The promise of blockchain and its impact on higher education

Primavera De Filippi, an internationally recognized authority on the challenges and opportunities of blockchains and other decentralized online technologies, will deliver the UB Tech 2020 keynote address

Decentralized technologies such as blockchain raise a number of legal challenges. And studying those challenges and related solutions is where Primavera De Filippi’s passions lie. She co-authored the book Blockchain and the Law (Harvard University Press, 2018), and is investigating new opportunities for these technologies to enable new governance models and participatory decision-making through the concept of governance-by-design.

A permanent researcher at the National Center of Scientific Research in Paris and a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, De Filippi is a member of the Global Future Council on Blockchain Technologies at the World Economic Forum as well as co-founder of the Internet Governance Forum’s dynamic coalitions on blockchain technology. 

Follow her on Twitter in advance of her talk at UB Tech® 2020, which will kick off the conference on June 15. Below, De Filippi shares her perspective with UB. 

UB: Your book makes the case that new rules and approaches to legal thinking are needed for this technology to be harnessed productively. Has any movement on this front happened since its 2018 publication, and what’s the best way for CIOs and other tech-focused leaders to stay up to date on changes that impact blockchain and their own institutions?

Primavera De Filippi: The blockchain ecosystem has changed significantly since 2018. While the technology was initially seen as a tool for disintermediation that would potentially displace existing institutions, today it is increasingly regarded as an opportunity for both public and private institutions to transition towards a new era characterized by greater transparency and accountability. Blockchain technology is increasingly perceived as a regulatory technology that can contribute to achieving specific policy and regulatory objectives through a series of technological guarantees that can increase confidence and restore trust in institutions. 

Tech leaders and innovators should thus start looking at the disruptive potential of blockchain technology not only as a potential threat but also—or rather—as a competitive advantage that could help them turn their own organizations into more trustworthy endeavors. 

UB: Higher ed administrators have generally talked about adopting blockchain first in the student transcripts and credentials space, and while it’s probably safe to say that it’s on my institutions’ radar at this point, adoption is still slow. Why do you think that is?

De Filippi: Upgrading the information system of an existing organization is difficult and slow, especially when there are no direct commercial interests in doing so. Think of Open Data; while most people would agree that public institutions should publicly release their datasets—and some governments even require it by law (e.g. Public Sector Information in Europe)—the implementation is very slow because Open Data requires these institutions to ensure that their datasets are sufficiently clean, clear and well-formatted to be publicly exploitable. 

The same is true with the use of blockchain technology. While most institutions recognize the value that issued transcripts and verified credentials would bring to students and professionals in the higher education sector, the adoption of blockchain-based solutions often requires a significant upgrade of the underlying information system, which might be difficult to achieve in certain institutions.

UB: At Harvard and elsewhere, what areas are higher ed leaders most excited about in terms of using blockchain technology?

De Filippi: MIT Medialab has pioneered a system of digital credentials registered on the bitcoin blockchain, in a cryptographically secure and tamper-proof manner. These credentials can represent or recognize different types of achievements,  enabling students to collect credits for the various classes they take, as well as for external activities that contribute to their academic career. The European Blockchain Partnership is also working on developing standardized solutions of blockchain-based credentials in order to facilitate student mobility across academic institutions in Europe. 

UB: What message do you want campus CIOs and other campus technology administrators to take from your UB Tech keynote address?

De Filippi: The main message I want to convey is that blockchain technology is providing new opportunities to create more transparency and accountability in the field of academic credentials, but also more flexibility and interoperability. A system of blockchain-based academic credentials would not only enable the emergence of a more trustworthy ecosystem but also support the transition towards a more interconnected and interoperable model of academic credentials, enabling students to prove their knowledge and skills by aggregating credentials from multiple sources (traditional university or other actors). 

Ultimately, in the longer term, this could lead to a more dynamic model of education that is less centralized around one or few institutions providing a pre-defined diploma but rather would allow for more fragmented curricula to be re-aggregated into ad-hoc diplomas.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB. 

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