Using blockchain to re-imagine learning

By: Ben Blair, co-founder of Teachur

You’ve heard of blockchain, right? Maybe you’re familiar with Bitcoin?

If you are, you likely think that it’s some strange technophile’s attempt to create money out of computer code. Or, at any rate, it seems like some “out-there” hybrid of banking and tech. But with a really quick primer, it’s easy to see why people may be interested in bitcoin, and even more, why blockchain — the underlying technology — has the potential to shift radically lots of industries, including education.

In her recent blog, KnowledgeWorks Senior Director of Strategic Foresight Katherine Prince lists six challenges that K-12 education faces. I’m not going to go all panacea on you, but let me illustrate how blockchain technology could address at least one of those issues and gesture to how it could play an important — if not central — part in addressing all six.

(If you’re looking for a primer on blockchain and education, look no further than this post by Jason Swanson)

If we look at schools, there are many areas where blockchain technology could be a disruptive force.

For brevity, let’s look at one that Katherine cites: learning targets and quality assurance. In principle, verifying that a student’s learning target has been met is simple. Essentially, it’s a yes or no question. The way schools do this now is through standardized testing and grades, but these approaches don’t necessarily reflect educational quality or mastery. They also tend to be biased toward those things we can easily test and can’t do things Prince argues for, such as “consider the whole child [or] reward what truly matters.” Our current forms of accountability are centralized: we have high stakes testing and professional assessment institutions. But the content of what we’re trying to account for doesn’t need to be centralized.

Imagine an evolving database (or ledger!) of assessments that students could take and pass at any time without educators needing to set aside a major “assessment” period during the school year. Students could demonstrate mastery when they were ready, and the results would be even more secure than those we get now. Results could be tied precisely to whatever objectives we’re aiming for and could be updated quickly. And, since we could distribute the disruption to regular instruction that current testing presents, we could get more creative and experimental with what we’re measuring. Student profiles would automatically update without the need for a testing agency to oversee it all. On that same note, if we’re committed to shaping our objectives to reflect the “whole child” and “what truly matters,” rather than what current standardized tests can measure, using blockchain to power assessment could open new horizons for addressing all the other challenges Katherine mentions: equity, student experience, human capital, civic responsibility, and governance. is built on a blockchain foundation.

Teachur is built on the foundation of educational objectives and assessments tied to the blockchain.

An objective can be simple like: “Compare two numbers between 1 and 10 presented as written numerals,” or more involved like: “Use ratio and rate reasoning to solve real-world and mathematical problems.” (These are taken from Common Core math standards, at which standardized tests are aimed to assess.) Teachur takes each standard and couples it with sufficient assessments so we can know with more certainty than our current practices offer that a standard has been met. Since each standard is tied to its own assessment(s), and that coupling is tied to the blockchain, we have more rigor and security than the present situation, but without the need for an institutional host. And since we have modularized secure testing of each objective, we have a lot more flexibility.

When we clear our thinking and understand what we’re really seeking (and not seeking), it’s easy to see that our current practices are not built to optimize for individual benefit, but to optimize for institutional efficiency (the bank in the case of money transactions and the school or testing agency in the case of education). But if we don’t have to interface with the bank or set aside weeks for testing, we may rightfully be disturbed by the status quo. We should use that dissatisfaction — and new tools such as blockchain — to work toward better solutions. They are just around the corner.

“We should use that dissatisfaction — and new tools such as blockchain — to work toward better solutions. They are just around the corner.”

Ben Blair is a Co-Founder of Teachur, an open-source platform for building educational objectives, assessments, lessons, courses and degrees tied to the blockchain.

KnowledgeWorks will be releasing a paper that explores the future of blockchain and learning. To receive a copy of “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?” when it is released, subscribe here.