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Take your learning with you

The Blockcerts project helps learners carry their skills everywhere they go, says Natalie Smolenski.

Natalie Smolenski: Using Blockcerts, education institutions, employers or authorities can verify any credential of applicants for a job, a study programme or a visa at the click of a button.

Natalie Smolenski: Using Blockcerts, education institutions, employers or authorities can verify any credential of applicants for a job, a study programme or a visa at the click of a button.

How did the Blockcerts pro­ject begin? 

Blockcerts grew out of conversations Learning Machine was having with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab a few years ago. MIT had long been familiar with the pain of verifying official academic credentials as part of the university application process. There was just no elegant way to instantly verify credentials – digital or paper – that didn’t rely in some way on checking with the issuing institution or paying a software vendor or verification service. Moreover, these organisations change over time, or go out of business, or lose records.

With the blockchain, however, recipients can now be given ownership of their official documents for the rest of their lives and have them verified anywhere in the world, instantly and for free. 

Learning Machine worked with the MIT Media Lab to build a prototype of the blockchain issuing and verification technology, which we called ‘Blockcerts’. Then we improved the code and reconciled it with the Open Badges (OBI) standard, a popular digital credentialing framework, to turn it into the truly interoperable standard that exists today.

In keeping with our open source philosophy, Blockcerts is published under an MIT free, open source software licence. That means anyone can use the code to build their own applications for issuing and verifying credentials, for free.

How will learners benefit? 

Students and workers all over the world today are facing the problem of access: how do I turn my skills into not just a job, but a career that gets better over my lifetime?

Part of that is that people are becoming lifelong learners. They know they need to keep growing and changing. But people also know they may need to study and work in many different places, cities or even countries, to build the skills and experience they need. But how can they prove they are who they are, and have the skills they claim to have, everywhere they go?

Today that process is slow, expensive, and full of red tape. There are a million annoying ways it can go wrong and deny you that scholarship, acceptance letter, employment offer, bank account or travel visa. The difficulty of verification holds entire economies back. But with Blockcerts, it’s now one of the easiest problems to solve.

What about companies, schools, or even governments?

Just imagine an applicant for a job, a study programme, or a visa could send you a simple link to their passport, diploma, or birth certificate, and you can verify it with the click of a button. You don’t have to pay anything, call anyone, or have anything mailed to you.

You know right away if the Blockcert is coming from the right institution and if it was issued to the person who’s sending you the link. How much time, money, and headache does that save you? And how much easier does that make hiring and opening a business in your country?

How does one get a Blockcert? 

Your university, government, or employer can send you any credential as a Blockcert. They can build their own software using the free Blockcerts code, or they can license an issuing product from a software vendor like Learning Machine.

The difficulty of verification holds entire economies back

The good news is that some institutions, like the Maltese government, are already issuing Blockcerts to their citizens, and it is free for the Maltese. That means employers, schools in Malta and anywhere else where Maltese people apply to work or study at will automatically benefit too.

Why open source Blockcerts?

We open sourced Blockcerts because we are realistic: we know that businesses come and go. But people’s most important records shouldn’t be held hostage by any business’s lifespan. Think of the internet: what if the TCP/IP protocol was owned by a business that went away one day? All internet users would lose access to what should be a public good. Since TCP/IP is open source, however, it doesn’t matter who you get your internet from – you can still use the same base infrastructure anywhere in the world.

That’s the whole point of technology: people shouldn’t have to come up with the same solutions over and over again. Instead, we build on the past and make progress. Blockcerts, like the blockchain, is a building block. Take it and build with it – everyone will benefit if you use the open standard. 

Learning Machine has also built some great products with Blockcerts, and our customers like them enough to license our issuing system. We’ve found that the Learning Machine Issuing System works for institutions that want to issue Blockcerts, collect analytics, manage recipient profiles, plan curriculum and develop policy. Outside Malta, we’re already working with clients that are looking at the blockchain as a means of notarising property and health records. 

We’re trying to make the future easy. It doesn’t have to be hard work to take advantage of an exciting new technology like the blockchain. You can engage with the technology without changing anything you’re currently doing. Over time, you decide when and how to change your credential issuing and verification process based on what’s right for your organisation.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription. At Learning Machine we are focused on making good, scalable products. We’re also good at partnering with institutions wanting to take advantage of something new, step-by-step. That’s how all progress occurs. 

Dr Natalie Smolenski is a cultural anthropologist and vice president business development at Learning Machine. She will be one of the keynote speakers at the Block­chain, Credentials and Connected Learning Conference in Malta on May 17-18. The conference brings together thought-leaders, re­search­ers and industry specialists, including Godfrey Baldacchino, Evarist Bartolo, Ilona Buchem, Joshua Broggi, Marcelo Cabrol, Anthony Camilleri, Angeliki Dedopoulou, John Domingue, Frank Fabri, Ian Gauci, Alex Grech, Abdalla Kablan, Gordon Pace, Gorg Mallia, Dimitrios Pikios, Marloes Pomp, Timothy Read, Alek Tarkowski, Balaji Venkataraman, Christian Werner and others. For more information visit www. 3clevents.com, www.­blockcerts.org and www.learningmachine.com.

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