Decentralized Learning: The Future of Student Mobility in Europe

in #education3 years ago (edited)

This post follows-up on my previous report on the Blockchain, Credentials and Connected Learning conference in Malta, 17-18 May 2018

I try to aggregate here what emerged, from several presentations, as a possible vision for a blockchain-powered "Common Higher Education Area" spanning the whole EU and facilitating student mobility and "decentralized learning"

At the same time, I hope you'll also perceive the vision of a multi-dimensional "personal narrative" of a student, which Hon. Evariste Bartolo, Malta's Ministry for Education was evoking in his speech (see previous post). This would including not only academic but also other types of achievements, skills and certifications and would greatly improve employability throughout someone's career.

The elements I'll take into account here are:
1. Studybits
2. OpenBadges (IMS vs Mozilla)
5. Europass

1. Studybits

Studybits was mentioned by Dr. Marloes Pomp as one of the blockchain projects, related to education, sponsored by the Dutch government (see previous post) and it captured my attention.

It was run by the Netherlands Organisation for applied scientific research, TNO with the explicit goal: "feasibility study for using blockchain related technology to support the Erasmus+ Exchange process"

This chapter draws upon and synthesizes the content of the draft report which can be found here

Studybits begins by acknowledging the existance of other projects sharing similar objectives:

  1. EMREX which, according to its description, uses a classical point-to-point architecture governed by an EMREX directory which lists National Contact Points that a Student Mobility Plugin can contact in order to ask for data to be transferred toward a target institution. An interesting topic to look into is the ELMO XML data-exchange format for describing students, courses, grading schemes, and results.
  2. European Student Card - a physical card aiming to help parties to retrieve scattered information about a student from a central registry.
  3. Erasmus Without Papers - a project aiming to create a network of higher education institutions in which all information, originating in their own information systems, is exchanged digitally between institutions using a shared API framework.

The researchers proceed to defining a high-level "customer journey" - where the "customer" is a student seeking to enter in an Erasmus+ exchange program


They then compare the current, manual process of information exchange on which the successful student exchange depends ...


... with a much simpler, streamlined exchange of information putting the student at the center.

The next step is to inspect the landscape for identity (whether self-sovereign or not) solutions in order to select the most promising ones. In the graph below I was a bit surprised not to see PeerMountain (possibly because their solution is not yet in production)


Not surprisingly, they selected the top runners, Blockcerts from Learning Machine and Sovrin (a.k.a. Hyperledger Indy, originally from Evernym). Note that Learning Machine were present in Malta, where Nathalie Smolenski presented their solution (see picture below)

Blockcerts struck me as a rather rudimentary solution. Diplomas and certifications are codified as JSON-LD and then the Learning Machine proprietary solution hashes the corresponding file and stores the hash on a public blockchain (typically the Bitcoin blockchain).

The analysis done by the TNO researchers in Studybits reaches the same conclusion: Sovrin is a much more sophisticated solution to store and verify "verifiable claims", a W3C candidate standard. Studybits notes that JSON-LD documents can be mapped into RDF. In the picture below is an RDF document resulting from the conversion of a JSON-LD document describing the fact that Alice is the owner of a white Opel car.

The TNO researchers then propose an architecture which implements the streamlined, paperless information exchange process outlined above using the Sovrin (Hyperledger Indy) blockchain


Going into deeper detail, here is a sequence diagram for the "attestation verification" process:


The next piece in the puzzle is the attestation itself. What is a receiving institution going to verify? There needs to be a commonly agreed standard for diplomas and certifications. Enter OpenBadges

2. OpenBadges

OpenBadges is an open source, community standard launched by the Mozilla Foundation in 2012 which provides among other tools a "backpack" to store (and use) the badges received.

Since 2017 the stewardship of the standard has been handed over to the "IMS Global Learning Consortium" a membership-based organization based in the US.

On the sides of the conference, I've overheard that this has created some tensions with the open source community as IMS Global is a fee-based organisation which sells "certification". Learning organisations such as "CIEP" have shown some discomfort at the idea of following future evolutions of the OpenBadges standard if they are controlled by IMS Global.

