Does Higher Education need blockchain?

-Learning Machine, a blockchain-based credentialing system which formerly partnered with MIT media labs has raised $3m. The short pitch is that as jobs and education go digital, we need digital credentials for our education and those need to be trustworthy and automisable. Decentralised trust systems may well be the future but I don’t see that it solves a core problem. Namely that the main premium market for Higher Education Edtech is geared twards graduates in developed countries and that market — does not have a problem of trust in its credentials — it has a problem of credibility in its courses. People don’t know what it means to have done a MOOC/Specialization/MicroMasters in X which undermines the market system for it. Shoring up the credential is a second order problem to proving the intrinsic value of the course itself.

Smolenski however, is a believer, and in numerous elegant essays has argued blockchain is the latest paradigm shift in trust-based technologies. The thesis puts trust based technologies as a central driver of human development. Kinship was the first ‘trust technology’, followed by language and cultural development. Things really got going with organised religion which was the early modern driver — enabling proto-legal systems and financial systems to emerge. Total strangers could now conduct economic transactions by putting their trust in local laws (a mutually understand system for transactions) in the knowledge that it would be enforced by a trusted third party — the state. Out of this emerged market economies and currencies.

In the modern era, currencies are controlled (mostly) by central banks and large financial banks. For Smolenski this a problem, large banks and central banks are all powerful gatekeepers with their own agenda, furthermore they tend naturally to centralisation (firstly because there can be only one central bank for a national currency and secondly because of natural network effects among financial institutions), too much centralisation argues Smolenski, leads to economic fragility such as when when people lose confidence in the banks such as in 2008 they need to be propped up.

It’s a grand narrative, some would say grandiose. Firstly, it’s somewhat teleological — human history was building towards blockchain — really? It’s not just that, Smolenski castigates central banks as all-powerful gatekeepers but in democracies at least they operate to try and serve the collective economic interest — not always perfectly perhaps but are subject to democratic oversight — a purely private actor — even a network — would not do the same. Smolenski implies that a network would serve humanity better — it might — certainly it might be more resilient. But Facebook and Twitter are relevant and instructive examples, the social networks have become a go-to for people to read their news — instead of the newspaper sites. On the one hand it means how people get their news has moved from a handful of newspaper to peer to peer. But while the older papers were gatekeepers — they were also subject to standards and oversight, fake news has not merely been unedifying its undermined the entire system of public discourse and its not one that at present the social networks can solve. Blockchain — be it in credential or currency form — would have the same problem. It could well be a major — if not paradigmatic technology — but it has its own logic and fundamentally suits those who use it best — much as social networks turned out to be fertile grounds for fake news. For that reason alone, we should be far more cautious about a shift to blockchain in Higher Education — lest like fake news — it takes an imperfect system and makes it worse — here