Tech Talk Live Blog

Potential Use for Blockchain in Student Data

Litty Kurian

One of my responsibilities currently is to support PIMS (Pennsylvania Information Management System) submission, which involves creating reports based on requirements from the state of Pennsylvania and then uploading them to their website. The data involves transactional information like student enrollment, student attendance, student testing, etc. The state then runs error checks and either accepts the reports or returns errors that are then corrected and re-submitted. This process is done by hundreds of school districts around the state. PIMS acts as the central authority making sure that information is vetted before it becomes part of the system. I think this process is a candidate for implementing blockchain.

What exactly is blockchain? Before we go there, it is necessary to understand what a cryptocurrency is. You might have heard of various cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, etc. What sets them apart from physical currencies like the dollar is that they do not have a centralized authority like a federal reserve or a European central bank to manage them. These digital currencies are designed to be produced less often as time goes by, but with an ultimate upper limit of how much of it can be created. In this sense it acts like precious metals, like gold, that have finite availability. Much like precious metals, they need to be mined. Unlike gold, they are mined by computers doing a lot of energy intensive processing to validate transactions in a cryptocurrency network. Currency is produced as a reward for this effort. The first cryptocurrency and the most popular one was Bitcoin. It was created by a person or a group of persons using the name Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. It was designed as a way to transfer payments between entities without the need of a middle man.

Blockchain is the underlying technology on which these cryptocurrencies are built. It acts as a ledger of financial transactions which are secured cryptographically. “A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a hash pointer as a link to a previous block, a timestamp, and transaction data. By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is an ‘open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way’. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.” (Wikipedia)

This technology is particularly helpful in areas where data is dispersed in multiple systems that do not interact well directly with each other. A classic example of this is in healthcare and dealing with patients’ medical records. There is no universal way in which a doctor can access the medical history of a person who has been to multiple places of treatment. The data will be dispersed to various entities like insurance companies, laboratories, primary care, pharmacies, etc. If a health activity of a patient could be posted to a ledger that is available to all, based on need to know, but secured cryptographically, it would solve a lot of the problems that we have today with patient medical records.

The same is true for student data records. If we had a ledger at the state or federal level where all activities of a student could be posted with security that is similar to that of a cryptocurrency, this would make it easier for everyone concerned and would eliminate all of the manual reconciliations that we do currently.

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