Blockchain Applications in Lifelong Learning and the Role of the Semantic Blockchain

Blockchain Applications in Lifelong Learning and the Role of the Semantic Blockchain

Alexander Mikroyannidis (The Open University, UK), Allan Third (The Open University, UK), John Domingue (The Open University, UK), Michelle Bachler (The Open University, UK) and Kevin A. Quick (Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9478-9.ch002


The emergence of the blockchain promises to revolutionise not only the financial world but also lifelong learning in various ways. Blockchain technology offers opportunities to thoroughly rethink how we find educational content and tutoring services online, how we register and pay for them, as well as how we get accredited for what we have learned and how this accreditation affects our career trajectory. This chapter explores the different aspects of lifelong learning that are affected by this new paradigm and describes an ecosystem that places the learner at the centre of the learning process and its associated data. This chapter also discusses the possibilities that will be afforded by the combination of trustworthy educational data enhanced with meaningful web-accessible linked data, and what these developments will mean for learners, educators, and the employment market.
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Education today is still controlled mostly by educational institutions, which offer quality, credibility, governance, and administrative functions. This model is not flexible enough and poses difficulties in recognising the achievements of a lifelong learner in informal and non-formal types of education. As a result, a lifelong learner’s transition from formal to informal education and vice versa can be hindered, as the achievements acquired in one type of education are not easily transferable to another (Harris & Wihak, 2017; Lundvall & Rasmussen, 2016; Mayombe, 2017; Müller et al., 2015). Generally, lifelong learners have limited control and ownership over their learning process and the data associated with their learning. This indicates the need for a learner-centred model across all types of education, offering learners with a framework for fully controlling how they are learning, how they acquire qualifications and how they share their qualifications and other learning data with third parties, such as educational institutions or employers.

The Blockchain is best known as the technological underpinning for the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain technology, which can be thought of as a public distributed ledger, promises to revolutionise the financial world. A World Economic Forum survey in 2015 found that those polled believe that there will be a tipping point for the government use of Blockchain by 2023 (Rizzo, 2015). Governments, large banks, software vendors and companies involved in stock exchanges, especially the Nasdaq stock exchange, are investing heavily in the area. For example, the UK Government recently announced that it is investing £10 million into Blockchain research (Das, 2020) and Santander have identified 20-25 internal use cases for the technology and predict a reduction of banks’ infrastructure costs by up to £12.8 billion a year (Williams-Grut, 2015)

Blockchain technology offers a decentralised peer-to-peer infrastructure where privacy, secure archiving, consensual ownership, transparency, accountability, identity management, and trust are built in at the software and infrastructure levels. As such, the Blockchain has the potential to revolutionise education in a number of ways. In this chapter, we explore some of the applications that the Blockchain can have on certain aspects of lifelong learning, including Smart Badges, ePortfolios and tutoring. We discuss the innovative paradigms introduced by each of these applications, with the goal of building a learner-centred ecosystem for lifelong learning.

One of the key advantages of Blockchain technology is that it is decentralised, with access, and the ability to participate and publish data, open to anyone with the capacity to join a network. It is important to remember, however, that there is an existing infrastructure with some of the same features: the Web. Blockchain brings immutability and trust, among other additions, but we should take advantage of the vast wealth of existing data and standards for decentralised data publication and consumption on the Web too. In particular, one of the core design principles of the Semantic Web is the assumption that data can be published anywhere online, and by anyone, and that it should be possible to query and integrate that data without aggregating it all into a central location. We argue here that a Semantic Blockchain, encouraging interoperability between Blockchain platforms and the Semantic Web, is essential to get the most out of both technologies. This is especially important in the education sphere, where learning experiences and accreditation can be acquired from diverse independent sources and according to different learning approaches, contexts and standards, but which still need to be drawn together to form a coherent and understandable picture of an individual’s lifelong learning. We discuss approaches to the Semantic Blockchain and their applications to education in this chapter.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Smart Contract: Smart contracts are automatable and enforceable agreements, allowing for trackable and credible transactions on the Blockchain without the need for verification via third parties.

Semantic Web: A set of technical standards and processes designed to encourage a Web of data which is not only machine-readable but machine comprehensible.

Open Badge: Open badges allow for detailed recording of accreditation in digital form from both formal and informal learning contexts.

Solid: A decentralised linked data platform intended to serve as a personalised linked data store.

Linked Data: A model for representing data semantically using web standards. Entities are identified by URLs and data publishers are encouraged to use shared URLs with common meanings for shared concepts. The main data model for the Semantic Web.

Blockchain: A blockchain is a specific type of distributed ledger, where an ever-growing list of records, called blocks, are linked together to form a chain.

ePortfolio: An ePortfolio holds the learning record of a learner, providing evidence of learning achievement via a collection of digital artefacts associated with learning outcomes, such as learning assignments, badges, etc.

Hash Function: A mathematical function which, regardless of the size of its input, always gives a fixed size output, with the property that a particular output (a hash) can only be generated by exactly one input, and which is one-way. That is, there is no way to compute the input given only the output.

Smart Badge: Smart badges are dynamic records of accreditation that follow the same principles as Open Badges with additional dynamic features, e.g. apart from just recording a learning achievement, a Smart Badge can also offer job or course recommendations.

Distributed ledger: Distributed ledgers are replicated, shared and synchronised digital data geographically dispersed over multiple sites, possibly including multiple institutions.

Self-Sovereign Identity: An approach to digital identity, authentication, and data access control which is based on users controlling their own identity. Often uses distributed ledger technology to provide trust.

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