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COVID-19: How Blockchain Technology and Self-Sovereign Identity Enables the New Normal of Remote Learning, Training and Working

Justin Kersey
Product Owner/Business Analyst, Blockchain

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, digital technology was already rapidly changing the way we learn, develop skills and work. This is evidenced by the growing adoption of online courses, virtual hiring, collaboration tools and remote jobs. These trends will undoubtedly accelerate and become the new normal as “social distancing” becomes more commonplace in a world where digital globalization continues unabated. 

As the global digital economy expands on top of a vast internet universe, frictionless exchange between individuals, organizations and devices will become increasingly important, necessitating technologies that improve trust and transparency. Self-sovereign identity (SSI) is an identity model that recognizes that an individual should own and control their identity. In the near-term, it is likely to gain increased adoption as a tool that makes distance learning, hiring, and remote work more efficient and allows seamless integration across platforms.

Self-sovereign identity (SSI), an identity model that recognizes that an individual should own and control their identity, is likely to gain increased adoption in the near-term as a tool that makes distance learning, hiring, and remote work more efficient. SSI improves security and allows seamless integration across platforms.

Identity Matters in an Online Economy

Identity is critical to an individual’s ability to participate in the digital economy, whether it be for authentication purposes, authorization, data sharing, payments, or other online activities. Although internet users can be highly certain of the authenticity of the websites they visit, there is no way of reliably knowing the identity of the people, organizations and other entities that control those websites or with whom users communicate and transact. Today, centralized and federated identity models are deployed as trust brokers for internet-based transactions and exchanges. Unfortunately, these identity models cause users’ identities to fragment across the internet and create inefficient data silos and a disjointed user experience.

Today’s centralized and federated identity models cause users’ identities to fragment across the internet.

Defining Self-Sovereign Identity

Self-sovereign identity blends principles regarding identity data ownership and management with technologies that implement those principles. Technological advancements now include ways to store, share, and authenticate identity data and third-party credentials in a secure and privacy-preserving manner. SSI entrusts an individual with ownership and control of their identity without interventions by administrative authorities or centralized- or federated-identity providers (IDPs). As shown in the following illustration, this new ecosystem lets individuals interact directly with entities without the need for intermediaries, using public-key cryptography, decentralized identifiers, and blockchain technology.

SSI entrusts an individual with ownership and control of their identity without interventions by administrative authorities or centralized- or federated-identity providers.

In 2018, New America published an article, “The Nail Finds a Hammer,” which described the potential for self-sovereign identity to power a new wave of innovations in the field of digital ecosystems. The authors explained, “We believe that the great potential of SSI is that it can make identity in the digital world function more like identity in the physical world, in which every person has a unique and persistent identity which is represented to others by means of both their physical attributes and a collection of credentials attested  by various external sources of authority.” 

“…The great potential of SSI is that it can make identity in the digital world function more like identity in the physical world, in which every person has a unique and persistent identity…”

– The Nail Finds a Hammer

Trust and Transparency, Lower Costs and More Flexibility 

Self-sovereign identity and verifiable credentials can inject trust and transparency into the digital learning, skills development, and work ecosystem. For example, if you complete a degree or earn a certificate, a digital copy or verifiable credential can be added to your SSI (stored in an identity wallet). This credential can be shared with any other entity, such as an employer, that participates in a compatible self-sovereign identity system. This creates an ecosystem of verifiable credentials where you, the individual, serve as the orchestrator and point of unification, instead of the fragmented, siloed model of today, caused by centralized- and federated-identity models. 

The SSI model creates an ecosystem of verifiable credentials where you serve as the orchestrator and point of unification, instead of the fragmented, siloed centralized- and federated-identity models.

The benefits of this approach include: 

⦁ Frictionless and low-cost background checks

⦁ Reduction in credential fraud through cryptographic signatures

⦁ A global ecosystem of standardized credentials that allows organizations to accurately evaluate courses, exams and qualifications from different regions around the world and create equivalencies for them

Employment history and professional achievements can also be captured in the form of verifiable credentials. This will become increasingly important as the prevalence of remote workers and contractors increases. Verifiable work experiences and achievements will help these individuals prove their past experiences and capabilities. 

