Questions for the new kid on the block(chain)


There was an article in October’s Chronicle of Higher Education entitled How Blockchain Technology Will Disrupt Higher Education. (It’s in the Chronicle so of course you can’t actually access it, even my university library access does not permit the current edition to be viewed.  The Chronicle – where articles go to rest in peace). Now, I’ve knocked blockchain before, but my problem with this article is not so much the blockchain part, but rather that it is indicative of the almost wilful historical amnesia that besets so much of ed tech.

In the article the author, Richard DeMillo, claims that blockchain will disrupt (no, I’m not going to bite on that word either) higher education:

It will do so by solving a problem that few of us realized we had: There’s no reliably efficient and consistent way to keep track of a person’s entire educational history. That’s why a worldwide effort is underway to use blockchain technology to tame the internet so that it can become a universal, permanent record of educational achievement.

Well, speak for yourself. This is a problem many people thought they had, and indeed one they thought they had solved in the format of e-portfolios. The benefit of blockchain DeMillo claims is that it will open up what we recognise as assessment:

Students are more than transcripts and test scores. The college transcript is a 19th-century invention that has little do to with the educational institutions and workplaces of the 21st century.

Well, ok, but let’s look at how Helen Beetham summarized the benefits of an e-portfolio back in 2005:

  • that provide evidence of an individual’s progress and achievements
  • [are] drawn from both formal and informal learning activities
  • that are personally managed and owned by the learner
  • that can be used for review, reflection, and personal development planning
  • that can be selectively accessed by other interested parties e.g. teachers, peers, assessors, awarding bodies, prospective employers. (p. 3)

That sounds a lot like what DeMillo wants from blockchain. They developed standards to allow eportfolios to be written to by different providers and transported between systems. I have been critical of eportfolios, and they perhaps haven’t had the impact once envisaged for them, but they are very popular in some areas. Some of the issues in their uptake are not related to the technology, but to the context within which they operate. For instance, employers generally say they would like to have a complete portfolio of applicants work, but when it comes to it, they tend to fall back on CVs and interviews. Similarly, eportfolios require assessment in universities to be reshaped so they are based around discrete tasks which are more usefully added as a stand-alone piece of evidence.

Now maybe blockchain represents a better way of achieving this result, but for an article declaring how it will change the method of assessment, to not even acknowledge the existence of eportfolios is odd. How will blockchain do it better? How will it overcome the problems that over a decade of eportfolio work has not quite managed to address?

This goes for any new tech being declared to solve a problem in education. You are unlikely to be the first to have come across this issue, so what is in existence already? If that wasn’t successful, why? How will your solution overcome those issues? These are the questions any new ed tech kid on the (ahem) block needs to answer. And yet…


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