Oh, Hey Blockchain, Meet the U.S. Education System
By now, you’ve likely heard the buzz (the recent Libra announcement most notably) around the promise of Distributed Ledger Technology (often referred to as blockchains), but what you haven’t likely heard is how this nascent technology is being researched, invested in, and soon integrated into our shared and still largely centralized system(s) of education.
I recently joined Sharon Leu and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology to help build bridges, explore policy, and construct some of the foundational scaffolds needed to explore and support this exciting and evolving new love affair. After a month of finding my feet, I’m excited to reflect, both on what has transpired to date and what’s likely to come. I hope this post, along with 4 more to follow in the series, will provide a usefully resonant, familiarly-themed perspective at this exciting new intersection — one with the potential (if the proverbial knot is tied) to dramatically bend our collective future with regards to earning, learning, and living in the United States.
Analogy & Framing
But, before we dive in too deep, let’s take a quick look at how these love affairs typically evolve, and why I think the relationship analogy is particularly apt. Below is the hype cycle, a conceptual presentation of the maturity, adoption, and social application of emerging technologies. Take almost any technological innovation and its path to adoption and maturity can be mapped through these five phases with surprising consistency. Take any relationship, and I think you‘ll find some surprising, or perhaps troubling, parallels. Fear not, there’s hope on the other side of the trough of disillusionment. Don’t sign those divorce papers just yet.
With regards to the U.S. education system and recent buzz of blockchains, we’re unquestionably navigating the complicated early phase of romance; one full of the butterflies, blushing, and of course skepticism you’d expect from a possible match made in heaven. Well-funded research initiatives, novel companies, open protocols, even university alternatives have all emerged in just a few years time. One might even argue that the two are an exclusive couple at this point after successfully navigating the ICO-fueled peak of inflated expectations in late 2017.
Since Satoshi Nakamoto’s catalyzing white paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, was released in 2008, large institutions and independent innovators alike have been feverishly converging around the potential of blockchains and the distributed web to revolutionize the global financial system, and given the inseparable connection to the modern debt crisis, it’s easy to see why the slow-to-adapt system of education might also be ripe for romance.
Projects & Practicality
So, practically speaking, how has this early attraction and romance played out? Most notably, on June 20, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education hosted the inaugural Summit on Education Blockchains, an exclusive and energetic convening that we can likely tag as the first official date. Over 100 ambitious professionals working at the intersection of blockchains and education converged in Washington DC to collectively explore three fundamental questions:
- What are the policies that will impact or be impacted by a student-owned, blockchain-based learning records infrastructure? For example, how will this allow us to refine our approach to student privacy, data security, and digital identity?
- How can education stakeholders develop consensus on a set of open standards and practices that will ensure the flexibility and interoperability of blockchains used for digital credentialing?
- What principles should we apply to the design and implementation of blockchain-based credentialing systems to ensure social mobility and individual protections, especially for currently disadvantaged populations?
In the wake of what most would agree was a successful first date (there may have even been a kiss goodnight), a range of projects, relationships, communities, and policy considerations have surfaced (some entirely new, some existing but reenergized):
- The Office of Education Technology announced the Education Blockchain Action Network, a shared, community-driven, action-oriented space for conversation, community curation, and open source project development. Curious? You’re invited to join the conversation;
- A clear focus around the need for open, interoperable standards related to digital credentials and identity surfaced. Representatives from IMS Global, W3C, and PESC all expressed a continued commitment towards collaboratively (re)defining the next generation of standards which account for a new era of distributed, disruptive, and perhaps most critically, trustless systems;
- Future-focused, boundary-probing organizations like Brighthive, Concentric Sky, Credential Engine, and Learning Economy are working to (re)define the applications and underlying mindsets currently restricting our perceptions of what’s possible;
- And a range of other writings and reflections have also started to surface as the community slowly becomes aware of the couple-to-be and their potential to grab a greater share of national attention. We can only hope that reality TV and The Bachelorette hasn’t completely warped our perception of what a healthy relationship looks like.
Regardless of your long-term outlook, this early wink and convening demonstrate an unprecedented trajectory towards realizing a new era in U.S. education; one we should all have an interest in helping to define. The legislation that shapes and dictates our collective progress (or not) mustn’t be written by a select few. All voices are needed. All opinions matter. The whole of democracy, arguably anchored upon education, will always be greater than the sum of its parts.
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.