On Blockchain Disrupting Higher Education


Martin Weller wrote a response to The Chronicle’s (paywalled) piece by Richard DeMillo on blockchain disrupting education. Martin’s right in pointing out that many of the hoped-for disruptions are actually possible using existing technologies and practices (eportfolios, badges, etc.) without “disruption” needed. Martin has written about disruption before.

Blockchain will certainly be used in higher education. It will transform how some things are designed and run. In the same way that relational databases have - Moodle (or even MOOCs 1) wouldn’t have been possible without MySQL. Blackboard wouldn’t have been possible without Oracle (or whatever SQL engine it runs on). Relational databases transformed how courses were offered by higher education institutions, without disrupting the institutions themselves.

Stephen Downes has been doing some really interesting work on using blockchain to track course completion for MOOC participants. It’s still super-early days, and it’s analogous to having to write your own database application to store grades in a course - but as the underlaying technologies evolve, that will become simpler.

I look at blockchain2 as essentially a distributed database. Yes, it’s much more complicated than that, but at a high level, it’s a way to store information in a way that doesn’t “belong” on any single computer, in a way that can be accessed - and the value can be trusted3 - from anywhere. That sounds particularly useful for distributed computing, or things like supply chain management, or (parts of) higher education.

Will it disrupt higher ed? I don’t think so. Will it transform how some services are run? Absolutely. It’s something we need to be exploring, but not as a “let’s redesign what a university even is, man!” kind of way.


  1. Sebastian Thrun may have some thoughts on how the whole MOOC disruption of higher education worked out. At last count, there were significantly more than 10 institutions of higher learning left. ↩︎

  2. as someone who has no skin in the game - I’ve been following blockchain and the related cryptocurrency stuff, but haven’t jumped in myself. I once tried crunching bitcoin back when they were cheap and easy and could be done on el-cheapo computers without requiring the energy output of a small country to do so, but I gave up before getting any results… ↩︎

  3. “trusted” as in “that’s the value that was originally stored and it hasn’t been altered” rather than “that’s the truth”. They’re separate concepts. ↩︎


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Last updated: March 01, 2024