The Identity Owner as the Point of Integration

Currently, there is no point of integration in the “ecosystem” of digital course providers, certification boards, universities, businesses and governments. These entities are largely walled-off from one another. For example, if you take a course through Udemy and earn a certificate, it is relevant to you and perhaps your LinkedIn connections or employer. If you pass a certification exam, you receive a piece of paper and possibly a link to a digital credential on the certification body’s website. You are unable to aggregate and organize these   achievements in a meaningful way, unlike the verifiable learning path typically offered by traditional educators. In other words, without SSI in place, there is no integrated system to verify your accomplishments and seamlessly communicate them to potential employers or clients. 

Self-sovereign identity shifts identity and credential management from the client-server model of centralized and federated identity systems, which creates silos, to a peer-to-peer model. This is done through the use of public-key cryptography, decentralized identifiers and blockchain. Certification from traditional education providers is no longer necessary, enabling the individual to become the point of connection or integration in the ecosystem. (See the following illustration.) Verifiable credentials would be issued by skills development, education providers, and employers to identity owners. The identity owner can then determine when, where, why and with whom to provide access to these credentials. 

Self-sovereign identity shifts identity and credential management from the client-server model to a peer-to-peer model.

 

With SSI the identity owner becomes the point of integration in the education and jobs ecosystem.

Creating a Verifiable Learning Path from a Variety of Sources

By replacing the client-server identity management paradigm with peer-to-peer and adding verifiable credentials, it is possible to construct learning and career paths with potential input from the entire ecosystem of skills development and learning resource providers, as well as employers. This model lets the identity owner easily organize a unique, verifiable learning path from a wide variety of resources to powerfully prepare for a particular job. Similarly, employers can encourage job candidates to complete recommended learning paths for certain roles, ensuring that they enter the organization with the right skills and verifiable competencies. Or, employers can upskill employees by designing curriculums that draw upon a diverse variety of online courses, university or community college programs, coding academies or other competency evaluation frameworks. Any course that is completed, certificate that is earned or work experience that is gained will produce a verifiable credential that can be shared with any other entity that uses a compatible self-sovereign identity system. 

The Future of Remote Learning, Training and Working 

In the near future, post-secondary education, skills development and work will draw upon the entire universe of skills development and learning resources. The path to acquiring meaningful work will not be prescribed or overly influenced by traditional educational institutions, but rather individually constructed from a menu of online and offline courses, virtual workshops, project portfolios (e.g. Github), online tutoring sessions, competency exams, gig work, and other a la carte type experiences. Similarly, on-the-job learning and career advancement will be oriented to stackable-work and skills-development experiences that build competencies and unique portfolios valued by employers. 

Ultimately, self-sovereign identity and verifiable credentials are not only relevant in the near term but will also prove essential to enabling longer-term paradigm shifts resulting from the recent COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the near future, SSI will support:

⦁ Distance learning

⦁ Non-linear education

⦁ Modular and stackable credentials

⦁ Remote work

⦁ Gig jobs / contracting

Summary: What Will Disruption Look Like?

⦁ Skills and competency evaluation achieve global standardization, making it easier to recruit candidates for a global workforce and remote economy.

⦁ Employers increasingly value verifiable competencies and measurable skills over degrees and other traditional proxy evaluations of skills and employability.

⦁ The private sector and entrepreneurs play a significant role in developing the post-secondary education learning and skills development ecosystem. 

⦁ Individuals with the top skills in their field will earn millions of dollars teaching independent online classes. Credentials from these top teachers will be highly sought after. (This is already happening!)

⦁ Technologies like cloud, mobile, and machine learning are already transforming post-secondary education and workplaces and will continue to do so with the help of Blockchain, AR/VR and 5G. 

Sources

Graglia, Mellon, Robustelli 2018, “The Nail Finds a Hammer,” New America, 18 October, accessed February 21, 2020

Allen, C, 2016, “The Path to Self-Sovereign Identity,” Life With Alacrity, 25 April, accessed Feb 21, 2020

Sovrin 2018, “What is self-sovereign identity?”, Sovrin Foundation, accessed Feb 21, 2020

Dignan, L 2020, “Online learning gets its moment due to COVID-19 pandemic: Here's how education will change,” ZDNet, 22 March, accessed April 3, 2020

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