A W3C Workshop on Distributed Ledgers on the Web
29–30 June 2016, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Authors: Allan Third, John Domingue, Michelle Bachler and Kevin Quick
Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
The Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) at the Open University (OU) has a strong background in Web-related work, especially the Semantic Web, and we have participated in several Web standards, including OWL  and SAWSDL , including work on linking and composing Web services semantically, via initiatives such as Linked USDL  and the Minimal Service Model . KMi hosts an active blockchain group and is developing blockchain-based use-cases in distance education and collaborating with the OU Law School on, for example, financial trusts using blockchains. Demonstrations of our experiments are available at http://blockchain.open.ac.uk. The OU is the UK’s largest university, with 180 000 students per year comprising 22% of all part-time higher education students in the UK.
We are in ongoing dialogue with a number of blockchain companies who share our vision. We have been having weekly online meetings with Consensys in developing our thinking on the relationship between blockchains and higher education. We have also been in touch with Ethcore, KPMG, Team BadgeChain (a core group of the original Mozilla Open Badges), Appii, Kottackal, Applied Blockchain, and Blockchain Tech. We have collaborated with the Fraunhofer Institute, and the Cryptocurrency Research Centre at Imperial College London, and we have been in conversation with Philipp Schmidt’s group at the MIT Media Lab. Our vision for blockchains and education was the subject of invited talk at the FutureLearn MOOC company, and will be the subject of the upcoming keynote at the Services and Applications over Linked APIs and Data (SALAD) workshop at the European Semantic Web Conference, by the Director of KMi, Professor John Domingue.
Our motivation is in educational use cases, and enhancing standards for badging, certification and reputation on the Web with the use of the blockchain as a trusted ledger (see for example [Sharples and Domingue, 2016]). We are interested in leading and taking part in discussions around this area, with generalisations to the use of Semantic Web technologies for blockchain-Web interoperability. Blockchains on the Web have the potential to support the disaggregation of fields such as higher education and professional training, and to enable wider participation, lowering the barriers between formal and informal education.
OpenLearn, launched in 2010, provides a single home for all the OU’s free learning activity. OpenLearn now has over 800 free OU short courses, over 5 million visitors per year and has recently started offering badges. OpenLearn incorporates OpenLearn Works, a Moodle based open educational platform, which has been used to create and published over 800 courses and also supports Open Badges. Our first goal is to place OpenLearn badges on the blockchain to aid students in managing their record of achievements and to prevent fraud. We aim in the future to extend this approach to FutureLearn, the world’s third largest MOOC company, founded by the OU in 2013 with the goal of delivering high-quality MOOCs from a network of renowned UK universities. We have also experimented with going beyond badging to record student work in the form of ePortfolios, using the blockchain to certify the authenticity and validity of their contents, and integrating with emerging infrastructural technologies such as IPFS which are likely to have a significant impact on the Web in general. There are interesting possibilities in this area for ‘crowdsourced accreditation’, in which people can award their peers currency in recognition of (for example) soft skills, using non-monetary (but still limited in supply) reputation tokens.
These educational examples involve many of the issues relevant to blockchains and the Web, such as identity, privacy and security, smart contracts and licensing (e.g., if student work is published as part of a public record of achievement). We believe that the potential of blockchain technology will only be fully unlocked if there are widely used and standardised means for representing the content of a blockchain-based ledger, as well as its context, in a machine-readable manner. Similar concerns in the wider Web are being addressed using the Semantic Web technology stack and standards, and we are keen to discuss the extension and reuse of these widely accepted Web approaches to the blockchain. Developing semantic vocabularies for blockchain concepts, and exposing public blockchain data contents as Linked Data (using these and established domain-specific vocabularies) allows us to take advantage of the wealth of existing tools and technologies developed for the Semantic Web in general.
Sharples, M. and Domingue, J. (2016) The Blockchain and Kudos: a Distributed System for Educational Record, Reputation and Reward, 11th European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning, Lyon, France, Springer