iSchool Explores Emerging Technology with Blockchain MOOC

iStudent Blog

Published: June 23, 2019 by guest blogger Greta Snyder

This spring 2019, SJSU iSchool offered a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on Blockchain & Decentralization for the Information Industries. Designed and led by Jason Griffey, a prominent advocate for blockchain research in the information services field, this innovative MOOC was made possible thanks to a grant secured by iSchool Director Dr. Sandra Hirsh and iSchool Lecturer Dr. Sue Alman from Institute of Museum and Library Services to further research into the applicability of blockchain to information services.

What is Blockchain?

Megan Price, a student assistant for the MOOC, summarizes blockchain perfectly in her recent article published in Archeota: “Blockchain in a nutshell is a decentralized verification system, called blockchain because it is a series, or chain, of blocks that verify the information in a previous block has not been altered.” As Price points out, the crucial quality of blockchain that makes it valuable to information professionals is that “records are immutable and any alterations are traced, tracked and documented.” Further applications to the field align with the information profession’s values of equity of access, democratization of information sharing through decentralization, and guardianship of records of political, historical, legal and scientific value.

Price insightfully observes “libraries, archives, librarians and archivists are sitting at the cutting edge of progress in this area, and while there are risks involved with being an early adopter for any type of technology, blockchain is definitely worth our exploration.” Learn even more about Price’s perspective and interests on her website.

Why should you learn about Blockchain?

Emerging technologies that can increase access, ensure ethical practices in record keeping, identity management, and idea sharing, are a call to action for LIS professionals to learn about new systems. The MOOC gave participants an invaluable opportunity to learn about blockchain from visionaries in the field and to discuss possible issues and the potential value and impact of implementation.

Major questions with any emerging technology have to deal with how much traction will it gain, how widely will it be adopted and will it be sustainable. As individuals and members of organizations we have to ask:  if we invest the resources to implement it now, will it still be useful in the near and long-term future?

In this MOOC, students discussed many potential uses for blockchain to be applied to libraries and the information industries, such as health informatics, identity management, archives and records, education, publishing, agricultural and supply chains, and scientific or academic research. This MOOC took us beyond the buzz of cryptocurrency to look at the potential advantages of blockchain technology for crucial causes, such as human rights and equity of access, and the issues of the technology in terms of environmental impact, scalability and global adaptability.

Scope of the MOOC

The goal of the MOOC was to explore, understand and discuss the potential applications of blockchain and distributed ledger technology. The topics included: overview of blockchain technology, implementation issues, considerations and challenges, related decentralized systems, potential applications and use cases and future directions.

Almost 1,000 students from around the world, including many iSchool students, alumni and instructors, participated in the MOOC. The students represented a broad array of fields, including finance, education, health care, government agencies, libraries, archives, museums, agriculture, academia, publishing, nonprofits and private sector businesses.

The variety of backgrounds and perspectives the students brought to the MOOC, the quality of course content, and high levels of engagement in discussions supported by the four SJSU iSchool student assistants (Greta Snyder, Megan Price, Ben Getting and Danielle Dantema) yielded a dynamic global assessment and discourse regarding the potential issues with blockchain and possible beneficial applications of decentralized technology to a multitude of localities and organizations.

Want to learn more about Blockchain?

Interested in Blockchain? Wish you had attended the MOOC?

Key Takeaways from Participants

Didier J. Mary, a first-time MOOC participant, contributed greatly to the discussion. He said, “I already had some knowledge of the main subject (aka blockchain). I decided to attend this training wanting to confront my understandings of this technology I learnt by myself to a specific context (information industries, libraries mainly) and to other’s approach to it. It was quite interesting in the first sessions to see how people reacted, to the concept(s) and terminologies. The many use cases allowed them to better grasp the potential ins & outs, as they were connected back to their ‘reality.’

I live and work in francophone West Africa, and even if digital and IT are part of more and more people’s life, it’s always better to properly address the discovery of a new paradigm and any expectation that could derive from it. This course helped me to reinforce my knowledge and to be able to speak or better convey the technology to others myself.”

Highlights and Insights from iSchool Student Assistants

  • Dantema: “I am amazed at the global student community that came together to dive into this MOOC topic. We were all so curious and helpful to one another. It’s a complicated topic that we were able to work through together. One of the major insights on this topic is how long blockchain has been around and how far we have come with it – not very far for being 20 years since its invention.  Discussing the ethics of blockchain was also very interesting because not many people realize that even if the block contains sensitive data, what happens to the data when we pass away? There is a lot more to blockchain than the software itself.”
  • Snyder: “The ability to connect internationally to discuss the potential for technology to rewire how we collectively experience information, and how we as information professionals can share, verify and expand access was extremely inspiring and beneficial. This course was both very technical and practical, while grappling with major ethical and legal issues in order to unpack a complex topic with a global perspective on implementation, actionable application and barriers to access, questions of reliable information sources, and desires to decentralize control mechanisms that might limit freedom of of information or the safe-keeping of valuable historic, political and scientific records. Encouraging research sharing, imagining the expansion of open access publishing with proper accreditation, building collaborative archives, creating a system for universal identity management and envisioning a future where records could be trusted we are all major topics of interest to students.”

Bottom Line

This MOOC is a perfect example of the amazing, unique opportunities offered through SJSU iSchool for LIS student career growth and development on two levels. First, as a student and then as a graduate, keep your eyes peeled for any new MOOCs being offered through SJSU iSchool by checking in with the iSchool News.

Next, for current students, have you had a chance to take an INFO298 Special Studies? Keep your eye out for iSchool alert emails or you could even design your own by partnering with a full-time faculty member! If you have taken an INFO298 I would love to hear about your experience; email Greta Snyder she would love to share your experience in the iSchool Career Blog!

As Dantema explained, “This was my first time doing an independent study and I really enjoyed it because it was such a fascinating topic. It certainly took a lot of time and dedication to learn the subject as well as assemble the content to make it an enjoyable course for the students who signed up for it. I highly recommend taking an independent study course to use your skills that you have learned so far in your SJSU career and apply them in a real-world setting. The MOOC had an impact on students around the globe!”

The SJSU iSchool continues to lead the way in opportunities to collaborate in global discussions about the issues impacting our profession.