Blockchain: The Move from Freedom to the Rigid, Dominant System in Learning

In this post Inge de Waard gives an overview of current Blockchain options from industry and looks at its impact on universities as well as philosophies on its future.

Background and project

As I am working on the learning bit of the skills 3.0 project (a multi-disciplinary project combining AI, HR, learning and learning certification, see basic slides here), I have been gathering some Blockchain-for-Learning solutions as well (exploring options before adding them to the project slides).

Main idea for using Blockchain (open or closed) for learning

What I am looking for is a stackable certification solution, which blockchain for learning or education can provide. This stackable way of organising or linking learning could enable a validated, personalized certification procedure covering both formal learning (e.g. certification, degrees, micro-credits) and informal learning (e.g. badges, skills, experiences). Practically: each learner has a learning wallet or portfolio, and you – as a learner – can add each learning step as you ‘earn’ it and you are issued a certificate/badge of what you learned by a learning authority/individual/group).

Why is this useful?

Remember how each one of us has to give proof of learning whenever we want to change jobs, or when HR sets up these profiles that are so complex, that you wonder whether you will ever fit in? Well, in an ideal world this blockchain-for-learning solution might shed some light on both your formal credits, as well as your experiences throughout life and even your emerging interests (e.g. blockchain basics). It is a bit like a LifeLongLearning Accreditation On Steroids. So the blocks of this blockchain would be all instances where you learn, this could be study hours, but also workshops, reading, interactions with experts, papers, patents, peer groups of practitioners … The idea is to support personalized learning when people are reskilling or upskilling their competencies and knowledge and adding a layer to it so their training and learning can be certified in a secure and digital fashion.

It’s technology, so there are heated debates

With all new technology, the heated debates emerge as well: what is the best, what are the upsides, who is a true believer, who is a true cynic… all of this I keep for a post later on this month. For now, just to give an idea, I am focusing on what is out there. Which is more than I had imagined.

Blockchain you say? 

Any transaction between different parties where the transactions need to be validated, and they are distributed across locations fit the blockchain technology. The data is distributed over a massive amount of people, which would make tracking all the transactions very complex if done manually. Blockchain automates these transactions, and in many cases, they use distributed databases, as well as smart contracts to enable transactions. A smart contract is a computer protocol intended to digitally facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract. Smart contracts allow the performance of credible transactions without third parties. These transactions are trackable and irreversible (it being irreversible is one of the topics of debate, for instance, even if you are the author, you cannot change the transaction… so how does this fit in with Personal Data?). However, there is one important factor: the learner should be the one in charge of who can see what from his ‘learning experiences and certification’, which means she can give or revoke access to personal records.

A great white paper on it (53 pages), called My Skills Project, written by John Casey from City of Glasgow College is a good read to get acquinted with blockchain for learning, focusing on vocational training (great read!).

Some features that I feel are key:

  • Privacy (well, yes)
  • Learner is the owner of all data (others might be as well, but intermittent, while the learner is the owner of all their data).
  • Mobile first (you would think this is a given, but… it still is not).
  • Standardization (otherwise it becomes difficult to achieve lifelong learning traceability)
  • Bridging formal and informal: this demands a variety of validated certification, including micro-credits, open badges and the like.

Giving some examples of products out there or in progress:

Chainscript demo by Phil Komarny (Chainscript from SalesForce): in just 5 minutes Phil gives an overview and live (!) demo of the chainscript on mobile (oh yes!).

SmartDegrees: a mobile tool developed in Spain (the app already exists and has been rolled out in some Spanish Universities, a.o. Carlos III in Madrid). Because this solution seems (at least) a good starting point, I have a meeting with one of its people next week (looks promising, you can see a 2-minute video of what smartDegrees does here, but only in Spanish at the moment).

A great comprehensive overview of Blockchain overall and with practical implementations in education comes from the Open University (UK), which looks at their plans for smart contracts, micro-accreditation, open badges, … great 9-minute video. It is John Domingue (director of KMI at the OU) who speaks, and he has just been awarded the fellowship of the British Blockchain Association.

