While not initially coined to describe a technical object, but rather a team of Open Badge enthusiasts willing to exploit the benefits of blockchains, BadgeChain is also a word that might be used in the future to describe a new technical object resulting from the merger of blockchains and Open Badges.
When we started the BadgeChain group, the initial idea was to explore how blockchains could contribute towards improving the Open Badge technology and experience. There are a number of limitations to what one can do with Open Badges today that blockchains seem to be able to outsmart. Our initial reflection looked at the application of blockchain ideas to Open Badges. What has not yet been explored is the application of Open Badge ideas to blockchains: what could we do to blockchains if they used what we know about Open Badges?
Both Open Badges and blockchains are related to trust but they do it in almost opposite ways. As I have written many times, Open Badges are trust statements that could be combined to create chains and networks of trust. The information on how the members of the network trust each other can be used as the basis to establish trustworthy transactions — if 32 Open Badge experts trust Slava’s expertise on badges as well as 53 clients, I’m inclined to trust Slava to work with me on my next project.
Blockchains on the other hand are a means to establish trustworthy transactions even if those engaged in transactions do not trust each other. The trustworthiness of the transactions is not a property depending on the participants, their behaviour or the data they provide but on an algorithm controlling the trustworthiness of the next blocks added to the chain. The blockchain technology was designed to eliminate the human factor from making the decision on whether a transaction is trustworthy or not.
NB: many articles on the Web describe blockchains as trustless. What is meant is that trustworthy transactions are possible without the involvement of any trustedauthority (a bank, a notary or a registrar) and despite the fact that the parties involved do not trust each other. Trust is fully embedded in the blockchain infrastructure and does not need human intervention.
With the BadgeChain, trust is a property emerging from the participants’ behaviour, with blockchain trust is a property that ignores participants behaviour. One builds dynamic multidimensional networks i, the other an ever growing unidimensional chain. One is able to add and delete data (withdraw trust), the other can only add data (write only). One has emerged from the world of informal education, the other from the formal world of international business and finance.
From the previous description, any attempt at combining blockchains with Open Badges into a new technical object might sound like the marriage of the carp and rabbit! Yet, it is what we are going to try to achieve.
BadgeChain = Open Badges * blockchains
Different approaches are possible for merging Open Badges with blockchains:
Assimilation: the blockchain provides a more secure way to store credentials, so institutions do not have to bother with Open Badges.
Integration: the blockchain is a distributed database, where badges are stored as they would be in any other database (MySQL, Oracle, Fedora, etc.).
Accommodation: Open Badges are used to rethink blockchain architecture, protocols and algorithms
The assimilation model is already in action and will soon be adopted by all those who do not see in Open Badges anything more than credentials. Let’s face it, blockchains, even in their infant stage, are far superior to the current Open Badge technology for storing academic credentials. Moreover it is an opportunity for institutions to reassess their power as credentialing authorities. After all, why bother with Open Badges if any institution can create their own private chain and put on it the data they wish. Organisations already in the credentialing business can move directly to the blockchain without having to go through the Open Badges stage.
The integration model is a means for the Open Badge practitioners to continue business as usual while exploiting the unique properties of blockchains to correct some of the shortcomings of the current Open Badge Infrastructure. The integration model has also its drawbacks, like the lack of maturity of blockchain technology, a characteristic shared by the Open Badge infrastructure… There might be advantages in building a future together rather than getting older apart…
One of the main value propositions of the blockchain for integration is the ability create fully trustworthy and easy to verify records. Another main value is its ubiquitous database: the blockchain frees the storage of Open Badges from any individual storage, so badge holders are not forced to choose between one platform or another to store their badges. Service providers (e.g. issuing platforms) will be free to concentrate on added value services rather than trying to improve an idiosyncratic technology.
how could Open Badges help in creating a new type of blockchain exploiting the trust relationships captured by Open Badges?
The accommodation model starts with a question: how could Open Badges help in creating a new type of blockchain exploiting the trust relationships captured by Open Badges? It is what we are going to explore over the next posts, moving gradually away from the current Open Badge infrastructure to a possible BadgeChain infrastructure.
Many thanks to Nate Otto for his comments and suggestions on the first draft of this series of posts.
But what exactly is blockchain, and what are its implications for higher education?
Originally created as the underlying database for bitcoin (the peer-to-peer digital asset and payment system), blockchain’s technology is now being seen as valuable and purposeful beyond the financial sector. The advantages blockchain provides to store information on a secure, permanent, historical ledger that can be both public and private will change how edtech applications approach student data.
In higher ed this means that student data could be shared across many institutions — rather than a single one — and also include data from online learning tools, co-curricular activities, employment history and other learning experiences. This would allow the data to be exchanged, understood and validated amongst many parties. Imagine the pictures of students’ learning experiences that this could provide and how these pictures could help develop and improve upon course design, facilitate transferring credits, or prove qualifications for a job to a potential employer.
