Insight

Malta: The island lab for blockchain certificates

Malta will be the first country to issue notarised blockchain certificates to complement printed certificates. The island has entered into an agreement with Learning Machine, a company specialised in providing blockchain-based digital credentials. Its CEO, Chris Jagers, tells MaltaProfile about the advantages of applying blockchain to the education sector.

Every business has a story, could you give a brief overview of your company?

Learning Machine started as a research project in collaboration with the MIT Media Lab. We wanted to find a standardised way that digital records could be made trustworthy, but using the blockchain as a secure anchor of trust. We worked throughout 2016 to release the open-source standard at www.blockcerts.org. We received a tremendously positive response from schools, companies and governments. However, most of them wanted a more convenient online tool to complete all of the operations for workflow: importing recipients, designing records, gathering keys, digitally signing records, anchoring to a blockchain, sending out records and managing records thereafter. So, we decided to launch a commercial company that made it easier for institutions to issue 'Blockcerts'.

 

How did the cooperation with Malta start?

We met Education Minister Evarist Bartolo at an education conference in Switzerland, and were very moved by his values and focus on helping learners. He had an interesting balance between a deep regard for traditional education and a desire to find improvements. As conversations continued, we found additional synergies with the open education work of Alex Grech, a member of the board of the Centre for Distributed Ledger Technologies at the University of Malta. From there, momentum continued to grow into exploring ways this new technology could directly help Maltese learners.

 

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What is the status of the project in Malta now?

In 2018, we successfully completed the first pilot of issuing credentials across several education providers in Malta. These organisations included Malta College of Arts Science and Technolgy (MCAST), Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS), National Commission for Further and Higher Education (NCFHE) and the Ministry for Education and Employment. Now that we have proved the technology, we have just entered into a two-year contract to expand the implementation more broadly, with access being offered to every accredited education provider in Malta.

 

What are your long-term plans in Malta?

Learning Machine is committed to working in Malta and expanding operations on the island. We have already begun hiring locally and established an office in Valletta. We believe our presence will continue to grow to support the growing adoption of Maltese institutions.

 

What do you think of Malta's Blockchain regulatory framework?

Malta is really leading the way here. The government is creating a framework for successfully interacting with new initiatives, rather than driving them out or hiding them in the dark. I believe we will see many other governments eventually follow Malta in this regard.

 

Blockchain can be applied in many different sectors. What are the opportunities and advantages of applying blockchain in the education sector?

The use of blockchain in the education sector is specifically related to the verification of official records. While it has been possible to create and issue digital academic records in the past, it was difficult to trust them. However, the combination of strong cryptography and a decentralised verification network has provided the necessary tools to provide students with educational certificates, for example, education diplomas, school certificates and extra training course certificates. The goal is to save everyone’s time and money when sending or verifying official records.

 

What are the key challenges of applying blockchain to the education sector?

Education records face many general challenges globally, which fall into two categories. The first challenge is content: what do these credits or skills mean and how do they translate across frameworks? The second challenge is infrastructure: how do these records get transmitted and verified? Blockchain focuses exclusively on the second challenge of infrastructure. Still, as software providers, we need to make sure we understand the content needs of various educational institutions so this information can be successfully built into records.

 

How will blockchain transform education in terms of recognition/transfer of credits and control over the learners' own data? 

Using blockchain-anchored records can directly help both of these areas. Before credits can be officially transferred or recognised, they must first be transmitted and verified. This is normally a time-consuming process that relies on third parties such as vendors, notaries and systems. By replacing those complicated processes with a trustworthy digital record, schools can shift their attention to the more important activity of deciding how to respond to a student’s educational history. Further, since these records have each student’s digital keys embedded, students actually have technical ownership of their records. This will become increasingly important as people continue with lifelong learning, particularly across a greater number of education providers and types. For instance, professional certification and workforce development are both examples of how education continues beyond traditional schooling. We think it’s important that students can accrue proof of their education and achievement from any institution they attend.

 

Do you think institutions in Malta and globally have noticed that applying blockchain to the education sector would decrease institutional data costs?

I believe so, digital records are an improvement in every way. While we are still early in the adoption curve, interest grows every month. Everyone wants less paper and smoother processes. However, fundamental change always takes time.

 

How do you expect the sector to develop in Malta and globally in the coming years?

While we see rapid adoption across almost every geographic region, Malta is really leading the way by implementing digital records at a population scale. I think this type of broad deployment is the fastest way to experience the full benefits of convenience and efficiency. This is particularly true when employers and other relying parties begin to ask for and expect 'Blockcerts'. That is when the whole field tips into the future.

 

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How would you describe your experience of using Malta as a testbed so far?

Extremely positive! Malta is really living up to its reputation as an 'island lab'. This starts with having a strong political direction and a pro-active approach. Further, everyone we have interacted with has been driven by values that focus first on the benefits for learners. Collaborating with people who have clear-eyed values and the courage to try new things is a dream come true.

 

What are the other projects and products that could be developed and tested in Malta?

Many types of official records, such as licenses, birth certificates, land titles and bearer instruments, could take on a digital form. In the meantime, we think it’s prudent to learn and refine the current project of issuing, holding and verifying academic records. The impact this could have on education and employability shouldn’t be underestimated. 

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