Is blockchain the answer to all our questions?

June 20, 2019
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Ever heard this famous maxim, known as the “law of the instrument” or “Maslow’s hammer?”: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Is blockchain basically Maslow’s hammer?

“You often hear people speaking excitedly about blockchain technology like it’s a giant hammer and every problem is a nail,” said Andy Dowling, Founder and CEO of the secure online credential company Digitary. “But established providers have offered secure credentialing solutions without blockchain, so we need to ask -- what value does blockchain add? What problem does it solve that hasn’t been solved by existing technology?”

In the context of digital credentials, blockchain technology has the potential to radically transform the student record.  Traditionally, records are verified at the source -- the issuing institution. With blockchain, the record would be ‘owned’ by the learner and verified using cryptographic technology without going back to the source. Because blockchain is validated using digital signatures, safeguarded using intricate math, and preserved by everyone on the chain so there is no single point of failure, the technology offers a totally new way to store and validate the student record.

“But blockchain is not a silver bullet,” Dowling said. “It’s just a technology, and like any technology, we need to evaluate it properly to see if it meets a need, and to understand the associated benefits, risks, and costs, etc.”

One potential challenge: cryptokeys

Giving the learner possession of the digital credential trades current problems for new ones. With online systems, learners have access to an online portal and if they forget their passwords, they can usually initiate a ‘forgot your password’ process. With blockchain, secure cryptographic keys, known only to the learner, are used instead of passwords. While they are generally more secure, they must be remembered by the learner and if the keys are lost, recovery is impossible (that’s the point) and digital credentials need to be re-issued to a new set of keys.

“Learners taking ownership only scales if we have a situation where the cryptographic key is totally integrated into everyday use,” Dowling said. “If you’re only using your keys every few years, they can be easily forgotten. It needs to be tied to the identity you use to unlock your phone, access public services, and integrated into other identity management systems.”

The hurdle: standardization

“Though blockchain has been used in bitcoin for more than 10 years, its use in digital credentials is relatively new. We’re early in the adoption cycle so we don’t have standards,” Dowling said. “We have open source but not ratified standards. So if individual institutions adopt blockchain because it’s shiny and new, before standardization, a few years from now their technology is at risk of being siloed.”

That’s why it’s important for institutions to ask the right questions and identify areas for collaborative work -- such as how to integrate the cryptographic key into everyday life -- before jumping in.

“The hype isn’t all bad; it’s bringing focus and momentum to digital credentials,” Dowling said. “Now it’s time to take that momentum into the work of standardization, perhaps through PESC or somewhere else, rather than taking a siloed approach through immediate implementation. That will give us our best chance of assessing the challenges and seeing what the gaps are before harnessing this technology.”

Dowling will bring his insight to the Innovation Hub session “A Load of Blocks? A Considered Analysis on Blockchain Credentials” at the AACRAO Technology and Transfer Conference in July. Learn more and join us in Las Vegas in July.