Detail from Beeple (b. 1981), EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, 2021. Non-fungible token (jpg). 21,069 x 21,069 pixels (319,168,313 bytes). Minted on 16 February 2021. Image: Christie’s.

NFTs in education — fashion, fad or truly non-fungible?

Written while founding director of HaileyburyX.

What do Beeple, LeBron James and Jack Dorsey have in common?

NFTs, or Non-Fungible Tokens.

They’re a blockchain-based way to establish the authenticity of a digital asset — a video, a digital artwork, a jpg or any other digital object. In the world of blockchain, data is stored on a public ledger and, for reasons that are very mathematical, is secure from tampering.

The fungible bit, if you’re not a finance geek, might need some explanation.

A fungible thing can be exchanged for something else — an Australian Dollar for another Australian Dollar Dollar, for example. In contrast, a non-fungible thing is unique and can’t be replaced with something else. If you are lucky enough to have one, your Prerelease Raichu Pokémon card, possibly the rarest Pokémon card of all time, is absolutely non-fungible (and apparently worth over US$10,000). Most stuff — the stuff we own — it turns out, is non-fungible (and in fact, fungibility is a subjective phenomenon if you dig a bit deeper).

In the current buzz about this use of blockchain, NFTs are unique because the blockchain records data about them that can prove ownership — and, like any other asset, an NFT can appreciate and can then be sold on with the transaction recorded on the blockchain.

So we have Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s 2006 tweet “just setting up my twttr” selling for 1630.5825601 in the cryptocurrency ETH (or around US$2,915,835.47 in fiat currency) early in 2021 — old news in the NFT world, which moves pretty quickly.

Jack Dorsey’s 2006 tweet “just setting up my twttr” sold for 1630.5825601 ETH, or around $2,915,835.47.

Beeple sold a jpg called Everydays — The First 5000 Days for $69M, and a video clip of LeBron James dunking sold for more than $200,000.

“Everydays — The First 5000 Days” is a collage of all the images that the artist known as Beeple has been posting online each day since 2007. (Chistie’s/New York Times)

NFTs are nothing new. You might remember the CryptoKitties craze, where blockchain-certified images of cats became collectables. (And the more recent Sollamas, a set of 10,000 uniquely generated, cute and collectable llamas with proof of ownership stored on the Solana blockchain).

But what’s the difference between using your iPhone to take a picture of a jpg that is an NFT and the NFT itself? After all, you have an image of the thing. Same, same, you might think.

But not really. It’s just like visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao and taking a picture of UNTITLED by Mark Rothko – which I did early in 2020 when such things were possible. It doesn’t mean I own the Rothko, just a picture of it. (Of course, as we will find out later, I could turn my jpg into an NFT and sell it, but I’d be selling my unique picture, not the actual Rothko).

Mark Rothko, Untitled , 1952–53, Oil on canvas, Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa.

So, it turns out that a picture of a jpg that is an NFT isn’t the same as owning a jpg turned into an NFT.

If that is an unintuitive proposition, it gets much more unintuitive.

There is now a thriving NFT market in which creators of all kinds are making a living making things and turning them into NFTs. OpenSea, the NFT market founded in 2017, now has 29M NFT assets of all kinds — from art and music to domain names and virtual worlds. One example of an NFT listed on OpenSea is DeNations, a blockchain-powered decentralized metaverse, where anyone can build and manage nations, cities and civilizations.

It gets more interesting when you realise that NFTs come with not just data about ownership but can have smart contracts attached to them.

Smart contracts allow (amongst other things) creators to specify that only a limited number of copies can be sold, that the owner can only unlock content, that when an asset is bought and sold on the original creator gets a commission or rules that allow buyers to create a limited number of their own derivative copies of the asset, which can return royalties to the original creator each time it is sold on.

There are an infinite set of possibilities.

So what’s the use case for this incredibly smart — and incredibly complex — technology in education?

We talked about one use case for blockchain before in an education context — for credentialling. The idea is to use the blockchain to make credentials — one of the core parts of any formal education experience — more trustworthy, verifiable and secure. As we said

That there are a vast number of credentials to earn is good. But it’s hard to manage the data behind those microcredentials: who awarded them, what students did to earn one and how it was assessed. And easy for inaccuracies, accidental or otherwise, to creep in.

And for something so critical as evidencing and verifying learning, the stakes are high.

Managing massive amounts of data securely, eliminating points of failure, ensuring integrity and removing opportunities for error and falsification is what blockchain claims to be able to do.

As reported in a recent EdSurge story, educators are making strides in this area.

