Blockchain and Education in China: New Possibilities and Challenges
Thanks to its characteristics such as decentralization, the consensus mechanism, traceability, openness and transparency, “blockchain + education” has offered new possibilities in credit management, learning track recording, and educational certification, etc. And based on that, government, experts and researchers all laid out the potentials of applying this emerging tech into education from theoretical and practical perspectives.
Application Potentials of Blockchain Technology in Education
From government level, the “White Paper on the Development of Blockchain Technology and Its Application in China” promulgated by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China in October 2016 pointed out that “since data on blockchain is transparent and cannot be tampered with, blockchain systems are well suited for student credit management, college entrance, recruitment and employment, scholarship, qualification certification, industry-academia cooperation and other aspects, and are of significant value for the healthy development of education and employment.”
Some professionals also backed up this case with their solid reasons. Among them, Dr Xu Hongwei, member of the expert group for Education Quality Test (China) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development of the United Nations, made a claim in an interview last September that by taking advantage of the traceability and non-tampering of blockchain technology, a learning and growth profile can be established for every child from the basic education stage, so that educational statistics methods and systems can be used to make a comprehensive evaluation of the growth and education of children, which may be further used for making admittance decisions by universities.
Research field echoed some of the earlier propositions with more theoretical underpinning. For instance, in a joint paper¹, Yang Xianmin, Li Xin, Wu Huanqing and Zhao Keyun pointed out that the application of blockchain technology in the finance indicates its application in education: (1) the traceability of blockchain technology can be used for the copyright protection of educational assets and intellectual achievements, solving the problem of intellectual property disputes from the source; (2) using distributed ledger technology to directly connect resources and their users can simplify the process and improve the efficiency of resource sharing, thus promoting the open sharing of educational resources. (3) blockchain can weaken the monopoly of schools or governments in educational services, so that any institution with educational qualifications can offer educational services and issue effective academic certificates, realizing the effective integration of formal and non-formal education, and promoting the participation of the public in reforming the education system.
Besides, blockchain technology can be used to establish smart contracts, a new type of contract system, whereby students or parents can have real-time access to authentic evaluation of courses and accurate educational results, and accordingly pay tuition fees. For instance, a student and an educational institute may first make the advance payment and the deposit to the smart contract system. After the contract is effective, the smart contract system will access the student’s score via the academic performance platform. If the student has achieved the desired result, the smart contract system will automatically deduct tuition fees, and return the deposit to the institute; otherwise, tuition fees will be refunded, and the deposit will be deducted according to the contract. What’s more, records of suspected fraud will be automatically sent to the credit system and evidences easily extracted by the court.
Application Cases of Blockchain Technology in Education in China
Governmental policy, research results and experts’ assertion had a ripple effect in the society. The past two years have seen an explosive growth of social awareness and concern attached to this area. The public are relatively curious but also uncertain about the opportunities to tap into regarding this trendy tech. There have been several attempts to combine blockchain technology with education in China since 2018. Even TAL, the top player in China’s K12 after-school space may gear up for an expansion in this area.
Higher education was one of the first sectors to take action. In January 2018, the School of Electronics and Informational Engineering of Xi ‘ an Jiaotong University, the Quantum Chain Foundation (Qtum), and Zhigui Technology announced the establishment of the Intelligent Blockchain Technology Research Laboratory. It was reported that the laboratory would be composed of various research groups focusing on various topics, including the blockchain technology, the smart contracts, blockchain architecture, cross-chain research, application, etc. Right after that, Shenzhen Bean Technology Blockchain Education Application Research Center was established. Working with the Cloud Computing Center (Electronics Research Branch) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School, it aims to create a research team on the application of blockchain in education that integrates the blockchain technology research, the application of blockchain technology in educational industries, and the blockchain technology transfer.
A month later, private entities also made some moves. EduCoin, a digital cryptocurrency used for sharing online educational content, the consumption and delivery of educational services, the sharing of teaching products and technologies and the testing and evaluation of teaching quality, began to offer depositing services.
Governmental initiatives set a good example of how top-down approach can be adopted to facilitate this application. In October 2018, the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Big Data Educational Blockchain Test Area was officially launched in Langfang, Hebei Province, marking the establishment of China’s first big data educational blockchain test area, where a big data platform would be jointed built for collecting and recording data of students’ learning and development, and creating personalized learning and growth profiles for students by using the distribution, non-tampering and traceability of blockchain.
More recently, the National Internet Information Office of China issued the list this March for the first batch of domestic blockchain information services. Among 197 blockchain information services provided by a total of 134 enterprises is the “Future Learning Trace Chain” provided by Tomorrow Advancing Life (NYSE:TAL). JMD thinks that this service is likely to be used to collect and record data on students’ learning trajectories, create personal learning growth profiles, and provide them with personalized learning methods to improve learning abilities and enhance learning results to the greatest extent. Given that the consensus mechanism of blockchain technology can guarantee the authenticity of data, in addition to simply recording students ‘ learning data, TAL is likely to introduce a “mining” incentive mechanism by offering students “tokens” according to the total time of class attendance. Moreover, since blockchain does not change the way students’ information is recorded or the way data changes, TAL may use blockchain technology to generate personal credit growth reports that may be promoted for a scientific, comprehensive evaluation of students.
Challenges for Blockchain Technology in Education
However, in bringing new opportunities, the combination of blockchain and education is not without challenges.
To begin with, the current educational system does not have mature methods for personnel training in blockchain. Colleges and universities lack lecturers who can teach blockchain courses, textbooks can barely keep up with blockchain technology that has been developed rapidly, and blockchain is still in infancy, making it premature to provide specialized training in this technology. Yan Jiaqi, an associate professor at School of Information Management of Nanjing University, points out that the current supply and demand ratio of professional blockchain technical personnel is only 0.15:1, with supply being seriously inadequate. At present, although nearly 10 colleges and universities in China are either planning to or already offering courses related to blockchain, they are faced with multiple difficulties due to the shortage of lecturers and the lack of clear systems and training.
Secondly, blockchain’s characteristic of decentralization may lead to heavy losses of traditional, centralized educational platforms in terms of profit distribution, which may cause relevant institutions and departments of the government to form a conservative attitude to the application of blockchain technology in education, impeding the popularization and application of blockchain technology at a large scale.
Finally, blockchain technology is still in its infancy, with most research focusing on finance. By contrast, education has not only seen less successful cases in the application of block, but also been faced with many challenges, including difficulty in popularization, the vagueness surrounding property rights of educational data, the limited data storage space, and the risk in privacy protection for teachers and students, etc.
 Yang Xianmin, Li Xin, Wu Huanqing & Zhao Keyun. (2017). Application mode and realistic challenges of blockchain technology in education. Research on modern distance education. (02). pp. 36–47.