In October of last year, I was joined by higher education and workforce experts at the inaugural One Dupont West Summit—a gathering of national and state-level education and workforce leaders—to talk about ways in which collaboration and partnership might scale across Colorado. The Summit was an outgrowth of a piece I wrote and my observation that the state of Colorado has become the epicenter for innovation, partnership and collaboration in postsecondary education and workforce policy. Summit participants talked about both pressing challenges, and practical solutions that could be scaled, and only possible by combining the forces of entrepreneurs, investors and philanthropists, education and workforce leaders and policymakers.
Among other topics, we talked about the emergence and increasing use of blockchain technology as a solution in postsecondary education and workforce—particularly with regard to learner records: transcripts of academic classes, skills and competencies and relevant work experience. It was at that time when I learned about the partnership between Learning Economy and the Colorado Department of Higher Education—and the creation of C-Lab, which provides Colorado with the ability to incubate and launch a statewide Learning Ledger and Skills Graph. It was no surprise to me that Colorado would undertake such a forward-thinking and innovative approach; Colorado Governor Jared Polis has been a longstanding champion of blockchain technology, crypto-friendly regulation and policy at the intersection of postsecondary education and work. In fact, Colorado has a “Blockchain Solution Architect,” responsible for building and promoting the state’s blockchain infrastructure.
This led me to learn more about what is happening across the country—at the original One Dupont in Washington, DC—particularly with the American Council on Education (ACE), the nation’s largest higher education trade association representing postsecondary education institutions. I sat down with Louis Soares, ACE’s chief learning and innovation officer, who is leading a new initiative that looks to integrate blockchain and education.
Alison Griffin: Blockchain can be a confusing topic for people who aren’t familiar with the technology. What is blockchain, how does it work, and what is its relevance to the education and workforce sectors?
Louis Soares: For much of our modern history, data on education and the labor market has been stored within organizations—among institutions a student attended or companies for which an employee worked. But in today’s economy, individuals are moving between employment and education more frequently and need more control over how their learning data is stored. Blockchain allows us to do that.
Blockchain is a distributed database that exists at the same time on a variety of different computers so that data is decentralized. The uniqueness of blockchain is the algorithms that make it run are both very transparent and provide a lot of control and security over the data. This allows individuals to share data, such as learning records, with others including employers and education administrators, but retain control over who can see it and know that it is verified and secure.
Alison: Is blockchain technology really just a big “cloud”?
Louis: The cloud and blockchain are aspects of the same revolution of decentralization in computing. The cloud allowed organizations to gain the efficiencies of not having to maintain servers and hardware, freeing up resources and encouraging entrepreneurship. Blockchain is now creating distributed networks of servers that can leverage computing power that is secure, immutable, and democratic. This can be a foundation for difficult-to-hack programs and transparent, reliable systems that share data.
Alison: What can blockchain bring to higher education in order to solve problems with data and record keeping?
Louis: Higher education institutions increasingly lean into new technologies to address challenges around student learning, which creates a lot of opportunity for blockchain. For example, as students move between institutions or between learning and work, there are issues around the transfer of credit and understanding what skills and competencies learners already possess. Blockchain can facilitate a more seamless credit transfer process by allowing for open sharing of verified records, which makes it easier to understand what a student knows and can do. It can also be a more secure method of storing student records.
In higher education, we are at a moment where we need to decide what technologies—such as legacy technologies for tracking student information, integrated information systems, and new technologies such as blockchain that can help with control, portability, and security of data—are the right mix and fit for student and administrator needs today.
Alison: As an association of higher education leaders, what is most intriguing about blockchain to the American Council on Education?
Louis: ACE represents 1,700 leaders across the full breadth of American higher education, including community colleges, master’s level institutions, and research universities that collectively enroll two out of every three students in degree-granting institutions across the country.
For sixty years, ACE has evaluated military and workforce training for college credit equivalency to ensure that an active duty military member or veteran who has received training from their employer can complete their education more quickly and affordably. Blockchain technology complements traditional credit for prior learning because it records and shares information about all types of learning, regardless of where that learning occurs. So, in many ways, ACE’s work with blockchain is carrying forward its mission to support today’s learners who are combining formal education with learning at work and in other settings by exploring ways to bring together all education and work experiences of an individual.
