Blockchain meets education

As 'edtech' gains traction, demand grows for ways to protect everything from student data to professors' research

Blockchain & education. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Blockchain technology is rapidly gaining favour for its exemplary cybersecurity capabilities. Blockchain-enabled security development has become a paramount goal in industries such as finance and banking, supply chain and logistics, and healthcare. Beyond cryptocurrency and other existing use cases, blockchain can also make a huge difference in the lives of students.

Educational technology (edtech) has now arrived in our classrooms. From desktop and mobile applications to internet-supported classrooms and artificial intelligence, technology is transforming the educational sector. American University magazine has forecast the global edtech market will be worth $93.7 billion by 2020.

With the growth of web-based learning, students and educational institutions are keeping more information in cloud storage, which unfortunately makes them very susceptible to online attacks and data tampering.

The data generated by educational institutions is typically deemed not as valuable as financial information. However, schools have evolved far beyond being just recorders of students' educational history and are now sophisticated data aggregators. Consider that in addition to students' transcripts, educational institutions hold students' medical data, personal information such as addresses and phone numbers, professors' teaching history, and many other forms of information.

As well, educational institutions have an increasingly active role in innovative research, generating intellectual property that may not always be respected by governments, private companies or hackers.

PHISHING AND WORSE

Last year, the San Diego Unified School District admitted that a phishing attack had breached the personal data, including health information, of some 500,000 students and staff. Also last year, a cyber-attack originating in Iran targeted about 100,000 email accounts of professors worldwide and stole details of 320 research projects from universities, governments and companies in the US. And in March this year, Chinese hackers targeted 27 universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), looking for highly sensitive data on work they were doing for the US Navy.

Such incidents have the potential to enable everything from large-scale identity theft and credit card fraud, to theft of military research that could be a matter of life and death.

While we cannot take back what happened, we can use blockchain to prevent similar attacks. It improves the security of universities' cloud storage by encrypting the data and securing the information in its ledger. Since the ledger is shared across several computer networks, the data will not be held by a single entity and will not be vulnerable to cyberattacks.

What this means is that course content, research, personal information and all education-related data can be traced and saved online by students and professors directly, without any of it being exposed or leaked to others, in a very seamless process.

FAKE DEGREES

College diplomas are the most expensive pieces of paper that a person can earn. Tuition alone for a four-year college degree in the US from a public university can cost between $25,000 and $40,000. And according to a 2018 report by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is still a huge pay gap between applicants with a four-year degree and those with only a high school diploma.

No wonder buying a fake degree seems to be a good way to score a good-paying job. That helps explain the rise of Axact, a Pakistan-based outfit that claimed to be "world's largest IT company".

In fact, it was nothing but a fraudulent degree mill. Before police and prosecutors brought it down, it had sold 215,000 fake qualifications in the names of about 350 fake high schools and universities.

Selling fake degrees is hardly a victimless crime, as there could be serious safety and security implications. Would you fly in an aircraft with a pilot that had fake qualifications? That happened recently in India. Would you want your house built by an architect with forged certification? That happened in New York.

The lack of a global certification database to verify degrees is a perennial problem that has been exacerbated by the rise of online scam artists. The only sure way to verify the credentials of a job applicant is to contact the registrar at the university the person claims to have attended. This is very time-consuming, so many employers forgo background checks.

Blockchain is the answer to this pressing need. Not only can it store time-stamped data, it is also tamper-proof and accessible anywhere in the world.

Tracking of certification is easy, low-cost, and can be done 24/7.

Blockchain security for cloud storage and certification is no longer just an idea. Sony is already creating an online repository of educational data with the use of IBM's blockchain.

MIT Media Lab and Learning Machine have also launched Blockcerts, which aims to store notarised academic records on a blockchain. In Thailand, Bitkub Blockchain Technology is offering blockchain integration in several industries, including the education sector.

How such technology can be harnessed as a viable tool in our education system will be in the hands of the government and universities if such adaptation takes place.


Jirayut Srupsrisopa is the Group CEO of Bitkub Capital Group Holdings Co Ltd, a local blockchain technology specialist that is also advising businesses on decentralised applications.

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