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Blockchains and the Future of Learning

KnowledgeWorks, an education foundation focused on personalized learning and strategic foresight, recently released a report exploring how blockchain technologies could change K12 education in the United States.

The report, entitled “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?” argues that a cultural shift is pushing learning away from schools and classrooms. This will combine with emerging blockchain technologies, which disintermediate trust in transactions. Many of these transactions are relevant in education, including authentication of credentials, management of finances, and securely storing private data. This can transform the model of education delivery from a centralized to a distributed one—and in so doing, can make learning much more personalized.

Four Scenarios

The report is structured around four scenarios for the future of blockchain-enhanced education.

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Faster Horses

In this scenario, school districts retain control over delivering education and integrate a private blockchain as their administrative and financial backend. The fundamental model of learning doesn’t change, but it is much more efficient, secure, and stable. In particular, the blockchain helps solve three problems in the education system today.

  • Student privacy: As schools have digitized records, information security and information security policy has lagged behind. A shared cryptographically secured way of storing information could help this.
  • Trust in institutional data: Schools have lost records, been victims of hacks, and changed achievement and attendance scores to chase funding. An immutable record could restore trust that school data are accurate.
  • Resources needed for data and administration: Much of the education enterprise is managing records—financial, student performance, employee conduct, etc. Replacing that apparatus with a blockchain could make schools much leaner and more efficient.

The downside in this scenario is a lack of innovation and flexibility. The model remains top down. Schools and districts remain at the top of the hierarchy.

Terms and Conditions Apply

In this scenario, a budding blockchain tech company applies its savvy to a comprehensive education-as-a-service solution. Plug-and-play content delivery. Automated data management. Machine learning (not blockchain-based) that delivers customized lessons and records everything on the blockchain. A thick layer of interlocking smart contracts helps mediate between the school, teachers, students, and the company. The resulting vision of education is born straight from Silicon Valley: social, mobile, automated, seamless, secure—and expensive.  It is one written by a tech entrepreneur, not a student or a teacher, and it even leverages a blockchain’s security properties to sell rich student data while maintaining privacy. More money for schools and profits for tech.

Parent Power

In this scenario, parents collaborate to run a DIY education system built on their own consortium blockchain. The model most closely resembles current incarnations of DAOs, with pooled resources, membership decision-making, and automated payment disbursement. Smart contracts help students access resources on their own, and parents can pool their own resources for shared services. Students experience highly personalized learning, but the system also suffers from the flaws “DIY” systems typically do: bugs, occasional security breaches, errors. It is a system wholly separate from districts, classrooms, and full-time teachers.

Systemic Synergy

In this scenario, open blockchains integrate with the existing school system. Schools remain but they have lost their former centrality. Blockchain-based ecosystem management tools record learning-related data, host smart contracts for services (like third-party assessment), and bridge self-directed learning with the school structures everyone is familiar with. The system is very flexible: people can define their own coursework, hire experts to evaluate their work and provide guidance, and earn immutable certificates. Such a system would need the most thoughtful software and social design to be successful.

The four scenarios are provocative and well written. They highlight some of the key benefits of blockchain technology and smart contracts built on top of them: immutability, security, decentralization, automated management, privacy with auditability. They also highlight some of the tensions inherent in the blockchain industry today.

A Reflection of Blockchain Tech and Finance

The scenarios are eerily reminiscent of the complex relationship between cryptocurrency and the traditional finance system.

Will the existing system absorb blockchain tech and enjoy its security and automation while minimizing decentralization and disruption?

Will a new wave of blockchain startups become tomorrow’s finance brokers, with little knowledge or regard for users?

Will people start developing their own mini-finance systems that exist in parallel with today’s financial systems, with value rarely transferring between crypto and fiat?

Or will blockchain tech truly disintermediate almost aspects of finance, creating a platform on which anyone can build anything: an internet of money?

The cryptocurrency industry is shifting rapidly. Major crises like The DAO attack might increase consumer preference for the insurance and guarantees inherent in the existing finance system, which is already aggressively exploring blockchain tech. The companies who were early to the blockchain space are branching out into different parts of the industry and growing their influence. Smaller blockchains and companies are emerging to serve specific markets. The element that still seems missing is the killer app that allows the existing system to truly decentralize.

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