LearningMachine: from MIT lab, and the good old W3C credentials community group, LearningMachine emerged. This is a full product in market, fully self-sovereign identity. But not sure how open they are to non-classic accreditation, although their video does include ‘skills equivalencies’ but not sure of the peer recommendations or fully informal learning options. They seem to be more focused on formal education (from government, university, companies). Their 2-minute mobile app can be seen in action here.

Accredible is another, with UK, Netherlands and USA offices. They work across LMS systems, so they seem more LMS oriented. A lot of reading to get the idea, but nice reading.

The American, Public University system has blockchain lined up as well, but I could not find a bigger description of their project.

Blockchain is a hot topic, so there is a multitude of courses out there, but one that seems to specialize is the Blockchain Training Alliance . They do not seem to offer specific Blockchain products though.

Then there are a couple of blockchain companies who haven’t developed a Blockchain for learning solution, but seem to be eager to explore the field:

Blockchain: the move from freedom to the rigid, dominant system in learning

In history and innovation, there is always the first momentum which feels like liberation and promises a minor or major new Utopia (the emergence of television: education for all right in your living room; Internet: education at our fingertips; MOOCs: free education for all by highly acclaimed institutions, … and now blockchain: certification for our lifelong learning, right in our mobiles). Blockchain certification is cutting out the middle person and making sure that all transactions move from user-to-user (where the user might be any person or company that is at one end of a transaction). At first, the promise of secure data transition is felt like new freedom to some, but once the technology gets more embedded and used by more people, a more rigorous system kicks in, the dominant system.

To me, it feels like dominant learning is reeling all of us, informal learners, back in, and blockchain certification might just be a strong example. Why would blockchain be a ball-and-chain from the dominant system? Easy, it now stacks formal certification, which means it becomes even more difficult to live and develop outside of the pre-set pathways of life (if you want a professional career that is). Why would this be necessary? Well, not all of us want to pull pranks, not all of us want to live outside of the set boundaries (study, go to uni, work and climb the ladder within a specific branch), but some of us do like a bit of job freedom. I for instance like switching jobs, and retaining some freedom while performing to the best of my abilities.

Our human right to pull pranks within the educational establishment

For me, we – as humans – need the freedom to pull off a prank from time to time. Nothing as big as full-blown fraud, but just something small to satisfy our inner fool.

I remember a prank that Gogol pulled off which actually went against the rigid educational system of his time. Gogol was a famous Russian author using quite a bit of surrealism in his books, eg. The Nose. At a certain point in his life, he could earn enough money, so he was looking for a means to earn money, and he managed to earn a chair as Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He pulled this off for a year (not giving lectures, keeping all the information very general, and taking exams with a towel wrapped around his so-called toothache, so that he did not have to talk and another professor took the exams of the students. Great! I mean, let’s be serious, this is something that makes all of us pranksters laugh. It takes a serious position and turns it into a very human momentum. Let’s be honest, no robot or cyborg would do this, only humans can come up with such a beautifully orchestrated prank.

However stupid a fool’s words may be, they are sometimes enough to confound an intelligent man. Gogol, Dead Souls.

Blockchain certification is for idiots who cannot pinpoint real knowledge or expertise

Sometimes Blockchain certification is promoted with: “it takes away the risk of hiring someone who has not gotten the degrees that the person says they have”. So what? If you cannot tell if someone had or didn’t have an education based on what they deliver in terms of work, it sure means they were intelligent enough to really grasp those skills and experiences in their own way. If they cannot pull it off, it does not matter whether they had the qualifications in a formal way or not either, because if they cannot do the job, no matter which qualifications they have, you will fire them. So in a way certification is only a fools tool within a dominant system that agrees it is too difficult to distinguish real earned certification versus fraudulently earned certification. Or is it?

Universities are no longer on top of the educational ladder: the Russian implementation

I mentioned a couple of Blockchain certification options already, but an even more advanced blockchain in learning example has entered on my radar too. It is a Russian implementation called Disciplina. This platform combines education (including vocational training), recruiting (comparable with what LinkedIn is doing with its economic graph) and careers for professionals. All of this is combined into a blockchain solution that keeps track of all the learners’ journey. The platform includes not only online courses as we know it but also coaching. After each training, you get a certificate.

