The U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology contracted with the American Council on Education to lead the Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI). EBI launched in February 2020 by forming a steering committee including subject matter experts from across the K-12, postsecondary, technology, and corporate sectors. The committee had two key objectives: (1) generate awareness about the initiative among education and workforce practitioners; and (2) to support the development of a community that will sustain the effort beyond the funding timeline. The deeper focus—exploring how blockchains can be used to give learners greater control of their education identities to generate increased social equity and economic mobility—was geared toward traditionally underserved and disadvantaged populations.
According to preliminary figures from the National Student Clearinghouse, over 1,000 community colleges saw enrollment decrease by nearly 10 percent due to COVID-19. More alarming, the enrollment of Black students dropped by 19 percent, and there was a 16 percent decrease for Hispanic students. Innovations such as blockchains, Learning and Employment records (LERs), and an ecosystem-first approach to implementing them can help address these inequities.
EBI sponsored four pilot projects:
- Guardianship and Consent for Nebraska Systems Students was a collaboration between Student1, the Nebraska Department of Education, and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. It sought to replace a current manual paper process for guardians of systems-involved students to provide legal and verifiable consent for children’s services and the data sharing required to provide those services. This initiative sets the foundation for a comprehensive learner record for Nebraska K–12 students who are involved with multiple state educational, judicial, or behavioral services.
- The Lifelong Learner Project, is an ecosystem-first approach led by RANDA Solutions, in partnership with the Utah Department of Education and others, to develop a digital wallet in which teachers can store and retrieve their credentials, licenses, and exemplars of practice and securely share them with entities such as state licensing systems, human resource departments, and learning management systems.
- The UnBlockEd Project: Leveraging Blockchain in Higher Education is an effort led by the University of Arizona, in partnership with Georgia Institute of Technology, Fluree, and the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. It seeks to create an open transfer exchange system that will facilitate student progress toward graduation by making the transfer articulation process more transparent.
- The North Texas Collaborative is a Texas Woman’s University-led collaboration with Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, North Central Texas College, Texas A&M University-Commerce, The University of Texas at Arlington, and GreenLight Credentials. It seeks to narrow the college graduation and employment gap of underserved populations by increasing students’ free access and control of their academic records.
While the long-term success of blockchains and other distributed ledger technologies depend on a variety of factors, two resonate as critical elements of success:
- Building a future-ready blockchain infrastructure. Creating an infrastructure committed to interoperability, SSI, and data alignment will ensure the durability of this innovation and its long-lasting impact on education and workforce systems.
- Designing around the needs of end users (stakeholders). Developers of these breakthrough technologies must ensure the end users are part of the design conversation. The solutions must be simple to use and intuitive or target users will not embrace them. Lastly, the community at large must work to solve some of the chronic issues that have stalled the impact of other promising innovations. Blockchains can drive economic mobility and social equity, but if access to them is not unilateral, the positive impact will not reach those most in need. Policies must evolve, and priorities must be reoriented around the needs of underserved populations to allow these individuals to be part of the full potential of blockchains and LERs.
EBI distributed a report summarizing the objectives and key results of the work carried out by the four pilots. The report also documented lessons learned and best practices identified by the pilots. The top publications and resources include:
- Connected Impact: Unlocking Education and Workforce Opportunity Through Blockchain
- Connecting the Pieces: The Benefits of Blockchain for Higher Education
- “Learner Records: If You Build it, Will They Use It?”
- What Is Blockchain? (video
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