Oh, Hey Blockchain, Meet the U.S. Education System
We’re a quarter of our way through 2020 and I think it’s fair to say that despair and disillusionment have set in. While I wouldn't have predicted a global pandemic would get us here, we’re at a low point nonetheless. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education OET held the second annual Summit on Education Blockchains, and since that event, a range of projects continued to generate momentum and inflate expectations. Unfortunately (though perhaps predictably), our high hopes for this budding relationship just took a nosedive.
Universities (i.e. would be pilot sites) around the world are shutting down, economic collapse seems imminent, and just as the promise of blockchains was gaining national traction, a novel virus has ripped the wind from our collective sails. And while it would be easy to assume I’m falling victim to confirmation bias (I still might be), I think there are other foreseeable factors at play that caused this hype-cycle-alignment.
Perspective in Crisis
If we step back and take a macro-view on how and why blockchains entered the picture in the first place, I think we get a much clearer perspective on the present moment. This was not a matter of random techno-mutation. Blockchains didn’t just land in our laps. They were born of necessity at a previous time of despair and disillusionment (i.e. the 2008 financial crisis). Many would argue that distributed ledger technology (by way of Bitcoin) was a direct response to financial inequities perpetuated by the world’s central banks — I tend to agree.
There have always been implicit tensions between centralized power structures and distributed networks, so perhaps the current state of confusion and disarray should be no surprise. The monolithic systems we’ve built are remarkably fragile. Whether it’s finance, healthcare, housing, or yes, even our beloved system of education, it seems we’d be better off assuming (and preparing for) the trough rather than panicking when it inevitably arrives. The question has never been if we’ll fall, but when, how far, and whether we’ll find the fortitude necessary to reascend and start the process over again. I will say, if nothing else, humans have proven ourselves to be rather resilient.
Innovation at the Edges
Amidst trying times, I have difficulty with anyone uninterested in seeking out the silver lining. After all, it’s always there for those who choose to look. Blockchain technology and industrial models of education were meant to collide. Our legacy infrastructures are/were simply too brittle not to warrant innovation at the edges. How this relationship evolves on the other side of the current crisis is anyone’s guess, but it seems we should have a shared interest in crafting a love story that is infinitely more durable and accessible than the one we’ve come to know. It’s difficult to know when we might start to crawl our way up the slope of sanity and stability, but when we do, it seems very likely that blockchains and the distributed web will still be there to play a critical role.
Ironic that the quintessential distributed network (humanity itself) is currently being exploited to deadly effect, while we look towards distributed computer networks (blockchains) to rescue the system that arguably helps to make us most human — that of education.
See you on the other side!
With this series, I hope to offer a useful look at the intersection of a nascent technology and legacy bureaucracy. There’s a growing network of people and machines aiming to (re)define notions of trust and value, and seed a new distributed landscape of equitable opportunity for all. I hope you’ll join me in playing matchmaker (or devil’s advocate) as we collectively gaze upon and shape this exciting new relationship.