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2019 International Conference on Cyber-Enabled Distributed Computing and Knowledge Discovery (CyberC)

Analysis of Blockchain Technology


for Higher Education
Fernando Richter Vidal Feliz Gouveia Christophe Soares
Faculty of Science and Technology Faculty of Science and Technology Faculty of Science and Technology
University Fernando Pessoa University Fernando Pessoa University Fernando Pessoa
Porto, Portugal Porto, Portugal Porto, Portugal
37705@ufp.edu.pt fribeiro@ufp.edu.pt csoares@ufp.edu.pt

Abstract—The authenticity of academic diplomas is this new technology. Although several approaches are
a matter of great concern for employers and other currently underway, there are no agreed-upon standards
authorities to verify the authenticity of academic degrees. or protocols regulating diploma validation.
The issuing institutions may have closed or fail to keep
accurate records. In these situations, the verification of We propose the adoption of a solution based on
academic diplomas launches challenges. In a worldwide blockchain, namely Blockcerts, to store diploma infor-
education market, many institutions are involved, and it mation. This will enable anyone to check and visualize
becomes even harder to keep track and handle different their information. We implemented a prototype and
approaches/procedures to verify the status and authentic-
discuss the implications of the technology and of the
ity of diplomas. As in many other areas, the blockchain
technology surges as a promising solution to the referred underlying business processes. We conclude with brief
problem. In this paper, we propose an approach using this remarks and recommendations for similar initiatives.
technology implemented in University Fernando Pessoa.
We also discuss the new challenges in security and II. BACKGROUND
implementation raised by the usage of this technology.
A. Blockchain
Index Terms—Blockchain, Blockcerts, Higher Educa-
tion, Digital Diplomas and Electronic document authen- Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology acting
ticity. as a database of transactions or other information. It
is an append-only chain of blocks. The information
I. I NTRODUCTION stored in the blockchain cannot be altered once entered
The authenticity of academic diplomas is a matter [1]. As it is decentralized and distributed, a consensus
of great concern for employers and other authorities mechanism is used to validate the blockchain [16].
that need to verify these degrees. Either because the This model was first introduced in 2008 as the Bitcoin
issuing institutions do not exist anymore or because underlying technology [2]. Since several applications
they fail to keep accurate records. In both situations, were proposed and there was a global interest in
the authenticity verification of diplomas can be hard to this technology. Some applications focus more on the
achieve. In a worldwide education market, more and management of distributed information, as in harbor
more institutions are involved, and it becomes harder management; and others, in the lack of trust of partici-
to keep track of the different procedures to verify the pating entities, as in vehicle registration and product
status and authenticity of the diplomas. life cycle management. The blockchain mechanism
As in many other areas, the blockchain technology relies on several computers that are linked in a peer-
appears as a promising solution to the authenticity to-peer network of participating entities and for this
problem and also it may improve the actual diploma reason, this can be considered a truthful technology.
workflow in education. For instance, considering Eras- Although distributed and decentralized technology
mus Without Paper (EWP), the European network has been developed and are used since the 80s,
proposes several procedures and frameworks to support blockchain technology addresses important issues, like
the administrative handling of student and staff easing i) ensuring the integrity of information, ii) temporal
exchanges across Europe. chaining, and iii) anonymity of participating entities.
In this work, we review the use of blockchain It also uses a protocol to solve disputes when a
technology considering the requirements of University blockchain is forked, which is essential in a decen-
Fernando Pessoa (UFP) and addressing their security tralized system. This task is achieved by eliminating
and implementation issues regarding the adoption of the shortest chain and keeping only one version of

978-1-7281-2542-8/19/$31.00 ©2019 IEEE 28


DOI 10.1109/CyberC.2019.00015
the blockchain [3]. Thus, we can consider that the Whenever it is required, the application shares the
technology is mature, reliable and trustworthy. public key with the institution to issue a diploma.
Regarding the context, the blockchain can be public, A time-stamped hash of the diploma is stored in
as in Bitcoin, or permissioned. In public networks, the blockchain, not the diploma itself. This gives the
there is a consensus mechanism to be able to create a student the ability to share the diploma only with
blockchain node. The consensus elects the participant, the intended recipients because the transaction that is
among all the others, that is responsible to create new stored in the blockchain has no identifiable information
nodes. This is known in Bitcoin as proof-of-work, about the student.
and it takes the form of finding a bit-string, called Fig. 1 shows a typical use case, involving an in-
a nonce, such that it satisfies a given property. This stitution, a student and an employer. The institution
task, also called mining, is computationally intensive stores a transaction issuing the diploma to the student
to the point that it is estimated that the annual energy in the blockchain. An employer can thus verify on the
spent on mining equals the yearly consumption of a blockchain that a given student has issued a diploma.
country like the Czech Republic [18]. In permissioned Only the student and the employer need to interact to
networks, some participants can read and others can verify a diploma.
create nodes. In these networks, there is no need to
implement a proof-of-work mechanism, as the choice    
 

of the participant that can create a block can be agreed 


     
upon.

