Trust-as-a-Service (TaaS): Blockchain, Education & Beyond

BY GORDON FREEDMAN

Yesterday, an announcement was made about the Trust Assurance Network, a new company offering trust-as-a-service (TaaS) for education and other ecosystems, moving beyond blockchain for single solutions for record security into securing wider environments on a network basis. This move is likely a signal of things to come in shoring up the Internet and apps everywhere, but where it can start is in the place that is still somewhat removed from the cloud-at-large, higher education and K12. I have helped advise this company, and find what they are doing a good jumping off point for a larger discussion about the epidemic of Internet deceit.

The Internet is so far out of control, and lacking controls, that it is changing our behavior faster than evolution ever could. It is reshaping us, manipulating our brains, and crushing our long-held operating values that make our physical communities coherent and reliable – trust and truth. As a species, it is hard to function when trust and truth are removed as mainstays of the commons.

These Things Would be Illegal in the Real World

Imagine walking on the street brushing by hundreds of people who are actively following you around, leering at you, taking notes as you shop, grabbing your wallet and using your credit cards to make purchases, taking pictures of you the whole time, bumping into your children, sending out emails in your name, showing up in your children’s social media accounts, sending texts to you, your kids, and your elderly parents. At a community level, or in a neighborhood, this would be overwhelming and thoroughly unacceptable and debilitating, and illegal.

Now imagine there are only a few mega-stores in your town. They are low-cost warehouses where you can shop for most of what you want to buy. But each time you stroll down an aisle, suddenly there are monitors flashing images of what you just looked at, deals are being pushed at you to go back and re-consider. Now, imagine you are being hit up and gamed by armies of people who are showing up from around the world who, all of sudden, know you “socially,” who are trying to influence your perceptions of products and candidates. Paid influencers are making you feel insecure so you will follow them. Now, an election is coming, and you are being targeted slyly by the best and most cleverly devious minds on the planet. They are knitting you and others you know into false narratives and fake news and swaying your political reality and closing off opportunities for millions.

Unfortunately, this unintended nightmare described above has come true. Our digital neighborhood is promising, vexing, and a dangerous place. We place our bets and play the odds every time we use a credit card online, use email, search or sign up for something. In the background, we are all being watched. Many are making money from our data. We literally live in the analogy of glass houses and walk around with streaming video following us. Paranoid yet? This problem has no precedent except in fiction such as Orwell’s 1984.

Being on the Web, in it, buying, communicating, socializing, responding is dangerous. Like walking down a dark alley in a big city, you take your chances. And the particularized aspect of the Web, apps, is even trickier. Once you download one, a whole universe now lives on your cellphone which is essentially capable of spying on you in multiple ways. Whomever wants to is now in your pocket, handbag or hand. Very scary.

When Being Slow is a Virtue, Virtually

As the world on the Web and in apps quickly migrates away from the institutional and cultural anchors that once held society together, there are few places that on their face can be considered truthful and trust-worthy. Places that seem safe and still anchored in a more concrete past of values and practice are rare. But one sector comes to mind, education.

Ironically, because higher ed and K12 are staid, dinosaur-slow to change, and using older versions of software that cannot as easily be data-mined as full cloud systems, it stands one or two clicks removed from the data-mining bots. But that does not mean it is secure.

Quite the contrary, most campus systems and school districts can easily be hacked. They just aren’t at the same rate and with the same visibility as other systems. But they can be and when they are, it does not make the news.

Where higher education is playing a role with trust and truth is thinking about how to securely and flexibly manage student credentials. This is occurring in some school settings as well.

There are three motivations for this move: a) securing students’ records digitally in a standardized way, b) making them available with permissions to third parties like employers, and c) allowing students to transcribe all their learning records and associated experiences such as internships and apprenticeships.

First Mover, Credentials

There are numerous conversations occurring and have been evolving over years at Arizona State University, higher education standards body IMS Global and PESC (Post-Secondary Electronics Standards Council), with current and former higher education registrars AACRAO (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers), and the large uber-standards schema effort run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s T-3 Innovations Network. Then there are historic companies such as Parchment and newcomers like Greenlight Credentials who are actively working this space. The traditional student information systems (SIS) suppliers maybe contemplating such moves, but are far behind in rethinking their solutions with broader service-oriented architectures.

Blockchain, which for many is still a mysterious technology, is simply a way to secure records in a distributed manner and keep track and record many forms of transactions, interactions, communications, or most anything you would do on the Web and in apps that distributed ledgers can help with. It became an obvious first-mover for student records. This beginning could lead the way toward more secure and accountable records in education and on the Web in general for individuals. We all need this. As we have painfully learned, it is not just about online burglary and hacking only, it is about out and out fraud and mimicry to the point no one knows who or what to trust.

But applying blockchain ledgers to student records, while the rest of the campus and the myriad of technologies in education are at risk in a sea of technology solutions, is like applying a band aid to a much larger illness. As we saw in the higher education admissions scandals, systems are vulnerable. By addressing the student records side, which is highly laudable, there now needs to be a much larger conversation about maintaining campuses as trust and truth fortresses. Their futures depend on it.

Beyond Credentials, Trust-Across-the-Campus

Any education system that involves a student on one hand and campus programs, numerous record interactions, financial transactions, or campus tracking of students on the other hand will eventually need to be locked into trust systems. There are two reasons for this. One is risk management. Two is more efficiently and less expensively managing marketing, student success tracking, and alumni relations.

In the future, it will be inconceivable that a campus or school district would run a Student Information System (SIS), Customer Relations Management system (CRM), manage compliance records, official communications with students, and alumni systems outside of a more singular trust system. That trust system will need to assign a single identity to each student. Each student will then manage their data and interactions from their self-sovereign identity accounts.

Elite higher education institutions, at the top end of the prestige, exclusion, and cost factors, are suffering breeches of trust which have called into question the reliability of entrance to our most exclusive institutions. On the other end of the spectrum, where demand is a fraction of what it is at the most elite institutions, another set of problems exist. Students who are not attending college or those who are dropping in larger numbers. No amount of secure digital transcripts by themselves will help either of these situations.

The creation of secure digital records in a trust-worthy ecosystem is a must. The conversation should begin now to move beyond securing learner records and beyond the portability of transcripts to employers or further education. Those records are only one of the spectrum of problems to be addressed. The rest have to do with the campus-at-large and the multitude of solutions it runs.

Why should campus leaders care? For one, trust-across-the-campus reduces the risk for campuses from scandal or the daunting task of maintaining so many different solutions and log ins without error. And, more fundamentally, it enables much richer and more meaningful data to be collected from each student and available to each student. Their interactions, transactions, and communications available from their single identity account (with their permission) takes the place of inferring student needs and behavior from multiple disconnected systems and student success solutions, which are are largely institutional spyware.

A Trust Layer in the Enterprise Ecosystem

Ecosystem trust as a network concept is just emerging. Instead of huddling on separate blockchain life rafts in dangerous Internet waters, there should be more uniform ways, on campus and off, to secure the whole of each student in their relationship within the institutions we rely upon to be the last bastion of truth and trust.

Having had its Wild West days, the Web and apps now need to be part of the next level of applied genius, securing the Web and the restoration of new forms of truth and trust. Likely the will and the dollars are here now to secure what has led the current digital reality to be so very different than the grounded one. Web 3.0 holds out a trusted digital life. New types of digital “trust players” might become common.

But we need to start with islands of security that already exist. Is it is possible to begin this era where these islands naturally occur, in education? Remember, the Web emerged from higher education in the first place.

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Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training, and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president of global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.