Meanwhile, let's take a look at one of the elements of the standard, the BadgeClass which describes what could be a diploma for instance

The main challenge when changing academic institutions, especially across national borders, is the meaning of the diplomas and how the topics mentioned there could be mapped into the academic programme of the receiving institution.

One of the members in the BadgeClass is the AlignmentObjects whose role is to store information which could allow an admission officer from a receiving country R to get a clearer idea of what exactly the student, coming from sending country S, has studied in order to obtain the diploma he is presenting for verification.

But in order to the information to be comparable, it needs to be set against a controlled vocabulary / taxonomy or ontology. And here is where ESCO comes into the picture


ESCO, presented in the picture below by Angeliki Dedopoulou, is the "multilingual classification of European Skills, Competences, Qualifications and Occupations, part of the Europe 2020 strategy."

The ESCO classification identifies and categorises skills, competences, qualifications and occupations relevant for the EU labour market and education and training. It systematically shows the relationships between the different concepts.


ESCO has the backing of the European Agency "CEDEFOP" and is a common reference language allowing -among others - employers to find the right candidates. The 3 ESCO pillars are skills, occupations and qualifications. ESCO is integrated in EURES (the European "Jobs and CVs" database)

ESCO has already been integrated in some software products such as "docebo" which can propose e-learning for skills that appear to be missing with respect to a given open position

What I found particularly relevant is that ESCO is not static as it includes a continuous improvement process.

During the second day of the conference Angeliki has presented a solution in which her employer, Everis (part of NTT Data) uses the European e-Competences Framework e-CF and the ESCO ontology to issue credentials to their employees for courses they have taken.

However, as we all know, no two diplomas are really equivalent, even when they seem so. that's because not all Universities are equally good. Or at the very least, they are not perceived as being equally good. When shown a diploma, a "verifier" (whether a receiving university for an exchange student or an employer) also judges the quality of the issuer - the education institution which awarded it. Here is where EQAR comes into picture.


The European Quality Assurance Register for Higher Education Institutions was presented by Melinda Szabo (in the picture below)

EQAR assesses the quality of the universities in member countries (currently more than the EU member states). It oversees a framework of European Standards and Guidelines providing a common understanding of what quality means for higher education. Its goal is to prevent « diploma mills » from gaining credibility and trust.

While EQAR is a necessary answer and a valuable institution, its way of working appears designed in a overly centralized manner typical of the pre-blockchain era. EQAR's processes appear ripe for disruption.

The final piece in the puzzle is the Europass, a suite of tools and services which support the transparency of skills and qualifications across the European Union.

5. Europass

At the core of the existing Europass Framework is a portfolio of documents:

  • the Europass Curriculum Vitae (CV) completed by any individual to report on his/her qualifications, professional experience, skills and competences;
  • the Europass Language Passport (ELP) completed by any individual to report on her/his language skills;
  • the Europass Certificate Supplement (ECS) issued by vocational educational and training authorities to their students along with their award certificates adding information to make certificates more easily understandable especially by employers or institutions outside the issuing country;
  • the Europass Diploma Supplement (EDS) issued by higher education institutions to their graduates along with their degree or diploma to make these educational qualifications more easily understandable, especially outside the country where they were awarded;
  • the Europass Mobility Document (EMD) for recording any organised period of learning or training time that a person spends in another European country, completed by the home and host organisations.

In March 2018, a new Europass decision has been published, aiming to improve Europass, simplify and modernise these tools for the digital age and add a new feature using big data to map and anticipate labour market trends and skills needs.

This includes tailored information on learning opportunities across Europe, and information and support to help people get their qualifications recognised, in conjunction with ESCO

The policy implementation details, including the information systems necessary to support the new Europass are in "business analysis" phase until the end of 2018.

