Blockchain could help colleges like ASU provide better, more secure online education

Arizona State University believes blockchain will be key to helping it deliver online education to over 100,000+ students by 2025.
Written by Bill Detwiler, Contributor

Online education was gaining significant momentum with colleges and universities, even before the coronavirus pandemic. But as dozens and dozens of schools, like USC, Harvard, Rutgers, George Washington University, and UNC at Chapel Hill, take all or some of their Fall 2020 semester online in response to COVID-19, technology is playing an increasingly important role in higher education, both in term of the classroom and student administration. Tasks that were once conducted face-to-face, now have to be accomplished remotely. Blockchain could help schools perform some of these administrative tasks with more security and transparency.

At Salesforce's Dreamforce 2019 conference, I had a chance to speak with Donna Kidwell, CTO at EdPlus at Arizona State University, about the institution's plans for blockchain. Kidwell explained that ASU has a goal of supporting 100,000 online learners by 2025. They are already have 55,000 students. Blockchain will play a key role in helping them meet that goal by allowing ASU to better track and certify each student's "learning accomplishments," Kidewell said.

Having a trusted, portable record of someone's educational achievements is particularly important today, as most students don't follow a traditional four-year college degree path, Kidwell said. Instead, they are "life-long learners" who will earn skills and knowledge at many institutions over the course of their educational and professional careers. Blockchain and a general public ledger when combined with identity management technology can help institutions like ASU build "transparent trust" into each student's transcript.

The following in a transcript of our interview, edited for readability.

SEE: Online education toolbox: Tips and resources for distance learning (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: So how is ASU using blockchain?

Donna Kidwell: This is one of my favorite questions, so thank you for asking. We have been working on this for about 18 months, give or take. It took maybe six months to figure out should we actually be using blockchain, because that's a whole thing. Is it the right technology to use? We looked at about a dozen different things that we thought, well, maybe blockchain would be good for this. Maybe blockchain would look good for that, until we really honed in on something that really where the technology of blockchain, the way blockchain allows us to think about things really matters, because otherwise, you don't want to do it just because it's blockchain. You want to have a valid reason for it underneath it. That's how we came up to where we're at now. We've got a roadmap that gets us towards using blockchain for reverse transfer, if you're familiar with that concept. If not, I can explain it a little.

Bill Detwiler: Sure, why don't you explain it, so everybody knows?

Donna Kidwell: So a pretty simple story. Let's say somebody goes to high school, then they decide, I'm going to go to a community college for a little while. They go to the community college. They're thinking, I really dig this. I'm going to go ahead and do a four year degree. So they transfer in. They could do that and not have their associates. In fact, a large percentage of ASU online students don't have their associates. End up getting their four year degree, but along that way, they probably get that one English class that they were missing or whatever, how many ever hours they were missing. If we can actually get them to the point where they can get that associates while they're on the bachelors, then one, they get to actually use that out in the marketplace for themselves, tell their employer, "Hey, I got this," see if that gets them a raise.

That's all great. Let's get them that credential because they've earned it by this point, right? They've done the work. Let's give them the actual accomplishment. The other thing it allows us to do is between institutions, we can see what really pathways are happening there? Right now, when you stop going to the community college, basically you go dark. So community college doesn't know about your journey beyond that. Well, it would be really interesting across these public institutions, across higher ed generally, if we could actually see what was happening to our learners. Now, along that whole way, a big piece of this is privacy and trust, another reason we're using trust technologies like blockchain. To do that, we need the learner themselves to consent and say, "Yeah, I totally get it, and I would love to have that."

So we are enabling this very different way of working between institutions. Previously, like Jose in the keynote that I had this morning, a guy like Jose has got to get permission. He's got to call up his advisor, get his transcripts. Maybe he's got transcripts from two or three different places, a high school and two community colleges. It's pretty typical. He compiles all of that and makes it happen. This would allow us to take the friction out of all of that. All he has to do is say, "I consent." These partners, and we've worked with almost every community college already. ASU has been around. We've been doing this. We're not actually transforming anything that's not a business process that already exists, but now we're putting that learner right in the heart of it and giving them a lot more agency to be able to actually make all the things happen.

More education: Intel aims to bring AI education to community colleges | Is higher education ready to serve the new traditional and connected students? | How will online education evolve? Coursera's Leah Belsky has a few ideas | Online learning, now at an all-time high, signals a new future for education

Bill Detwiler: So it allows you to gather that data and create a record-

Donna Kidwell: Right.

Bill Detwiler: ... that is portable with the student that they can source.

Donna Kidwell: That's right.

Bill Detwiler: Blockchain allows you to verify the authenticity of that record-

Donna Kidwell: Absolutely.

Bill Detwiler: ... as they move through from organization to organization, institution to institution.

EdPlus at ASU

ASU EdPlus website

Donna Kidwell: What's really beautiful about it is the nature of that distributed ledger means I'm not the only one with a copy, which is how it is today. We've each got our own little fiefdoms, right, our own little domains. So now we've got a general public ledger where all of those learning accomplishments are being recorded across the ledger. I, ASU, issue that credential. Yep, that happened. I verify that it happened. So I'm still issuing the credential. I still, for all practical purposes, I'm doing the kinds of things that universities have always done in terms of owning that data. But now I've got it in a place where the learner can say, okay, we're going to allow others to actually see it, can allow some other transactions to happen a little bit easier. That's really why the general public ledger ended up making sense.

Bill Detwiler: Right, and so what role does Salesforce play in that process for ASU?