The story discusses Beau Brannan, a visiting professor at Pepperdine University, who not only awarded NFTs to students last semester in the high school finance course he teaches, but:

also asked his students to issue him an NFT, one that gave their reviews of how well he delivered the class material. One student was named a liaison and asked each classmate to give the teacher a number grade from .7 to 1.25, with 1 being adequate. The grades were averaged to give a final number included in the NFT. It’s a memento from the class for him to keep, and something he could show on his digital vita as well.

So issuing NFTs to students, and students to teachers, is one thing — but what else is there?

We’ve been thinking about some of the possibilities.

Like any employment contract, contracts for teachers often specify that what is produced (learning materials, videos, assessments, exams or anything else) by default belongs to the employer.

However, there are no such restrictions on work produced by students. Under copyright law — whichever country, state or territory you are in — the creator is automatically the first owner of any literary, dramatic, musical, creative or artistic work. As soon as a student produces something — the essay that the year 9 student writes about Macbeth, for example — in the absence of explicit permission from the students or their parents, the student owns the copyright for that piece of work (unless, of course, the student includes copyrightable materials created by a third party).

Schools can use students’ work in the course of teaching since a certain amount of ‘fair dealing’ is possible for the purpose of research or study — a teacher using a paragraph from the year 9 student’s essay on Macbeth in materials that she copies and gives to other students doesn’t infringe the student’s rights. On the other hand, permission must be obtained from the student (or the student’s parents) if, for example, a school uploads student artwork to a school website for marketing purposes.

Most of the time, no one ever gives a thought to copyright over student work. But the fact that students are free to do what they want with their work opens up some interesting possibilities.

Students are creators. In fact, they mostly spend most of their time creating mostly original content. Whether it’s the c# they write in IT class, the G-Code they create for a 3D printer project or yes, the year 9 essay on Macbeth, it’s all content creation. Some students in some subjects — such as visual arts, illustration or media may be active and aware creators — but for the most part, the day to day, week to week, term to term creation that happens during learning goes unnoticed.

So, why not see if students can turn some of this work into NFTs? Not necessarily for sale, but to share their creative output as widely as possible — and as a side-effect, learn about an emerging economy that will have a dramatic effect on the rest of their lives.

Young people are of course enthusiastic and aware creators out of school: one of the transformative effects of social media is unlocking the opportunity to create. From the Instagram reel to the TikTok video, more people are creating more things. Regardless of your position on the hazards of social media — which platforms like TikTok are taking much more seriously — it has inspired more people to make more things.

And in the gaming sphere, both creation and NFTs are commonplace. Players routinely buy, trade, and sometimes create NFT digital assets like skins in games including Rust, CSGO and DOTA2. This is a vast and rapidly growing market, as the existence of a platform like DMarket shows. And now mainstream companies like Sony are building in-game items that players can trade, sell, or keep. All of it using NFTs — and all of it on the blockchain.

Some students are ahead of the curve: a project called Weird Whales, a collection of 3350 whale-themed NFTs created by Benyamin Ahmed, a 12-year-old from England, sold out in about 9 hours and earned him US$160,000.

Weird Wales by Benyamin Ahmed’s @ObiWanBenoni

A collection of kooky marine mammals is pretty different from our year 9 essay on Macbeth.

Still, we thought we’d try an experiment to see what happens when you treat the creative outputs of everyday learning as having the potential to be NFTs.

Over on HaileyburyX, we are launching a new set of online courses in sustainability and business in partnership with sustainability consultancy Sustainable X.

We’re leading students through aspects of sustainability that are rarely explained — the way businesses, not just individuals, can be more sustainable, all linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The HaileyburyX / Sustainable X Sustainability microcourses.

In addition to a collection of self-paced online microcourses, we want to give students the chance to do some collaborative sustainability design exercises, the first of which we are planning to be about carbon labelling.

Carbon labelling is when products show the carbon footprint of the product. This includes the carbon emitted as a by-product of the manufacturing, transporting and disposing of the product. Labelling is important because awareness of a carbon footprint changes consumer behaviour: a recent survey by the Carbon Trust suggested that over two-thirds of consumers think that it is a good idea to feature carbon labels on products and half of those asked would use the information in making a purchasing decision. Raising awareness of sustainability issues around food choices — something the company Oatly, the Swedish plant milk company, has recently started to do by measuring carbon footprint for its products and labelling them — can only be a good thing.

Oatley’s carbon labelling. Image by Oatley.

But there is, as yet, no standard measure for companies to follow and also no standard way of showing carbon footprint on products.

So we’re going to bring students together online using the collaboration tool FigJam to do some live design exercises.