B. Blockcerts
 


Several initiatives have started using and testing     
blockchain technology to store academic records and 
to allow the recipients of those records allowing them 
 

to take greater control of how they distribute them,    
and to whom they do it. For instance, Blockcerts
is developed at the MIT and by Learning Machine;
 
OpenCerts are developed by the government of Sin-
gapore, and BTCert are developed by the University
of Birmingham. We chose Blockcerts considering the
openness of the code, their standards, and since they
already move to the public roll-out of their approach.
Blockcerts is a set of standards developed for partic-
ipants to issue and verify academic records, working     
with any blockchain. It is based on joint work done at
the MIT Media Lab, and at Learning Machine. This Fig. 1. Diploma verification2 .
software was made available free and open source [9].
After it was deployed, in 2017 1 , one hundred eleven Anyone looking at the transactions would not be able
MIT students received their diplomas in digital format to read any personally identifiable information, and the
and using the blockchain technology. student privacy is thus protected.
An essential component to help manage the diplo- We next describe how Blockcerts was implemented
mas and the verification process is the Blockcerts to test digital diplomas at our University.
Wallet, an app installed at the students mobile phones. 1) cert-tools: Institutions generate a JSON version
The Wallet manages the creation of the student’s public of a diploma, containing all the needed information,
and private keys and signs their diploma, allowing the such as course title, dates, grades, and even logos
student to prove later the owner and verify the integrity. and images. This schema was designed to be as close
Without the wallet, it would be very hard for a student as possible to the Open Badges specification. The
to handle the required technical complexity of public European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System
key cryptography concepts. (ECTS) encourages institutions to provide also ad-
The wallet handles the set of public-private keys ditional information on diplomas, such as additional
associated with the transactions. The access to this achievements. Configuration and formatting of diplo-
information is protected using a unique master key. mas are done with the cert-tools component.
1 http://news.mit.edu/2017/mit-debuts-secure-digital-diploma- 2 Adapted from https://www.learningmachine.com/badges-and-
using-bitcoin-blockchain-technology-1017 blockcerts

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Fig. 2. Diploma configuration.

Fig. 2 shows the process of creating a digital 3) cert-viewer: This component generates the
diploma in the blockchain. First, the institution selects graphical representation of a diploma and allows the
which fields are going to be used. Some fields are static verification of the diploma. Even if a third party sees
and are the same in all the diplomas, for instance, the different graphical representations from the same in-
institutions name. However, the student’s name and the stitution, which could seem suspicious, the verification
course title are dynamically filled for each diploma. In tool checks the authenticity of the diploma. At UFP,
the example shown there can be course descriptions we allow students to visualize the diplomas and to
and the number of ECTS. download the JSON version, then it can be checked
The digital diploma is signed by the institution and by any other verification tool, as for example, the one
then hashed and stored in a transaction to the recipient provided by Blockcerts itself 6 . Fig. 3 shows a diploma
in the blockchain. as visualized in our setup.
2) cert-issuer: As mentioned, Blockcerts was de-
signed to be independent of a specific blockchain,
like Bitcoin 3 , Ethereum 4 and Hyperledger 5 . This
allows institutions to build their solution with a public
blockchain, like Bitcoin, or a business blockchain, as
Hyperledger. The cert-issuer is the component that
deals with the blockchain. It gets a digital diploma
and stores it in a transaction in the blockchain. In our
experiment, we tested with Bitcoin and Ethererum, but
other institutions, e.g. the Universidad del Rosario, are
testing with Hyperledger [10].
The cert-issuer component is also able to do bulk
emission of diploma and stores them all in a single
transaction in the blockchain. Being able to store
several diplomas in a single transaction is important
for reducing cost. Paying a high cost for each diploma
could prevent this approach from being economically Fig. 3. Diploma visualization.
viable.
4) The Blockcerts wallet: The wallet is the Block-
3 https://bitcoin.org/en/
certs component managing the information about the
4 https://www.ethereum.org/
5 https://www.hyperledger.org 6 https://www.blockcerts.org