Storing data in a blockchain system will make the new Europass documents resistant to loss and manipulation and improve the general usability of the portfolio as for instance the current "Europass Diploma Supplement" and the current "Europass Certifications Supplement" are often (though not in all countries) based on paper documents issued by accredited institutions, and paper documents can be lost, faked, rendered invalid through revocation, etc.

I conclude this article with another picture I've taken while in Malta


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Wow you did well
Great post from you
Thanks for sharing..

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Natalie from Learning Machine here. I want to respond to the following mischaracterization of Blockcerts:

"Blockcerts struck me as a rather rudimentary solution. Diplomas and certifications are codified as JSON-LD and then the Learning Machine proprietary solution hashes the corresponding file and stores the hash on a public blockchain (typically the Bitcoin blockchain)."

There is nothing proprietary about the Blockcerts issuing process that hashes a certificate onto a blockchain. The cert-issuer code is in the public Github repo on, and anyone can use it to build their own issuing application. Learning Machine is just one organization that has done that. We've built a product--an application--that issues Blockcerts at scale. Anyone else can do this. Dozens of researchers and institutions around the world are doing so, as you can see in the Blockcerts Community Forum at

Blockcerts is blockchain-agnostic, meaning it can issue to any blockchain, public or private. That includes Sovrin. We need to stop seeing these as opposing solutions and start seeing them as complimentary. As I also mentioned during the Q&A, Learning Machine's CTO is Co-Chair of the W3C Credentials Community Group which is writing the standards for Verifiable claims and Decentralized Identifiers along with the Sovrin team. We work closely together.

As to the characterization of Blockcerts as "rudimentary," I would reframe that as "simple and elegant." You don't need to buy a token, run a node, join a network, or pay anything to receive or verify a Blockcert. Sharing and verifying your certs is vendor independent, meaning you can still verify your certs even if the software provider used to issue them is no longer around. (This is not the case, for example, with verification of claims on Sovrin. You have to be a member of the Sovrin network to verify claims.) You don't even need to know what a blockchain is to see the immediate value of Blockcerts. This simplicity is what paves the way for adoption by end-users.

Oh wow, honoured to have you here Nathalie ! Thanks for the clarification. I guess I'll need to go step by step through the process to be able to argue in depth. What for me makes the difference between "simple" and "rudimentary" is that the actual certification information is not ON the blockchain. You only store a hash on the blockchain. That means for instance that an employer who looks for a fresh graduate in, say, climate science with a minor in computer science cannot go find some potential connection information on the blockchain. He neess to employ another system for that.
If the AlignmentObjects were ON the chain then one could query directly the data on the chain and possibly find DIDs of people who want to be found easily (because they want to leverage their diploma and find a job)

Wow! It's great article and great news! My 11 y.o. daughter is already studying in school distantly and I believe it is a best way nowadays, but I'm looking forward the time when we can choose any program in any world university and continue our real education during the whole our life.

Thank you Sofia. This is what we are working towards

Wow these projects are really interesting. Studybits and Europass, another way to facilitate the mobility around Europe :)

Yes indeed, I'm very excited at the idea of a future, blockchain-enabled, common European space for students and job-seekers

As a graduate school professor I've very glad to hear of these projects. Decentralized education, if done correctly, could greatly benefit students and society. For instance, we have some great courses where I teach and we make an effort to provide a cohesive set of courses for a degree; however, it would be best if a student could simply choose the best courses for his or her goals, regardless of where they are taught. I've taken free online courses that are better than many of the university courses I've paid for. Why not provide degree programs that stitch together the best courses from a variety of places? Why should each local school reinvent the wheel?

I think that one of the presenters in the Conference was aiming precisely at that. For some unknown reason they call themselves "Woolf University" (or something like that) and claim to be "the first blockchain university". The ideeas they presented are common sense. I wasn't too impressed by their presentation though, that's why I chose not to mention them here

Great Post, Decentralized Learning will be awesome.
Also please checkout my posts @kartik2085

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Awesome article...great explanation and in-depth study about the decentralized learning... We as an online educational portal support this kind of ideas and efforts...