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EDLAB discussions: Blockchain in Higher Education

Mona Lisa drawing retreived from catsmob.com

With the bitcoin value being at an all-time high, the discussions about the underlying technology blockchain have become a topic of interest for actors in all parts of society, including higher education.

It’s a Monday morning at Tapijn X. Here we sit listening to Vince Meens, who works with blockchain-based start-ups at Brightlands. We invited him to give us some input on blockchain and its potential role for higher education. He starts of by showing us a picture of a drawing of a stickman compared to the Mona Lisa and compares the stickman to the current state of the blockchain technology – a promising technology at its very early state.

Meens provides us with context and a bit of a timeline about the “blockchain revolution”: the origin and the development of bitcoin, the general technology of blockchain, and its current use and the future scenarios for different aspects of our daily living.

Already in the beginning, Meens invited us to ask questions whenever they come up. With an increasing understanding of the technology, we seem to have more instead of fewer questions. Together, the group discusses and expands on different scenarios for applications of blockchain. The discussions range from the practicality of using the blockchain to ethics, from its current state to what it actually may change in the future. Meens calls on governments to be more adaptive in terms of policy on and recognition of new technologies vis-a-vis the state system.

Regarding the specific context of higher education, the most immediate thoughts are about certification and badges. At what point will it be necessary to provide a more trustworthy source of transcripts? And how can blockchain technology help to do so? Can we enhance student employability by providing digital badges that show, for example their extracurricular involvement? How does the provider of the badge know that this contribution actually took place?

It is also discussed how blockchain can work for education in UM’s student-centred learning environment. Here, the content of the courses cannot simply be put online; the aspect of human interaction plays a great role for teaching and learning at UM. Maybe the blockchain technology can improve internal feedback mechanisms or interaction with employers and alumni. It could even be used to create a lifetime relationship between students, educators, and the university.

The discussion remains heated during lunch. The blockchain technology exists and new start-ups show potential applications on an almost daily basis. Blockchain can change many aspects of human interaction; it makes many things explicit and allows us to access very specific, uncorrupted information. For better or worse? As with all modern technologies it is too early to tell. Blockchain is Janus-faced, having both potentially beneficial and destructive tendencies. It’s role for higher education will be a very interesting development for EDLAB and the university.

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