Authentication of Education Credentials
The past decade has seen an explosion in the availability of and demand for online courses. The availability has been fuelled by the rapid expansion of The World Wide Web and Internet availability as well as a move towards Web 2.0 technologies. The most startling development has been that of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) with many courses being offered free of charge, targeting soft as well as hard skills. These courses are massive in that they have extremely large enrolments by traditional educational standards, are open to all and one hundred percent online attracting a global student audience. Over time the product offerings of many of the MOOC Providers (Udacity, Udemy and many others) expanded to provide paid-for major awards such as “nanodegrees” particularly in technology disciplines such as software development, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Many of these companies formed strategic alliances with traditional universities to provide formal academic qualifications (Thrun, 2013). The Open University UK founded FutureLearn in December 2012 with 11 traditional UK universities as founding partners to expand their offerings and broaden their reach. As of May 2018 the Open University in the UK has partnered with over 143 UK and international partners, including many traditional universities through FutureLearn (Futurelearn, 2015).
The demand for these courses has also much to do with the growing acknowledgement that we live in an era of lifelong learning and that individuals will expect to carry on their learning throughout their working life. It is also clear that employers are in fact demanding almost constant upskilling and reskilling for their employees to meet the needs of enterprise. In the fast-paced world of modern business, gaining new knowledge ahead of the competition, especially from a technology perspective can be the difference between success and failure. In a recent report from the Irish Government on the Future of Jobs in Ireland (Ireland, 2019) entitled “Preparing Now for Tomorrow’s Economy”, they state that while the economy is in a strong position having recovered from the financial crisis, there are significant vulnerabilities in the domestic economy such as declining productivity levels for SMEs. A key factor in this demise are skills deficits amongst the labour force and availability of labour with the required skills. The report goes on to state that while the future is uncertain, it’s clear that by 2025 the economy will have changed significantly and this will bring both opportunity and challenges. One of the key challenges are the skills required for this new economic paradigm as technology will herald new ways of doing business and new economic opportunities – certain job roles will disappear or be redefined and emerging job roles will require new and different skillsets altogether. In particular they cite cutting edge technological areas such as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality, Data Analytics, the Internet of Things and Blockchain. This is a strategic imperative to ensure highly productive, sustainable workforce that will be resilient into the future.
Traditional third-level institutions are also playing their part in the provision of skills development courses available in a flexible manner to suit individuals in the workplace. Through the Government of Ireland Springboard initiative which was initiated in response to the financial crisis of 2008 to reskill workers who found themselves unemployed and unemployable during the recession which followed. That programme was instrumental in reducing the live register from a peak of 15% in 2011 down to less than 4% in 2017. The Springboard programme however has continued and is now about reskilling and upskilling a largely employed cohort of individuals. Through Springboard courses are offered to participants by third level institutions both public and private. As most participants are working, courses are predominantly delivered in a fully online or blended model.
The issuance of academic credentials has for many years been a paper-based mechanism administrated by the awarding institutions. The “parchment” is a time-old tradition which marks the achievement of a qualification with a degree of ceremony to which it deserves. In practice the official documentation takes the form of a transcript of student results often accompanied by a certificate and more often than not in the 21st century delivered by electronic means. The turn-around time for academic transcripts is often far too slow with a lengthy verification process which can take weeks from the time of the original request to the time the requesting agent receives them. There is an increasing pressure from all involved to provide these transcripts in a timely fashion, including the awarding body themselves as it is becoming an increasingly onerous administrative task. Some institutions are relying on pdf format transcripts appended with electronic signatures but the method is vulnerable to forgery. The increasing volume of courses available coupled with rising demand from enterprise and individuals alike is placing increasing pressure on education providers to come up with a solution.
Over the past decade a number of organisations are seeking to provide recognition of formal academic qualifications in the form of digital certificates and formal (or informal) short courses in the form of digital badges or micro-credentials (Jirgensons and Kapenieks, 2018). Mozilla’s open digital badges have become the unofficial global standard and is built on an open standard. However, the system is dependent on trust in the system and the member educational institutes who provide verification. Badges could become “orphaned” or worse turn into “zombie” badges when issuers no longer want or are unable to host them, the badges have to be supported by a network of trust. Some experiments with blockchain seek to remedy this situation by creating a permanent, secure and sustainable infrastructure for educational credentials. The MIT Media Lab has produced Blockcerts (Blockcerts, 2019) built on the Bitcoin blockchain and the Open University in the UL has developed Digital Badges which they call Micro- credentials built on the Ethereum blockchain utilising smart contracts. Both are Open Source products. Many other EU nations are experimenting with educational blockchain. The University of Nicosia in Cyprus is one of the first universities in the world that provides full blockchain credentials including all certificates and diplomas. The University also boasts of being the number one in the world for blockchain education (Jirgensons and Kapenieks, 2018). It also accepts Bitcoin for application and tuition payments. The UNIC blockchain infrastructure is built using the MIT Blockcerts implementation (Grech and Camilleri, 2017). There are many other pilot projects either completed or underway across the EU although the researcher is unaware of any pilot projects underway in Ireland.
Trust implications for the provision of digital badges
Poorly implemented badging systems have the potential to create an ethical and possibly legal quandry where learners will quickly lose trust and the system is doomed to fail. When a digital badge becomes a credential of learner achievement, be it large or small, the issues of value, acceptance and trust begin to arise (Ifenthaler et al., 2016). The value of a badging system in education requires the establishment of trust and support across an ever-widening range of stakeholders involved.
Blockchain is emerging as a way to generate networks where validity, trust and accountability can be created. The blockchain is an open, public, decentralised and secure digital registry where information transactions are secured and have a clear origin, explicit relationships and concrete value (Funk et al., 2018).
Placing the learner at the centre
The ultimate beneficiary of the certificate of achievement is the learner and as such it’s important that the learner is in control of their achievement data. Many proponents of digital badging in education assert the view that we must think about the badges in the context of learning analytics – that it’s ultimately “student data” about themselves
and they should have the ability to display, sort, shuffle or filter according to their needs, especially with the advent of the ardent lifelong learner whose “Digital CV” may become unwieldy as they progress through their career (Ifenthaler et al., 2016). Again, blockchain has the potential to put the user in control of the data about themselves, they will have their own digital wallet and given the decentralised nature of the blockchain network, no single central authority has control.
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