Blockchain – a learning curve for vocational training

Tony Wheeler, Head of Innovation at Digital Assess, talks qualification verification and how institutions could benefit from blockchain

Blockchain is a technology that has made waves in financial services, but now and for the first time it’s starting to encroach into the vocational skills market to improve trust in the system of accreditation and, most significantly, between learners and their future employers.

How many students, if asked to provide a paper certificate of a vocational qualification, could retrieve it at a moment’s notice, or be sure that it could never be lost, stolen or reproduced as a digital forgery? We’re all guilty of forgetting where we have filed these qualifications ‘for safekeeping’, perhaps leaving them at the bottom of a cupboard or within a stash of papers. Yet we’re now at a stage where, as in banking, there is a growing awareness of the sector’s susceptibility to fraud and a movement away from paper-based processes, and this is prompting schools, colleges, universities to invest in a secure accreditation technology that can ensure public trust in our respected learning institutions.

The education and skills sector is digitally transforming, bringing many of the traditionally paper-based practices that originated in the 18th century into the digital sphere, and accreditation is one of the few remaining processes yet to be remade by cloud-enabled technology. Access to education, virtual classrooms and learning programmes: all of these have been revolutionised in the last 10 years by the cloud, and now the paper qualification itself – the product of all that effort and hard work – is about to be revamped for the 21st century.

The primary reason for this is improved security. Blockchain is an inherently secure distributed database that maintains a continuously-growing list of ‘blocks’, and these blocks are records that can’t be revised without affecting the entire chain. This is because each block includes a ‘hash’ (a unique code) of the prior block, thereby linking one block after another into an ever expanding chain that can’t be altered.

Image via Flickr

The popularity of the well-known cryptocurrency Bitcoin is rooted in the indelibility of its audit trail, and since Blockchain was pioneered by the financial sector, the potentialities for other Bitcoin-style records have ballooned into other markets. For vocational learning, like many other sectors, this means the Blockchain database preserves the history of every individual change ever made to a digital certificate of qualification because it is fault tolerant, encrypted, and immutable. All changes will need to be approved by multiple assessors, which means it’s protected from hackers or any unauthorised changes from a third party. This is the most significant reason why CTOs of vocational learning bodies are beginning to take an interest, and why the agreement between a learner and their future employer is about to benefit from improved transparency.

Skills Blockchain project

However, the case is yet to be made for an industry-wide adoption of Blockchain. Digital Assess has launched a Skills Blockchain project this year, as part of a five-year strategy, to make the case for its adoption and to deliver an increase in the scale of vocational learning. 

This project is funded by the Ufi Charitable Trust and it will demonstrate how – and more importantly why – Blockchain technology should be used by an accreditation organisation to replace traditional paper certificates. This will eventually result in an international ledger of educational achievement that can be mined, verified, and distributed securely across the vocational market. 

The project will also provide learners with a digital portfolio of their achievements, via work and home learning, as well as formal learning through existing providers and awarding organisations which means that, ultimately, anyone, whether an employer or a university, will have the ability to check the validity of a certificate, providing greater levels of trust and transparency in qualifications.

Digital Assess will partner with awarding organisations including its own parent company Vocational Training Charitable Trust (VTCT), opening up access to the 4.5 million students completing Further Education in the UK.



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