Blockchain Enthusiasts Eye Challenges in Education
International pilot programs reimagine ways to learn, earn, and connect
Blockchain lingo gives the impression of an adrenaline-fueled world full of eccentric financiers. “Miners” and “whales” pride themselves in “staking” their investments and declaring that they will forever “HODL” (hold on for dear life) to their “altcoin.” But beyond the headlines, a less frenzied subset of blockchain projects is emerging with long-term and socially-minded goals around governance, public services, and education.
So how does it work? Blockchain is an unalterable, fully transparent public record that tracks the transfer and ownership of digital things. Anyone can exchange (ie, buy, sell, transfer, barter, auction) internet-based assets (eg, cryptocurrency, an image, a contract signature). Crucially, the system is designed for trust: transaction data is freely accessible to all, and anything recorded to the blockchain is “chained” to “blocks” of existing data to make it tamper-proof. This system ultimately serves to regulate digital economies by keeping track of the data that is exchanged online.
Building skills, paying bills
Recently, this new mode of ownership and exchange has inspired projects that look to address an age-old challenge in education: motivation. One subgroup of blockchain projects called “learn-to-earn” (also sometimes called “earn-to-learn”) aims to incentivize learners to engage with educational content and, just as importantly, stick with it. Initial experiments by startups incentivized users to watch tutorials and take a quiz in exchange for earning cryptocurrency. CoinMarketCap’s “learn crypto, earn crypto” program has refined their program one step further so that once a learner demonstrates knowledge mastery, rewards are directly released to the learner via a digital wallet.
However, emerging programs in the K12 space focus more on the unique needs of hard-to-reach students. Learning Coin, a project headed by the World Bank, incentivizes students in rural communities to stay in school and improve academic performance. The program evaluates completion and consistency of student work, then releases digital funds accordingly. While some conventional conditional cash transfer programs are vulnerable to corruption and fail to scale due to inefficiencies, blockchain supports the World Bank’s program by ensuring transactions are recorded publicly on the blockchain ledger. As a governance tool, these automated transfers also reduce administrative overhead and record-keeping, which can be challenging for education programs in remote locales.
Another platform, Mygrants, allows learners to access skills training and build new competencies while developing credit through digital cash transfers performed at a low cost by blockchain technologies. The training content is broken up into short, personalized learning “pills” based on personal goals. As students answer questions, they collect points and receive formative feedback to develop critical thinking skills. Learners benchmark their progress against peers with similar goals, and receive badges, points, and a digital payout at the end of the month if they reach their goals.
Towards lifelong learning, the Learning Economy Foundation (LEF) aims to create a decentralized, blockchain-based network where skills and credentials are stored within a digital identity that follows the learner. Recently, LEF partnered with LEGO Foundation to create a gamified learning experience, SuperSkills!, where elementary school students can select adventures and collect gifts as a result of learning core skills. Underneath the hood, the app uses the W3C’s Universal Wallet, a framework developed by MIT and LEF to store credentials within a blockchain-based identity. This identity is not locked down to one app or company, allowing learners to own their data and use it as they wish across their academic and professional lifetimes.
Ramping up is hard to do
As with any emerging technology, equity must be at the core. Early research indicates that blockchain adoption skews towards students with technical backgrounds and entrepreneurial mindsets. However, there is encouraging data around access and utility for under-priveleged communities. “Play-to-earn” projects with well-designed user interfaces such as Axie Infinity have seen significant adoption among low-income groups, and currently supplement household incomes in the Philippines. Burgeoning projects with national governments may broaden opportunities for student credentials in Ethiopia, skill validation in the country of Georgia, and more distributed and inclusive communities via decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
At the same time, these new learning pathways will likely face technical drawbacks. Accessibility with older systems and devices, like those commonly used in developing economies, will be problematic (although browser-based applications may offer a short-term solution). While blockchain’s interconnected and open nature is key to data ownership and exchange, individuals must be vigilant with data security to prevent hacking incidents.
Finally, as learn-to-earn projects and digital wallets mature, learner-centered design will become more crucial. As any teacher or parent knows, extrinsic rewards will only go so far; balancing extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation is crucial throughout a learning trajectory. And while extrinsic motivation may get students in the door, teaching strategies like sense-making and project-based curricula have been shown to keep students authentically engaged in a task. A new community of technologists and educators will need to rise to the challenge to design a layered and adaptive system of rewards and strategies — a concept referred to by blockchain enthusiasts as “tokenomics.” To find success with learners, blockchain projects that reach into the classroom will be looking more to educators to co-architect incentives and journeys that meet the student where they are at personally, academically, and financially.
This article was co-written by Josh Weiss and Zoha Salman, and published by The Office of Innovation and Technology at Stanford Graduate School of Education. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org