A Brief Blockchain History
To understand how blockchain works, let’s take a step back and consider some history. Take MySQL, for instance, which is considered to be one of the world’s most widely used relational databases. When it was created over 20 years ago, it made it possible for more developers to have affordable, easy to use, open-source databases. MySQL is hosted and controlled by the applications that use it. This puts the onus of access to the data and security precautions solely on the application provider.
Blockchain takes a different approach by distributing data equally amongst its participants. A public blockchain like the one bitcoin uses is distributed amongst thousands of participants (also called miners). To give you an idea of how many participants there can be, take a look at Bitnode which as of this writing is showing 7,071 miners participating in Bitcoin. Not all blockchains will have this many participants, but nonetheless this distribution provides a higher level of permanence than one application hosting its own database.
Blockchain is literally a chain of blocks. Often this chain is referred to as a ledger. Each block can contain hundreds of transactions (the data) waiting to be added to the blockchain. The blocks are in numerical order and only one block can be added at a time, with each block referencing the previous one. Each block is a link on the chain and is mathematically reliant on the one to which it is connected. There isn’t a central authority overseeing transactions. Instead, validity is determined by how the chain is generated providing assurance that blocks can’t be tampered with or duplicated. Even though the blocks are described as transactions, the data is not always financial. It can be content of any kind, including files.
The miners play a critical role in the creation of blocks and distributed nature of blockchain. To create the blocks each miner must host a copy of the entire ledger. Miners are incentivized to do this by being paid a reward and potentially collecting a fee for each transaction they process. They listen for incoming data, process it and attempt to fit as many transactions as they can into a block. Typically transactions with larger fees get processed first. Once a block is validated and published to the chain, the chain is redistributed so that all miners get the same update. Then it begins again.
Implications for Higher-Ed
It’s important to note that not all blockchains will use bitcoins, mining or apply the same rules to mining as bitcoin does. Blockchains could be managed by a consortium where members make the decisions about how blocks are processed. Also, blockchains can be private where one organization controls everything. A university may be interested in hosting a private blockchain or perhaps a group of universities. An ecosystem like Open Badges, which generates digital representations of learning and skills, may consider a consortium blockchain.
Blockchain is clearly more than just hype. Last fall, MIT Media Lab announced that it is developing software to issue digital certificates on the Bitcoin Blockchain. Holberton School has started delivering its academic credentials in a partnership with Bitproof, a blockchain-based notary system that proves ownership of content. In the Open Badges community, the BadgeChain team has started exploring how badges can be advanced by blockchain. Sony Global Education developed blockchain technology that enables secure sharing of academic records.
It’s also worth checking out Learning Is Earning, originally presented by Jane McGonigal at SXSW 2016. Learning Is Earning introduces a concept of “Edublocks,” which represent units of hours of learning which are written to a blockchain and can be used to “pay” for additional learning opportunities. Many shake their head at the concept of learning being measured in hours but nonetheless, the site and video do a nice job of illustrating how a blockchain in an educational context could operate.
We are still very much in the early days of blockchain in both development and adoption, and there are some challenges: Bitcoin costs are variable and still too difficult to buy, transactions are taking longer, and it’s reliant on users to store the public and private keys used to track transactions safely and permanently. Even with these challenges and likely many more, you can bet that it’s here to stay with adaptations, experiments and innovations on the way at a faster pace. It’s likely that your students soon will be or already are buying things with bitcoin and that the applications they use outside of your institutions, including the ones that your students create, will embrace the blockchain first.
We’re excited by the amazing response we’ve been getting. Thanks! You have been finding and following the BadgeChain work here on Medium and on Twitter @BadgeChain.
As you know, we have a temporary website up at http://badgechain.com. Our new BadgeChain site is in progress, so we wanted to share a brief update on two pieces of the future site: the calendar and the roadmap.
You want to stay up to date with the BadgeChain work: we get it. So, we have created a public BadgeChain google calendar for you! Subscribe to it for reminders to attend our biweekly BadgeChain Community Calls. (We have one this Wednesday, May 11.) The calendar is where you’ll find activity details and events as the work continues to grow and evolve, so subscribe to it now. Bonus: never worry about call timezone conversion again. Following us on Twitter @BadgeChain gets you call announcements as well.
As we have repeatedly noted, working in the open is baked into our process. We believe that public roadmaps are not only meaningful but useful for building the future we want. We built them at Mozilla when we were working to launch open badges and developing the web literacy map. We wrote them at the Badge Alliance when we continued to build the open badges ecosystem network. So, continuing with that proud tradition, we are pleased to announce BadgeChain’s first public roadmap.
By the way, we’ll be discussing the roadmap during this Wednesday’s (May 11) BadgeChain Community Call.
Subscribe to the calendar, review the roadmap, and consider how all of this might fit with your work. The real next steps are figuring out how we might build the future we want together.
BadgeChain keeps you up to date on the ways in which blockchain and related distributed technologies intersect with education, politics, business, and society.