Course records and grade data management

o   Digital learning platform

o   Evaluation of each student, including their study logs and grade information will be stored and managed as tamperproof certificates

-          Singapore and Canada issue graduate certificates on blockchain: In the government-level project, graduates from 18 educational institutions in Singapore will receive digital certificates verifiable on the blockchain. In another such attempt, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) granted digital diplomas to its class of 2019, along with conventional certificates. These projects aim at efficiency gains, better security, and cost savings.

-          Swiss University shuns fake diplomas using blockchain: In another attempt that aims at weeding out doctored certificates and documents, University of St. Gallen in Switzerland aims at releasing 200 tamperproof digital diploma certificates as part of a pilot project.

-          Dublin’s Masters in DLT program: Blockchain’s promising future and involvement in mainstream industries is evident from the fact that universities and educational institutions are inducting courses on DLT and blockchain technology. In one such endeavor, Ireland’s Minister for Business, Enterprises, and Innovation launched Ireland’s first-ever Master’s in Distributed Ledger Technology, in collaboration with the University of Dublin.

-          Blockchain campus: Poshtech and Yonsei University are two Korean universities that have partnered to create a blockchain campus and its own cryptocurrency that aims at enhancing research capacity.

The year 2019 witnessed one of its kind initiatives when venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced opening the first-ever ‘Crypto Startup School.’ This project aims at “encouraging more tech entrepreneurs to start crypto projects and help crypto-curious builders” emphasizing the importance of innovative ideas that are “well developed, multi-year plans that contemplate many possible paths according to how the world changes”.

Is it enough, though?

While blockchain is reforming the education system and remolding the societies at large, it’s time we discuss its own record of ethics. Just like any other revolutionizing technology like Artificial Intelligence and Nuclear technology, blockchain imposes long-term social impact and thus requires a checklist of its own trajectory.

Blockchain ethics – Foundation for a reliable future

Speaking at Cryptoeconomic Systems Summit, MIT’s Digital Currency initiative’s head of community and long-term societal impact Rhys Lindmark emphasized on attempts to lay the foundations of a new academic field centered around various interdisciplinary aspects of blockchain development and applications. He described it as a community reinforcing best practices to ensure a smooth sail and positive development of blockchain technology.

The outlook towards cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology is changing with mainstream industries adopting and exploring the various aspects of blockchain technology and its impact on businesses. With institutions like Fidelity Investments, Intercontinental Exchange, and business giants like Facebook and Walmart diving into the blockchain’s fairyland, the spectrum has shifted focus from volatility to prospects. Experts believe that it’s high time to design a blueprint of blockchain ethics similar to other ‘tech ethics’ that scrutinize what the technology is capable of doing and its future implications. For example, blockchain-led decentralized environments, who ensures trust and authenticity? Or Bitcoin’s software rules automatically sort out the permitted behavior. So, does it make it unethical if a user exploits the protocol to make profits? Or, how something as powerful as Libra currency might impact the dynamics of politics and power in the future?

A major concern that experts often refer to is blockchain research. Just like other trivial research technologies like nanotechnology, blockchain, and allied technologies introduce a new class of ‘ethical risks’ that need to be addressed as soon as possible. New guidelines must persuade developing robust infrastructure like the Virie Market that provides secured decentralized platforms by allowing users to transact at their free will, in whatever mode they wish, whenever they wish and from wherever they are. These platforms engage the core objectives of blockchain’s ‘decentralization dream’ and do not shy away from integrating the age-old proven central scalable solutions. These platforms strike a balance between familiar concepts and futuristic demand and encourage trust-building by providing credible innovation.

Blockchain experts, developers, proponents must all come together and work towards standardizing the roadmap for ethical research. While talking about a Twitter A poll posted last year by a researcher at Cornell University asking students “to break a production/live/mainnet smart contract as an assignment”, with 66% of participants (out of approx. 1200) responding, ‘Yes,’ Quinn DuPont, an assistant professor at Dublin University College brought out a very sensitive aspect for building ethical blockchain guidelines by saying that, “You’re not just breaking into a social network or some other system which may be relatively important. You’re literally teaching them how to break into the bank.”

While this is just one of the thousand probable ‘question marks’ that blockchain technology needs to address; it certainly won’t be technology’s fault if it fails at the cost of ethics. It will be a sheer loss for the society at large for not realizing the importance of a remarkable and innovative technology.

Blockchain Blockchain Ethics Furture Technology Blockchain and Education

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