TeachMePlease, which is a partner of Disciplina, enables teachers and students to find each other for specific professional training as well as curriculum-related children’s schooling. Admittedly, these initiatives are still being rolled out in terms of courses, but it clearly shows where the next learning will be located: in an umbrella above all the universities and professional academies. At present, the university courses are being embedded into course offerings by corporations that roll out a layer post-university, or post-vocational schooling.

Europe embraces blockchain, as can be seen with their EU Blockchain observatory and forum. And in a more national action, Malta is storing their certifications in a blockchain nationwide as well. We cannot deny that blockchain is getting picked up by both companies and governments. Universities have been piloting several blockchain certification options, and they also harbour some of the leading voices in the debate on blockchain certification.

Major critique on Public Blockchains for learning

First of all, and prominently present, is Serge Ravet. He is co-author of the Bologna Open Recognition Declaration, founding partner of the Open Recognition Alliance, which already offers a good deal of interesting blockchain for learning related reading. On his learning futures blog, Serge wrote a couple of articles on why he thinks that blockchain for learning is not the way to go and is, in fact, solving a false problem. . While going head-on, he pinpoints the real actor behind the EU blockchain observatory and forum, he then goes on to state that blockchain promotion is based on the promotion of the idea of distrust. When I read this, I concurred to the notion, as indeed there is another way to certify education and learning, that is by using the Web of Trust.

The blockchain is sometimes presented as the new panacea needed to heal the wrongs of the world. It is not just superficial, it is plain wrong: some applications of blockchain technologies can make things worse than they were, like the Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that are not just boosting traditional criminal activities but enabling new ones, not to mention global warming.

It’s about Trust, Stupid! Why Blockchain-based BlockCerts are the wrong solution to a false problem (0/3) by Serge Ravet

In his follow-up post Serge zooms in on the economic-dimension of using blockchains, notably the actual risk of erasing regulatory bodies, and one of the most irregulated markets, the cryptocurrency market. He states:

The rationale for the initial development of blockchain technologies like Bitcoins, was to solve the problem of double spending while simultaneously:

  • Getting rid of regulatory bodies — the dream of the proponents of anarcho-capitalism also called libertarian anarchy, one of the ideologies widely shared between the alt-right, Trump and Silicon Valley (c.f. their track-record in tax dodging).
  • Getting rid of the need for trusted authorities to secure transactions — which resulted in creating an ecosystem that works best when everybody is at war with everybody. Trust is a mortal sin as trust between the [blockchain] miners could lead to collusion and cheating.

This puts a large part of society in a precarious position, as blockchains are pushed as being secure, while actually not only cutting away the middle man, but also the regulators, and the only ones really benefitting from having no regulators are those in power.

Another well-known downside of blockchains is their impact on global warming (definitely regulators needed there).

Public blockchains based on Proof of Work (PoW) are actively contributing to global warming—Bitcoin operations consume the annual energy of New Zealand, and growing!

It’s about Trust, Stupid! Why Blockchain-based BlockCerts are the wrong solution to a false problem (1/3) by Serge Ravet

He also dispels the blockchain myth in pointing to how easy it is to get funding if you use ‘blockchain’ in any type of way.
What I really like, and often think, is that there is not always a need for blockchain. There are other options that do the job you want and have less impact on the climate, as well as less impact on society (so keeping it a low risk).

When addressing blockchain for certification, he hits on similar ideas as I did in the beginning of this post (though Serge uses a much more literary and blockchain-tech angle). And he uses some bitter wit as well:

The blockcert-authors want to use blockchains to reinvent the teaching machine that B. F. Skinner imagined for humans out of his extensive study of pigeons. But with an interesting twist this time: the positive reinforcement is not for the students, but the teachers; and it is financial! … If the goal is to “enable a wave of innovation” what kind of innovation could emerge from making credentials “cryptographically signed, tamper-proof, and shareable”? The only innovation here is in using a new technology to improve paper-based credentials. We had a piece of paper, a static piece of information that is now a digital record, just as well a static piece of information, but easier to share and more difficult to tamper with.

When reading this last paragraph, it dawned on me that blockchain certification might well be a contemporary version of the Emperors New Clothes. Ah, so that means blockcerts might be a prank after all?! That idea feels satisfying, I no longer need to search a viable product for my project… or do I?

Written by Inge de Waard. First published in her blog Ignatia Webs.

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