The way we deal with knowledge is changing. Already, the largest encyclopedia in the world is Wikipedia — a resource arising from anyone’s contribution and available to everyone. As our economy speeds up, the way we learn new knowledge must also change. The first years of instruction will have to focus more on conceptual ‘learning to think and learn,’ while we will need to upgrade our skills and expertise regularly to stay competitive in the job market. Blockchain technology can help lay the groundwork for some of the required shift in our approach to learning, but it cannot revolutionize all of education.
A key promise of the decentralized blockchain economy is the potential of trustless consensus models that verify information without the need for a higher authority. Intuitively, education seems like a perfect target: states and educational institutions have highly centralized certification mechanisms for courses and degrees. We rely on a few powerful actors to ascertain the credibility of learning outcomes, and such actors can fail and are slow to adapt to changing workplace requirements.
A recent example for the need of non-institutional accreditation is the vast number of highly educated Syrian students who fled their war-torn nation and struggle to continue their studies because of a lack of documentation from their previous universities. One solution, similar to what Bitnation pursued for identity verification for refugees, is the creation of small webs-of-trust of former students and teachers or professors who verify each others’ work and therefore create credibility through consensus. This system could help support new non-institutional forms of education that serve as more dynamic alternatives to traditional education.
However, we cannot describe such a system as trustless, because the individuals would be friends or at least acquaintances and the motive to endorse another student may be more than the economic self-interest in the truly trustless financial blockchain networks. It creates a system vulnerable to collusion, where the basic human instinct for reciprocal altruism may lead people to verify individuals who did not attain degrees. A peer-to-peer network would require more trust in the people than the trust we currently put into centralized institutions.
Decentralized student-tutor platforms
A more practical solution is a blockchain-based education marketplace that works with smart contracts as the primary verification tool. Course completion would trigger the payment to the teacher and the achievement of credits for the student. Storage in publicly available smart contracts would transparently prove credentials. Students could also pay less because institutional overhead costs would not apply, and the system would reward good teachers because they would likely get more students and therefore earnings. The ODEM platform has created such a platform and operates it successfully.
Nevertheless, one major issue remains: the comparability of learning standards. Although transparency makes it possible to go through a syllabus and know what learning outcomes come from a given course, employers are unlikely to have the time to go through those every time they want to hire somebody new. The name of a state-accredited university still provides this security more convincingly than any other assurance an individual tutor can give.
Although we could measure success by the achievements of students after taking the course, this is not an accurate measure of the course’s teaching level. Participants may have already been knowledgeable before, and there would be no comparison group of non-participants to control for such factors.
A blockchain-based system to prove education achievements that operates within the constraints of current institutions would be a compromise that introduces the reliability and transparency of blockchain solutions to the current educational framework. Universities or national and international education boards and groups could adopt an ODEM-like system on campuses and embrace the benefits of the improved data storage system while providing the legitimacy of educational standards. This solution could also help financially disadvantaged learners onto university’s online courses and thereby reduce the cost of attending such an institution.
However, Coursera and similar platforms already exist without blockchain technology and their need for more reliability and transparency is not very pressing. For now, employers trust the subjective profiles on LinkedIn. This may change in a future where a lot more adult learning, and the associated accreditation, will become necessary.
Badges for Gigs
The real potential of blockchain solutions lies in the growing field of lifelong learning. Concepts like the tutor-student platform with education tokens and transparent storage can be useful to unify the variety of different MOOCs, job training and other specialty courses that the typical worker has to increasingly go through to keep upgrading skills and stay up to date in the workplace.
ODEM-like platforms would be especially appealing to individuals in the gig economy, where freelancers work on individual projects and do not go through structured training stages set by their company. Completion of certain levels of projects could count as tokens themselves, and further training programs would add to the individual’s portfolio of skills badges. Every time a company hires the person, they could verify that they have the required skills, or else the person loses a badge.
In a global, open system, this should lead different companies to find the right level of expertise given by certain courses freelancers have taken, although ideally the platform should also employ education professionals to verify material in uncertain cases. Learners can also pay tokens for material that educators upload, creating a fair system for payment of content contributors.
As the economy moves to more and more gig economy engagements in often very global environments, easily searchable badges in the form of blockchain-secured tokens can help freelancers show their expertise level for projects in a way that current models cannot enable.
As with many blockchain applications, the success of such a platform relies on how well it can identify and target market niches, and develop stellar user interfaces that allow widespread adoption of the technology. Recruiting teachers is a vital first step, which ODEM is attempting through partnerships with existing educational institutions. When many students follow, employers may someday, too, setting up an ever-growing network, and decentralizing knowledge accreditation the way Wikipedia has already decentralized the storage of knowledge.