Education on a Blockchain — Can it truly democratize the way we learn and impart knowledge?

Education can be defined as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and general of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” This, in my opinion, is a pretty holistic definition of education. While the definition is idealistic, the aim of imparting knowledge has undergone a dramatic change through the years.

For thousands of years, before the agrarian age, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, children learnt life skills from play and self-exploration. Their parents gave them limitless access to their surroundings as they realized its importance in the natural learning process of children. Unfortunately, with the coming of the age of agriculture all of this changed. With agriculture, people were able to grow more food. Their lives became labor-intensive, but at the same time, more dreary. Lives of our hunter-gatherer ancestors was far more exciting and creative. It was skill- and knowledge-intensive and all work was play. However, agriculture made children into unwilling laborers.

From until that time till quite recently, children were imparted skills required to be subservient laborers. In time the idea of institutions that would impart these skills and the limited amount of knowledge required to carry out mundane existential activities was borne. This gave rise to the modern educational system. The primary institutions of education — schools, colleges and universities — are a very recent phenomena if we consider the length of human civilization.

We’ve come a long way from an exploratory way of learning to a boxed system of learning. Today, willfulness that was earlier regarded as an essential component of a child’s learning is seen more as a vice that needs to be subjugated. Education became tedious rather than a fun way to learn new things and be prepared to face life as a prepared adult.

Today, we have realized the folly of our ancestors and are trying desperately to bring about a radical change in our methodologies of imparting knowledge. We have introduced a variety of subjects into the curricula and are using novel ways to teach. Experiential and experimental ways of teaching-learning are given importance. However, the institutions still remain. Today, no learned person without a degree from a conventional educational system can think of getting employment within the mainstream ecosystem. This mean that even today, if you want to get educated you have to attend schools and colleges. Can this change?

Can we create a truly open, democratic and accessible system of imparting knowledge to a new generation that is destined to inherit an extremely complex world? Can we do away with institutions of learning and use these resources into creating such a system that does not discriminate? Can we create a system that allows students to choose what they wish to learn? Can we create a system that sees each student as a talented, capable human being who has the inherent power to change the world for the better? Can we have a system that respects individualism?

This system can well and truly be created using the blockchain technology. Blockchain, technically, is a distributed database spread across millions of computers with no centralized control. Each “block” is both transparent as well as tamper-proof. It also has a time stamp to record transactions. It is an efficient and secure way of handling transactions.

Educational content can be put online and be accessed by anybody, regardless of geographical and other perceived barriers. A certification system can be put up on the blockchain that will assess and authentically certify the student who has, say, taken a particular course. This will eliminate the fraud that is possible with a paper-based documentation system. A distributed, trustless assessment and certification system is the best possible use of a blockchain based education system. This data can then be used by third parties like employers. This will create a better profile for an employable student rather than scores of paper certificates.

Consider this hypothetical ecosystem. There is a ledger that records everything you’ve learnt, every course you’ve taken and every skill you’ve mastered. Your learning is distributed into boxes, with each box representing a fixed amount of time you’ve spent on a particular course. You can pick up any number of such boxes from any number of educational content providers, all of which are connected to the ledger (on the blockchain). Your profile will display the amount of such boxes you’ve gathered. Employers can seek you and offer you a job depending upon the number and types of these boxes. All income you generate will be recorded and this feedback will be given to the makers of all the courses you’ve taken. This will give many others an idea as to which course can help them earn more. Since each of the boxes you have can potentially help you earn money, you can exchange boxes for exemption in course fees. All the boxes of all the people on this blockchain will be a part of our collective teaching and learning experience.

This is just one of the many possible scenarios in which the blockchain can be used to revolutionize education as we see it today. No longer will students cram their brains to simply spill them out during a couple of exam hours. This type of a learning environment will inspire and motivate students to be creative, innovative and proactive. This type of education system will be non-discriminatory and truly democratic. It will save students a life of misery while trying to pay back the student loans that they take to fund their college education. It will also allow them to learn what they like and how they like it. And since earning is tied with learning, students can choose only those skills and courses that can guarantee successful earning opportunities.

Education is a right and not a privilege. However, the current ecosystem thinks otherwise, with education being placed just beyond an arm’s length from those that cannot afford it. A truly open and accessible education system will end this discrimination and allow everyone to learn to their heart’s content. Education needs a massive revolution and blockchain technology can bring about one.