From Brain Surgery to Brexit – The Potential of Blockchain in Higher Education?

In the second blog of our series on the Blockchain, Martin Hamilton provides us with examples of applications and current UK and EU policies which raise further the need to reflect on how Blockchain can be used to ensure value for money but also enhances value for our students.

Imagine arriving in the UK with nothing but the clothes you are wearing. Your home country has been locked in a bloody civil war for the last six years. You lost everything you had in a rocket attack that destroyed your apartment block. You arrived home from work that fateful day to find that your home and family were gone forever. In your work as a neurosurgeon you had seen a daily procession of atrocities, but nothing had prepared you for this.

You determined to get away from the slaughter and start a new life in Europe. And after a long and arduous journey you were finally accepted into the UK as a refugee. But all your stuff is destroyed, the schools and the university you studied at literally no longer exist. You have no papers, and so you cannot prove that you are a qualified medical professional – a brain surgeon no less.

This frustrates you every day you see headlines about NHS staffing crises. As a refugee you are allowed to work. You even have a National Insurance number, but how are you to prove what you know other than by starting again from scratch? Wouldn’t it be great if there was some verifiable way of recording that learning, work experience and training that transcends companies, institutions and even governments?

This is the premise underlying Doctors Link, a UK startup that is working to create a ‘digital passport’ for doctors that will help to both record accredited learning and match doctors with roles such as locum positions. Under the hood, Doctors Link is using a technology called Blockchain. Blockchain started life as the underpinnings of the Bitcoin virtual currency, but is now seeing increasing interest for all kinds of use cases.

But what is Blockchain, and what makes it special? In a nutshell, it’s a database that is spread across computers all over the Internet, that everyone can add entries to, and anyone can update. This distributed, permissionless architecture means that no one entity is in control. What’s more, the Blockchain database itself is immutable, which means that it can only be added to, not changed – and the core Blockchain code is ‘open source’, which means that not only can anyone run their own copy, but they can also fix and enhance it. Lots of people are looking right now at how technologies like Blockchain could enable new digital approaches to thorny or previously intractable problems. These could encompass everything from tracking provenance of products across the new UK/EU land border in Ireland to managing government benefits.

As you can imagine there has been particular interest from the research and education community, as lesser variants of the scenario I describe above play out each and every day. In addition to Doctors Link I would particularly single out the work that the Open University’s Knowledge Management Institute is doing on exploring Blockchain scenarios in research and education, the Blockcerts project from MIT, the Blockchain for Science manifesto and the Blockchain Alliance for Good, and the Blockchain Educational Passport from Efficiency Exchange’s new operators at the CCEG.

And that’s where I have to sound a note of caution – this is still very much an active research topic. We’re presently at the stage of building the railways, and designing the trains that will run on top of them. If you used the Web back in its early days, this may all sound very familiar – and indeed Bitcoin and Blockchain have something of that Wild West feel. Do you remember how images and forms were added to the Web around 1994, essentially so people could buy pizza online? That’s pretty much where we are now. Just the other day, $300m of Ethereum virtual currency was accidentally lost due to a software bug. But like the early web, it’s possible to dip a toe in the water, and the potential rewards are massive – but you need to be sure that you have accurately calibrated your, or your institution’s, risk appetite.

At Jisc we are very interested in the potential of Blockchain for both institutional efficiency savings, and also enabling whole new business models and ways of working. For example, Blockchain could potentially make a massive difference to complex multi-stakeholder processes like credit transfer. Take a look at our Blockchain in Research and Education horizon scanning report to find out more. Another good (but long!) read is the Blockchain in Education report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. If you or your institution is interested in exploring some of the potential of blockchain, I’d love to speak with you, so do get in touch.