Should Ontario's Education System think about the Blockchain?

Updated: Aug 9

By: Pulkit Sahi


Blockchain is an emerging technology which is most simply described as a database. It collects and stores information in groups, known as “blocks”.[1] Once a block is full in capacity, another block is created and chained onto the previous one, hence creating a blockchain.[2] One feature of blockchain that has made this technology popular in recent years is that it is decentralized. This allows for every participant in the network or database authority and control over the network, as opposed to a centralized network, where only one authority or privileged users have control.[3] This is similar in nature to a group google document, where all participants have access to the document, can make changes, which are available in real- time to the other participants. Other benefits of blockchain are that it is secure, the data is verified, and the data is immutable, meaning it cannot be tampered with once a block is filled.


What can blockchain be used for?

Blockchain currently has many applications, the most popular being cryptocurrency.


Cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, is digital, encrypted money which benefits from blockchain’s decentralized nature, as it has no central authority, such the U.S dollar or the Euro which rely on banks as a central authority. Blockchain is also being used as way to securely record information, verify individual identities, and help create virtual smart contracts. It’s uses have expanded to many sectors such as real estate, healthcare, and protection of intellectual property. It is even envisioned that blockchain may also be used to vote digitally one day.


One emerging application for blockchain that is of interest is within the field of education. It can be used to securely store student information and records. For example, it can provide verified and encrypted degrees or certificates, along with a list of courses taken and even a track of skills gained. This continues to gain popularity amongst many post- secondary institutions, as it provides a secure and verifiable method to collect, store, and share student information, making these records less susceptible to fraud and more reliable, since the data is electronic and immutable. Currently, start-ups such as Blockcerts and OpenBadges are using this technology to issue virtual degrees and certificates.



Blockchain and Students


Ontario Students Records

Many start-up companies have made use of blockchain as a way to issue degrees or certificates, making its primary application in the field of education as a form of record keeping. It can be used to create a secure, reliable, and immutable record for each individual student, whether it is for grades, learning progress, or even any behavior problems. This universal record is helpful for students as it can be shared with other schools if a student transfers, post- secondary institutions, or even employers. It provides a verified record of student accomplishments, from something as big as completing a degree, to even something small such as skills gained through a workshop.


Likewise, blockchain can be used within our education system for Ontario Student Records (OSRs). Administrators and teachers can record student information electronically and securely, which is easily verifiable and can be shared. This information is still subject to the laws set out under the Education Act. This act sets out rules that school boards and other municipal institutions must follow in regards to the collection and use of student personal information. Section 8.1 of the Education Act, sets out specific purposes for which personal information may be recorded and states that no information, other than reasonably necessary shall not be collected or used.[4] Additionally, section 266(2) of the Education Act states that such records are privileged.[5] This information is for the use of supervisory officers and the principal, teachers and designated early childhood educators of the school for the improvement of instruction and other education of the pupil.[6]Section 266(4) of the Education Act also provides that a school board may not collect personal information about a student, unless it is expressly authorized by law and it is “conducive to the improvement of the instruction of the student”.[7] This section also allows parents and students to correct or remove any information if they believe there is an error or omission.[8] The OSR Guidelines also states that main parts of an OSR are only retained for five years after the student leaves the school, after which the information must be destroyed or it can be provided to the student, if requested.[9] With the implementation of blockchain, these laws would still apply and ensure that whatever information is collected, is for a specified reason and is accurate. Since blockchain does not allow for the destruction of records, the record would simply be transferred to the student after the five- year period, only allowing the student control over their information after the five- year period.


However, since data within blockchain is immutable, this may create a conflict with the law because any incorrect data cannot be removed, and it will be electronically stored forever.

For example, in the case of a student suspension and expulsion, a formal review or appeal by the parents can be requested.[10] The supervisory officer in charge of the review can then decide to: confirm the principal’s decision, modify the duration of the suspension, or remove or modify the record of suspension from the student’s OSR. Considering blockchain is immutable, how will such changes occur once data already inputted into the OSR? The removal or modification of data will no longer be possible, which can have many negative affects on a student’s academic career and beyond. Research has already shown that students identifying with a racial minority group, particularly Black students, are much more likely than White students to perceive discrimination with respect to teacher treatment, suspensions, and use of police by school authorities.[11]Therefore, it is important to consider how such an immutable record may further contribute to this disproportionate impact and any preconceived notions or biases that teachers or other school administrators hold.



Blockchain and Teachers


Teachers can also benefit from the use of blockchain. It can allow them to create a universal record which can be shared and updated amongst teachers and even other schools if a student transfers. Beyond using blockchain as a way of record- keeping, teachers can also use it as a way create smart contracts. Smart contracts are essentially terms of an agreement written into a code, and when terms are met, the agreement is satisfied.[12] This can be especially helpful in the case of supporting students with special needs.


As per the Education Act section 170(1) paragraph 7, school boards are required to provide special education programs services for its exceptional pupils, as identified by the Identification, Placement, and Review Committee (IPRC). As provided by the act, regulation 181/98 states schools must develop an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in order to support any student receiving special education programs or service.[13] An IEP is a written plan that describes the services required by the student, based on the student’s abilities and specific learning expectations. This written plan is recognized by the Human Rights Commission as a legal working document and the accommodations listed in the IEP are legal rights of the child.[14] With the help of blockchain, this plan can be created by using smart contracts. Administrators and parents can create an agree upon plan in the form of a smart contract and provide it to parents. Teachers can then use this contract and update it as the plan is followed, the student progresses, and conditions within the contract are met. For parents, this ensures that their child’s needs are met and the legally- binding contract is being followed.


Teachers can also use blockchain as a way to share course materials and control how it is used in a safe manner, ensuring protection of intellectual property. Many institutions such as Yale, Stanford, and Harvard are already doing this to make education more accessible.

In Canada, this sharing of educational resources is protected by federal copyright law, under the Copyright Act. As per section 29 of the act, students and teachers can use publicly available Internet materials for their learning and educational pursuits without violating copyright. The Supreme Court has clarified that teachers in Canada may make copies of short excerpts of a copyright-protected work for students in their classes without having to obtain copyright permission or pay copyright royalties.[15] This is a great way to increase access to education through a secure manner.



Conclusion


Blockchain continues to gain popularity amongst many fields as it is a way to store data in a secure and reliable manner. It is clear there are many benefits for the use of blockchain within the field of education. It allows for education institutions all the way from the elementary level to the post- secondary level to store student information such as their transcripts, skills gained, or even any behaviour problems through a secure method, ensuring all the information is accurate and verified. As a next step, education institutions in Ontario must now make the shift from using hard-copies to store information, to electronic versions. This can be a lengthy process as it not only requires lots of funding, but also the tedious process of uploading all student information into an electronic database. Hopefully within the next few years, this shift begins to occur and blockchain can be implemented within our education system.

[1] https://slejournal.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40561-017-0050-x [2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Education Act [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Ontario Student Records Guidelines [10] Section 309, Education Act [11] http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/ontario-safe-schools-act-school-discipline-and-discrimination/vii-disproportionate-impact-ontario [12] Supra note 1. [13] Education Act [14] http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/opportunity-succeed-achieving-barrier-free-education-students-disabilities/elementary-and-secondary-education [15] Alberta (Education) v. Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright)

Pulkit Sahi is a Law Student at Osgoode Hall . He has been a student intern with Battick Legal since May 2021.