On December 16, 2017, nearly eight years after its initial launch in 2009, Bitcoin’s trading price reached a high of $19,346.60 USD before slowly dropping to its current level around $6,000. While the volatility of cryptocurrency value has been a media highlight, garnering less press is the substantial interest and investment being directed toward the underlying technology – the blockchain.
As engines of trust, blockchains are at the same time highly transparent and highly confidential; highly secure and highly participatory. This technology has application beyond just cryptocurrencies – blockchains are already being implemented as solutions for things like supply chain management, art rights and royalties, and financial inclusion. They’re also being implemented in the credentialing space for things like digital badging and learning community management systems. The possibilities are nearly endless, however, it’s difficult to truly grasp the innovation of these applications without an understanding of the technology’s fundamentals.
A blockchain is a secure, decentralized, networked system for managing information. Individual records, called “blocks”, are permanently added to a shared electronic ledger, called “the chain.” The chain is built block by block, by pools of competing individuals called “miners,” and is collectively stored by a network of computers and users called “nodes.”
Blocks are cryptographically signed by parties involved in each transaction using public, pseudonymous identifiers that are validated with private keys known only to each party. The information stored in each block is secured using military grade encryption that compresses it into a unique fixed-length “hash” of letters and numbers. Readers can see an example of how such a hash algorithm works here. Additionally, a block’s hash is also influenced by the hash of the preceding block. This establishes linkages between blocks (hence, blockchain). This system is highly resistant to fraud. Any attempted alterations of the record would result in a cascade of changes that would create an obviously different chain, which would not match the chain stored by the rest of the network’s nodes, resulting in its rejection.
The integrity of new blocks added to the chain is typically secured through incentivization and computational competitions among miners to discern the hash of each new block. These competitions, called “mining,” expend a lot of computational and electrical power, making it difficult to be in a position to commit fraud. As blocks are mined and miners’ versions of the chain are lengthened, the system’s protocol determines who in the network has the longest accurate chain, which would be by default the most current, and relays this chain to the rest of the network. This establishes consensus amongst all network nodes and ensures that miners are working on the best version of the chain. Together, all these mechanisms and design elements result in a robust and tamper-resistant ledger that logs transactions between parties without directly disclosing identities.
Illustration: Mark Montgomery, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
Current Credentialing Applications
Digital badging is an increasingly-popular tool utilized by credentialing bodies to replace or supplement their credential conferment process. These systems record individuals’ achievements electronically, allowing credential holders and third parties to conveniently share and confirm information about the holder’s credentialed status. Most applications of digital badging systems are facilitated by centralized databases that are typically managed by a service provider that populates the database with information supplied by the credentialing body.
In contrast, some providers offer cryptographically-secured blockchain-based digital badging solutions built to comply with Open Badges and Blockcerts standards. While performing similar digital badging functions, these providers’ decentralized systems have no central point of failure, thereby enhancing their security. Apart from implementing blockchain technology for credential issuance and being relegated to the tail-end of the credentialing process, there are a handful of developers exploring how a blockchain could effectively drive a credentialing program.
One such project, called “fathom,” establishes a protocol for knowledge communities to collaboratively create their own credentials by defining a unique collection of concepts. Candidates vying to earn the credential would pay multiple credential-holders to test their knowledge using assessments of their own design. Candidates’ scores on each assessor’s assessment would be weighed against each other, serving as the basis for the credentialing decision, but also providing a metric by which to reward assessors in agreement on the credentialing decision and punish outliers. Candidates who pass the assessment phase would be credentialed as experts of the knowledge community, which permits them to become assessors themselves. While the fathom system does not use the psychometrics typically advocated by credentialing industry standards, it is an interesting example of how decentralized systems could play a larger role in credentialing processes.
Though there’s been exploration and implementation of blockchain for credential issuance and reimagination of certificate-type programs, what hasn’t been explored is how blockchain could integrate into the management systems of existing competency-based certification programs. Depending on the degree of implementation, such integration could allow for the effective automation of the application review process from start to finish while still ensuring program rigor and integrity.
An Idea for Certification Implementation
An authority’s decision to award certification wholly stems from trust in a candidate’s fulfillment of the certification requirements, which typically consist of eligibility criteria, assessment performance, and adherence to codes of conduct. Completion of these requirements is centrally-verified by certification program staff or volunteers who review candidate claims, supporting documentation, and third-party attestations. This can be a resource-intensive endeavor, as certifiers need to protect their programs from candidates who forge documents, misrepresent their qualifications, or supply documentation from diploma mills and other disreputable outlets. Utilization of electronically-signed documents that allow for easy confirmation of identity would be a helpful way to mitigate some of these concerns. However, if documents are electronically authenticated, why not have a computer or a decentralized network of computers do the work?
Instead of a central database or file system in which candidate documents are stored, imagine that each piece of an individual’s candidacy for certification is a “digital badge” that is supplied by attesting institutions and is encoded into blocks on a certification authority’s blockchain. Blocks could publicly document the details of the specific qualifications being confirmed while keeping the identities of the individuals and institutions private. Permission systems could limit the recognition of certain types of blocks to only pre-vetted parties – for instance, blocks representing examination results could only be added to the chain when signed by a recognized administrator. Mining or processing of these blocks could be handled by a decentralized network of computers owned by the credentialing authority or maybe even a wider network of existing credential holders and program stakeholders. In this way, an authority can transform application review to a purely syntactical process completed by a wider network without compromising the necessary confidentiality of personal information. To top it off, the system could recognize when a candidate, known only by his or her public pseudonym, has verified blocks on the chain that account for all the requirements, and could automatically recommend certification on that basis. Altogether, the bulk of certification process would be automated, auditable, confidential, and highly secure.
Greater integration of blockchain technology could be transformative for a credentialing authority by enabling staff and volunteer attention to be redirected from simple data entry and review to tasks of greater consequence like governance, policies, exam development, and strategic planning. Though blockchain’s decentralization represents a significant change from traditional systems, its implementation does not necessarily require an authority to radically deviate from established standards.
Whether blockchain is willingly implemented by the credentialing community at large or not, the fact remains that there is considerable momentum behind blockchain development by highly influential institutions in nearly all industries. The decentralized future is being authored today – it will be on all of us to get involved and make sure these efforts are informed by the principles and standards in which we all trust.
2018 ICE Exchange Session: Blockchain and the New World of Qualification
Join us Thursday, November 8, 2018 at the ICE Exchange in Austin, Texas