Donna Kidwell: Yeah, so that's a great question. A couple of different things. One, they've been a great technology partner for us all along. So if we're thinking scale, which we are, we want to get to 100,000 learners in the online space by 2025. We're at 55,000 now. I expect we're going to hit that 100,000 well before our 2025 year mark. So if you're thinking about that many learners, we already need a really strong, what in my world would be a learner relationship management platform. How am I relating to that learner as they're going through their different journeys? Salesforce was already doing a lot of stuff with us. So Salesforce was trying to figure out what's going to be their blockchain strategy? We're trying to figure out, does blockchain even make sense? A design partnership there really, really works.

Frankly, if you're on a campus, you've got student information systems, we've got learning management systems, we've got CRM systems, a little triumvirate of all this tech. Each of those have their own different jobs, and somewhere in the middle of that is a different job. It's accomplishment. Like how are we actually recording this accomplishment? Could we give that to a learner across their life now, not just for the four years because we know that's actually not the path most people are taking. Could we give it to them for the whole duration of their career? That makes you think about the technology differently. Salesforce is thinking about their version of a lifelong learner. All of this was happening around the same time that they're really creating Trailhead. So here we are, mission aligned towards different types of learning, but at the end, trying to really empower people to, in the nomenclature here, to blaze their own trails. I totally get it. That's what we want to. So in as much as we can work with them to design what that future looks like, it's a good thing.

Bill Detwiler: What were some of the challenges that you faced either from the institution, administration side of things at ASU, or just technical challenges with moving to blockchain? Because everybody thinks this is cryptocurrency, right?

Donna Kidwell: Right.

SEE: Technology in education: The latest products and trends (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Bill Detwiler: But blockchain is more than that. So as a CTO, did you have to convince the administration at ASU? Did you have to convince other stakeholders that this is the right path to take?

Donna Kidwell: So great question, kind of two parts. We'll take the, how do you get this job done inside a bureaucratic, not so much at ASU, but most public institutions are known for what I'd call bureau viscosity. Things slow down in the bureaucracy and you got to make all that happen. ASU is a horse of a different color in that way. President Crow has really created, over the years that he's been there, a culture of innovation. So I am, in some ways, very blessed at ASU. It's really fortunate in that the provost office sponsors this project. It has the registrar there meeting with me. Registrar and I went to Washington DC to talk to the Department of Ed about how this might have policy implications. It's not-

Bill Detwiler: So how was it? Talk a little bit, I mean, how that ... how you were able to maybe overcome some of their concerns, the regulator's concerns, or maybe they didn't have any. Maybe they were already moving a role.

Donna Kidwell: Oh no, it's still a conversation, right? I think that's part of it, is that I don't go to the table as a CTO and say, technology enables us to do new things. Instead, we're having this dialogue and saying, okay, so what if technology enabled us to do new things? Then the registrar is able to say, well, here's how I'm funded. Here's the pain points I have. Here's where the system breaks. Here's where it works for me, but it doesn't work for a student, or it works for me, but it doesn't work for the other registrar in my sister institution, or whatever. If we have these real honest conversations, the same is true for the Department of Ed and FERPA, like a real conversation. Like what does it actually mean to do what we're trying to do, and does law and policy actually support it?

Those are two different things, right? So how do we actually make all of that happen? It's all through really sitting down at a table, the same table, but having a diversity of people who are at the table. That's one of the things where I'd say, at ASU, we really approach the problems that way. So to go back to the second part of your question, the burden on a project that's an innovative project in a place that's as entrepreneurial as ASU, but still a public institution. So I've really got to prove I have a business case. I've got to show, it's going to make a difference for students. There's going to be sustainable opportunity in it. It is going to be something that not only can we create this wonderful technology, can be gardens and unique gardeners forever. So not only am I going to be able to build a beautiful garden, but it's going to be sustainable. Every milestone that we meet is trying to demonstrate value. It's to demonstrate sustainability. I've got to make that case almost as if I were a startup.

Bill Detwiler: For other organizations, whether they're public institutions like universities, whether they're healthcare organizations, they're other privates who are looking at blockchain to solve problems that they have, what advice would you give them?

Donna Kidwell: Well, a couple of lessons learned with us. All of the processes we're talking about already existed. They just existed in ways that weren't very easy to work with. So require a lot of man hours, or are business processes that have some automation, but are pretty manual, are still processes where boy, if we could talk to one another, things would be a lot easier. So that's nice. We're not actually building something off as something that doesn't exist. A case like reverse transfer is pretty well known amongst institutions all across the country. You can talk to register to register. They get it. They know what's happening, so that's one thing, our admissions to admissions.

The other thing though, is to be able to understand what is that underlying problem? For us, part of the issue is trust. So I think blockchain is one of trust technologies. The other ones that we're really interested in are around identity management, because lifelong learning, that gets really interesting. So for me, trying to figure out the heart of where we're going to be able to create value, then let's you say, okay, well then this is why you'd need that technology. You need it for speed. You need it for scale. Whatever the reason is, blockchain serves itself really well if you need transparent trust.

So in our case, we want to be able to issue something because it's the university's name, it's the faculty's name. We put a lot of esteem into that, a lot of work into that. We're going to issue that credential as universities always have. We want that to be verified. We want that to be something other people can double check. We want that process to be transparent, but private and permission-based. So it was that set of rules that then led us to say, oh, this actually ... the technology capabilities and the function that we get from the tech matches the same set of business needs and values that we have. You see that a lot in health care. It's another place where there'd be really, or I think every industry is trying to figure out where's their mix of that, that same recipe that would help them understand how blockchain may or may not be a fit.

More education:


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