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diplomas and the key pairs of the students. The key the different Blockcerts components is hidden from the
pair is protected by a secret passphrase, only known users, making the application smoother to use.
by the student.
B. Experiments and results
Students can also register institutions to easily man-
age the diplomas they issued. Diplomas can then be We next describe the process for issuing diplomas
sent to third parties that can easily, and without con- and present an expectative of the costs involved. We
tacting the issuing institution, verify the authenticity of start with a single diploma and calculate the cost
the diploma. of publishing it in Bitcoin. We then publish several
diplomas at a time. The process starts with the student
III. D IGITAL D IPLOMAS AT U NIVERSITY information registration, and after creating groups of
F ERNANDO P ESSOA students. For instance, we assume that they are all
enrolled in the same subject.
A. The architecture
Fig. 5 shows the first experiment. We create a group
The proposed architecture for implementing a with a single student on it.
Blockcerts based system at UFP is shown in Fig. 4. In the next step, we select the group, the issuer, and
Blockcerts provides both an API (e.g. for cert-issuer) the diplomas model, and then we store the transaction
and a command line interface CLI (e.g. for cert- in the blockchain as shown in Fig. 6.
tools). To develop a web interface, the components In the second experiment, we create a group with
must be executed in the same environment as the web three students on it. The goal is to test the bulk creation
server. When components are updated, they can just of diplomas. As the Bitcoin transaction stores the three
be replaced and the same setup and command line diplomas, the total cost is the same as for the previous
commands can be used. The application considers three single student transaction.
different stakeholders: As can be seen in Fig. 7, the cost of storing a
• Student - can view their diplomas in the app, transaction with one or with three diplomas was the
and can view their diplomas in a portal. In the same (133500 Satoshi). For the transaction with three
portal, they can download the digital diplomas, diplomas, Blockcerts combines all three and generates
and interact with the student services. a single hash. According to the Blockcerts documen-
• Third party (Employers, other institutions,.) - can tation, up to 2000 diplomas can be grouped in a single
verify the authenticity of a diploma, given the Bitcoin block 7 .
information provided by a student. They can do it Considering a cost of 60,000 Satoshis to issue a sin-
through the portal, or other diploma verification gle diploma, which would amount currently to roughly
sites whenever the UFP website is unavailable. $5 USD, that would make it costly to issue single
• UFP Registration - can issue certificates and store diplomas. Only the bulk emission of diplomas would
the transactions in the blockchain. be cost efficient, at least in Bitcoin-like networks,
The application handles all the required information as the cost for a 2000 diploma transaction would
by the Blockcerts components. For instance, a CSV result in $0,0025 USD per diploma. The cert-issuer
list with the diploma recipient addresses is generated component is responsible to publish the diploma into
from the student roster. Thus, it is expected that at the blockchain, however, based on the fee amount
least the student’s name, email and public key are paid, the publication can gain a higher priority and
previously known to the roster. Whenever one of the thus it can be quicker submitted into the blockchain 8 .
previous fields is missing, the student may be asked to Moreover, this priority has not been deeply explored
supply the missing information. The workflow using since we do not consider that diplomas should be
critically submitted in a near real-time.
IV. C HALLENGES
One of the major challenges is the diploma revoca-
tion. Although this is a rare operation, it can be used in
special situations where diplomas are withdrawn. How-
ever, the published diploma in the blockchain cannot be
altered. Several solutions have been proposed, such as
the issuer providing a list of revoked diplomas. In this
case, the verification is dependent on the availability
7 https://github.com/blockchain-certificates/cert-issuer
Fig. 4. UFP architecture. 8 https://bitcoinfees.earn.com/

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Fig. 5. Choosing the receiver of a diploma.

Fig. 6. Issuing the diploma.

of the issuer, which is precisely what this approach V. B LOCKCHAIN A PPROACHES IN H IGHER
wants to avoid. In other blockchains than Bitcoin other E DUCATION
alternatives have been proposed, such as for Ethereum,
this can be achieved through the use of smart contracts
[11]. Besides the MIT, researchers at Nicosia University
and the University of Birmingham are developing their
A similar problem is a need in some situations for
own systems based on the Blockcerts standards [14].
an expiration date of a diploma. A solution to this
Universidad del Rosario [10] is testing Blockcerts on
problem would probably be similar to the previous
Hyperledger. BOLL is a system [17] to securely share
one. Viewers are also different across implementations
other academic information than diplomas, such as
and may show different information to the users who
learning logs.
do not add to the credibility. In the future, viewers
should be standardized so that users could get the same There is also work to manage the ECTS information
information no matter the chosen viewer. across institutions, besides diplomas [1]. There are
also corporate approaches such as the Sony Global
In some countries passing privacy laws [12] [13], Education [15] and the Civic digital identity ecosys-
there can be issues with the immutability of the tem. According to [14], it is more than likely that
blockchains, not ensuring the right to be forgotten, for the number of institutions publishing their diplomas
example. on blockchains is going to increase in the near future.

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clear solution to tackle the problem. For this reason, we
currently use a diploma revocation mechanism using
open badges pattern. The use of smart contracts is ap-
pealing but it is limited to Ethereum and does not work
on other blockchains. Finally, the wide adoption of
blockchain requires political support and enforcement
of standards, such as Blockcerts.

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