Alison: How has ACE been involved to date?
Louis: The Education Blockchain Initiative is a partnership between ACE and the U.S. Department of Education that launched in early 2020. The initiative has three core components: a research report that investigates emerging blockchain and education initiatives; the Blockchain Innovation Challenge, which is a competition that will invest nearly $1 million to seed experiments with blockchain and education; and community building across stakeholder groups. Both ACE and the Department of Education would like the initiative to continue once the project sunsets, so we are currently building communities of employers, higher education providers, and other stakeholders to continue the work.
Alison: The research report found over 70 active blockchain efforts across the education and employment ecosystems. Is there an effort that stands out, and what can other higher education and workforce leaders learn from some of the exemplars?
Louis: Dallas College stands out as a model of what we call “ecosystem first,” which is one criterion in the Blockchain Innovation Challenge. “Ecosystem first” means that partners have solutions that help stakeholders solve a set of pre-existing challenges. Blockchain technology is deployed in service of these pre-existing relationships and goals.
Dallas College participated in a metro-wide initiative to increase the postsecondary attainment rates of first-generation students. Through this initiative, administrators realized that they could create a common data set about those students that, with the students’ permission, could facilitate every aspect of their work from enrollment to financial aid. For example, if data on a student is on the blockchain, the student could say, “I would like scholarship providers to have access to this data so that they can contact me about scholarship opportunities.”
Blockchain is also giving Dallas College students control over their learning records, which makes it easier for them to enroll in college, apply for jobs, and transition between schools or between school and the workforce. So, rather than trying to have blockchain drive the mission and stakeholder engagement, it supports pre-existing efforts—and in this case, to support first-generation students.
Alison: Blockchain is a relatively nascent technology. What are the opportunities for further research, particularly around the potential in the context of postsecondary education and workforce systems?
Louis: One core question that remains is: if we build a blockchain infrastructure that gives students a lot more control over their education information and maybe even employment information, do students want that level of control and will they actually use it? We are excited to see the early success of several pilots, such as Dallas College, but look forward to further exploration into the potential uses of this technology.
Another important question to explore is how we can use blockchain solutions more effectively to support underserved and at-risk populations and close gaps in attainment and employment.
In addition, interoperability is an important benefit of blockchain, but we need more research on how to build that interoperability with legacy systems for storing workforce and education information in order for the technology to realize its full potential.
Alison: Many might assume the Blockchain Innovation Challenge is only for technology providers or chief technology/information officers. What types of organizations should participate in the Blockchain Innovation Challenge?
Louis: We are focusing on three core outcomes: learner empowerment, economic mobility, and interoperability. ACE and the U.S. Department of Education are deeply interested in applications from groups of stakeholders whose mission focuses on those things, whether they are from the nonprofit, K-12 education, higher education, workforce, and/or technology sectors. There’s obviously a technology at the heart of this challenge, but we especially want to hear from any organization that is passionate about economic mobility, equity gaps, and/or student empowerment.
Alison: Following the announcement of winners from the Challenge, what is next for the initiative and how will national momentum be built around this movement?
Louis: Applications for the Challenge will be accepted through October 30, and Round One awards will be announced on December 18. Over the next year, the awardees will build blockchains that support the problems they’re trying to solve, with technical assistance available as needed. At the same time, ACE and its partners will continue to build the online stakeholder community of technology providers, employers, higher education providers, and others to connect the experiments to the broader world of blockchain and help our awardees continue to learn as they build their blockchains. We also want to widely disseminate the lessons learned from these experiments to benefit the broader blockchain community.
In light of the global pandemic, we know this is a challenging time for higher education institutions. But this is also a time when we can begin to experiment with new solutions that will ultimately benefit learners. We are excited to see how this Challenge will bring to light new ways in which technology innovation, policy and entrepreneurship can lead higher education into the future.