FigJam is an online whiteboard product from Figma that allows teams to ideate and brainstorm together and now FigJam has an education-specific version that allows students to “Create, present, and distribute coursework, exercises, and activities […] into one virtual classroom to jam together iterate, and critique.”

FigJam from Figma

We’ll be using FigJam to facilitate design sessions where students collaborate to create carbon footprint labels.

This will involve using FigJam’s design, prototyping and collaboration tools to produce assets — including sketches, preliminary designs and finished carbon footprint labels – and it’s those assets that we’ll help students turn into NFTs.

We’ll guide students through creating NFTs from their assets, help them understand the nuances of fungibility and give them an insight into what happens when you foreground the everyday creativity that happens in learning — all of it under the control of students, and all of it turning their creativity into ways of creating value for them, their peers and anyone who they choose to share it with.

Of course, this is an experiment. And like all experiments, the outcome is uncertain.

But, to use a word that no one likes to utter these days, we’ve quarantined our experiment as a small and discrete part of the learning experience in a microcourse. By working in FigJam, students will be able to amplify and deepen their knowledge of the content about sustainability covered in the microcourses and see how sustainability works out in real life using tools that real-life designers use (Figma is used by companies like Slack, Twitter, Dropbox, Zoon and Uber, amongst many others).

Also, we are trying to hit a lot of targets: learning about sustainability, understanding carbon footprint labelling, doing collaborative design thinking and learning about NFTs, so it’s hard to know what students will take away from the experience. Like our HaileyburyX AI microcourses, we’re getting insights from our students through a process of test and learn, which can only make for better learning outcomes.

So what might students do with their newly-minted NFTs?

Some of the NFTs might have value for a range of people. For example, other students might create derivatives of an NFT and embed them in one of their projects. This is not just sneakily downloading a copyrighted jpg and pasting it into a doc, but using an NFT in the way that the creator specifies (and neatly solving the problem of potential plagiarism). Companies looking for solutions to the carbon labelling problem, conceivably Oatley or others, may use a student-created NFT in their thinking about new products — a great way to connect aspiring designers and product strategists with the real challenges of business. And, just like Benyamin Ahmed’s whales, some students may choose to monetise their creativity.

We have no idea what students will make of it. But it will be interesting to find out — and to offer students the opportunity to unlock their creativity to make the best use of what they learn about sustainability.

Of course, like any technology, there are going to be some bumps in the road.

These are the early days for NFTs — and the use of NFTs in education hasn’t even really started. And, in the first place, there are looming criticisms of NFTs and the whole blockchain endeavour.

One is that since blockchain is very computationally expensive, NFTs use a massive amount of energy in their creation. Running the blockchain involves mining — running millions and millions of cryptographic operations, or so-called proof-of-work calculations on a network of computers. It is estimated that annually, Ethereum uses about 62.08 TWh of power, which is comparable to the power consumption of Switzerland and has a carbon footprint of 29.49 Mt CO2, comparable to the carbon footprint of Myanmar. Not so sustainable.

But where there are challenges, there are always opportunities. So artists are pledging to create carbon-neutral artwork; organisations like Blockchain for Climate are creating a transparent, public and universal blockchain ledger that can serve as a medium of exchange for emissions reductions outcomes; and Ethereum has plans to change its proof-of-work algorithm to a more energy-efficient algorithm. Blockchain may itself be raising our awareness of sustainability issues.

We think that there is a huge potential for NFTs in education. Like microcredentialling, technologies like NFTs offer the opportunity to deliver more value to students from their learning.

Just as microcredentials de-aggregate and surface learning experiences that otherwise would have been hidden, NFTs may provide an opportunity to surface and value the everyday creative activity hidden in learning — and along the way provide a set of valuable future-oriented learning experiences.

If we are going to prepare students adequately for the world in which they will live, work and play, it makes sense to sit up and pay attention to NFTs.

Not only will NFTs create new business models that will change the way artists and musicians create — and earn them money — but they will open up new opportunities for business by changing the rules of the game for a vast range of financial transactions. It’s not inconceivable that very quickly smart contracts will be the dominant form of contract, ensuring that businesses deliver on contractual agreements and that ownership of assets can be unambiguously established.

And if you think this is just about sophisticated financial instruments, you’d be wrong: property and vehicle markets, the most mainstream of the mainstream, are being disrupted by blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

Do we have an obligation to educate students about this? Absolutely. It’s not a fashion or a fad but really is about understanding non-fungibility.

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Peter Thomas

Peter Thomas

Inaugural director of FORWARD at RMIT University | Strategic advisor, QV Systems | Global Education Strategist, Conversation Design Institute | CEO, THEORICA.