How to apply blockchain technology to University student engagement!
Blockchain has become a much talked about technology of late with most discussions related to the application of this technology to cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin.
Yet crypto currencies are but one application of this exciting new technology, as intelligent use of block chain is becoming more prevalent in managing supply chains, voting, storing property deeds, personal records, in fact anywhere there is a form of contract between two parties.
The following is an open discussion around how Universities can use blockchain technology to support and ensure a better understanding of how their student population (and in fact their faculty) are engaging with the University.
Practical Applications to Universities
The use of blockchain technology to capture student engagement with Universities can provide a more focused and specific understanding of how students are interacting with the University, – in real-time.
The student journey from application to course commencement, to course completion, post-graduate studies and alumni participation can evolve over several years. A continual record of this engagement provides an invaluable understanding and record of the student life journey.
In fact, following the student journey to employment continues the benefit of this technology. A University capturing the student journey is able to provide both students and employers valuable insights to the characteristics of students. Questions that Blockchain can be used to help answer include:-
- How are the top students achieving their results?
- What are students’ social involvements with the University?
- Where are students employed post studies?
So What is blockchain transaction and benefits
A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records that are linked and secured using cryptography.
The benefit in blockchains come from the fact that they are resistant to Change or Modification. This is because a blockchain is effectively a database that replicates all “blocks” on a large-scale. The blockchain is decentralised or distributed, with copies of the database placed in different locations which are known as nodes. The decentralisation enables increased transparency as thousands of copies of the blockchain are retained. A major and critical benefit!
Why is the above important… because Blockchain goes some of the way to address existing problems experienced by Universities. Typically, Universities manage multiple CRM applications, systems and data silo’s that have grown over the years.
The issue with this traditional management of student engagement is that data tends to be centralised to each application and can be corrupted or independently and unintentionally manipulated causing inconsistency in student information and communication and difficulty in establishing a source of data truth for students.
Decentralised Vs. Centralised data
The benefit of decentralised data is speed…. it is faster because information is distributed and not stored as a whole. If one of the decentralised databases crashes, the blockchain will keep running with the other nodes. As the blockchain is operating on an open system (decentralised), it can connect to other networks to make the system bigger and accessible everywhere.
Traditional databases are centralised databases that are located, stored and maintained in a single location. Access to the centralised databases is through a network. A centralised database holds all student data on a central computer, such as a server, requiring the student to connect to the university to access the database (information).
A decentralized database is created as it copies the same data and locates that data in different places, which, for the purposes of a blockchain discussion, are defined as a node. In the University example, a node could be a student’s laptop or PC.
The blockchain offers a decentralized database of student engagement that is divided into blocks that contain information about the student engagement (think transaction). Student records (blocks) can include assessment, library transactions, final subject results, lecture attendance, sports attendance etc.
The process to use blockchain for Universities
A “student token” is created that forms part of a smart contract. The contract is decentralised across the network of students that participate. The “student token” is necessary for Students to receive services from the University, not dissimilar to a student id number. To engage with the University, the student requires a “student token”!
The university student blockchain can be managed by a university-to-lecturer-to-student network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion from the majority of the network (student population).
The “student token” provides a hash of the transaction with the university and records a timestamp of each student engagement by hashing them into an ongoing chain. This block forms a record that cannot be changed without redoing the chain.
The role of the University would be to act as the trusted central authority that checks every transaction for duplicates. Typically, blockchain transactions are publicly announced. In the case of the “student token”, the blockchain transaction would not be publicly announced but rather preserved by the University for use such as analysis.
A more appropriate alternative to the use of students as nodes would be for the University to run their own nodes for more independent security and quicker verification. Students as nodes would require the anonymising of this student data.
A timestamp server is required which works by taking a hash of a block of these student engagements. The timestamp server proves the student must have existed at that time, in order to receive the hash. Each timestamp would include the previous timestamp in its hash which forms the student engagement blockchain.
As with the use of blockchain technology, Universities will be presented with the opportunity to access and analyse a richer collection of student data. The implementation of a blockchain solution presents a unique opportunity to understand student “transactions”.
The simplest means is to analyse student data would be to export the blockchain into a dataset supported by analytics tools. A more sophisticated method would be to capture data in movement providing more real-time analytics of the student engagement that is the block chain. Blockchain technology would increase the data footprint providing the opportunity to identify patterns in student behaviour and identify risk(s) more readily and in real-time.
Governance & Security
A word of caution, I previously mentioned the use of University infrastructure and the role of the University to act as the trusted central authority that checks every transaction for duplicates. The distributed nature of blockchain transactions does provide a number of security advantages over centralised data storage. As the blockchain networks do not have a single access point of infiltration, it provides a greatly diminished threat of hacking.
“distributed among the network members database allows you to increase the transparency and security of conducting transactions by the use of a cryptographic mechanism which compares the unique signature of the parties and general information about the transaction.” Ethereum
A permissioned blockchain1 can be implemented behind the University firewalls and typically have a known identity which would be the student.
The opportunity for Universities to better capture student engagement exists thru the application of Blockchain technology. Blockchain offers a decentralised solution that is faster and more secure than current methods. Blockchain offers the promise of greater transparency and security to the University.
- Examples include R3 Corda – r3.com, Hyperledger www.hyperledger.org, Chain www.chain.com, BigChainDB www.bigchaindb.com,
Nakamoto, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. 2008
Ethereum Homestead Documentation Release 0.1, Ethereum Communit
Penfield, A practical approach to blockchain analytics, https://blogs.sas.com/content/sascom/2017/12/15/practical-approach-blockchain-analytics/