You might have heard about these things: decentralization, blockchain, smart contracts and open source software. For better or worse, these things are disrupting – or will disrupt – many industries in some form or another. So, how would decentralization look inside our education system?
First, what is decentralization and why is it important? There has been a trend for organizations to gravitate more and more toward centralized governance structures. Large corporate mergers are almost as common as the hacks that exploit their centralized weaknesses. Centralization creates one central point of failure, an easy target for security and privacy breaches, and most of all central control that is ripe for corruption. Blockchain and Digital ledger technology (DLT), which is basically a distributed immutable database, can help address these issues by adding a layer of trust and transparency.
The second part of this equation is open source software (OSS). What can be learned from the software community about ownership of content and collaboration? Centralized organizations will push for copyright and proprietary content that can slow progress and create redundant efforts. Open source software has been such a success that it is used in almost all new software projects, from startups to large enterprises. Lots of value is generated from OSS. Remember this? “Free as in freedom not beer.”
The education industry suffers from many of these centralization issues and can benefit from both of these technologies (DLT, OSS). The education system has to deal with political agendas or vendor lock-in through proprietary content. Should the education material in public schools be public? I think so. One reason being proprietary content is hard to scale and share globally. Education is ready for innovation.
There has been some great work done with open source textbooks and sharing of content with sites like Openstax and Kahn academy. But to really go decentralized there are many interesting problems. How do we fund/share the value that is created by open content creators. Blockchain and DLT could help address this through ledgers and smart contracts. Here are some other major hurdles and problems to consider when going D.
- Certification of knowledge
- Self-sovereign identity
- Content file storage
- Content licensing and monetization
- Content creation platform for creators
- Philanthropic investments
- Learning platform for students
- Governance and community membership
Identity and Certificates of completion
One of the first issues to address in a decentralized solution is Identity. In a traditional application user identities would be stored in a central database, with fields like username, email, and other private, personal info. This is done through a 3rd party like Facebook or Google (Oauth) or storing this sensitive information internally. Using Facebook or Google costs ownership, control and privacy, Hosting a database transfers the trust to the application. Using public/private key encryption, like what is used in blockchain, can give the user back control of their identity.
How does membership in a decentralized education community look?
To be decentralized, a user should own their own digital identity. This is where projects working on self sovereign identity (SSI) can help. With SSI users should be able to control a digital representation of their identity that can be used to claim membership and certificates of completion. The user should be able to control what is public and share that public information in a trusted way. Some interesting work is being done on this by groups like Origin, Bloom and Uport.
Certificates can be represented with attestations on a person’s SSI, NFTs, or non-fungible digital assets. They can be used as identity claims or content licensing claims. A certificate board of core members can manage the issuance of new certificates through a certificate governance platform. Certificates can be earned by students completing a class, or with proven expertise in a subject or token curated registries (TCR) staking by other certificate holders.
One project working on this Odem
Another type of certificate that can be used as an altruistic acknowledgments by members. They can be gifted by any member and may help in reputation, and can be used in gamification mechanics of online courses. New certificates are managed by an elected certification board. A good example of this is Kudos, introduced by Gitcoin.
TCR (Token Curated Registry), voting periods, where current core/subject matter experts members can stake their certificate token along with some value token into the TCR to be voted on by other current core/subject matter experts members. Core members can be removed in a similar way. TCR example https://kleros.io/
The same TCR process can be used to validate content.
Bounties and tasks
Membership, Community value, Staking, and liquidity
A common community currency using a standard such as erc20 can be used to capture value and membership stakes within an education community. Communities can have governance, roles and reputation through tools of a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO).
Staking into a community can prove membership and be used as a base for funding community projects. One community model may contain:
- The Development Fund (provides funding for community driven projects)
- The Reserve (provides a liquidity balance for token’s value)
- The Connector Balance (provides stability when converting to base currency)
- The Stake (provides proof of membership)
- Decentralized exchanges and liquidity pools can enable easy conversion
Content file storage
To have an open content system, files should be stored in a distributed manner. Interplanetary File System (IPFS) to the rescue.
Two sides of an application platform
One for students and another for content creators
DLP (Digital Learning Platform)
- Course Staking
- Exports to book, api, online class, standards, curriculum
The DLP will be the core means of distribution of content for consumption that is created by the marketplace. This can be an online course that returns a certificate, or exported material. Price of a DLP block either in an online course or exported material will vary depending on content licensing and educator/creator fees.
Badges and reputation are also managed by certificates. Claimed certificates can rate reputation. Badges are a type of certificate that can be given from one member to another as an altruistic display of gratitude.
There will be several ways to earn small amounts of a digital currency from faucets and bounties. This provides a way to engage non-members and facilitate scaling of the community.
Certificates are issued through the registration by a student into a DLP block of courses. The student will stake into the course with a set amount of currency and a locked up course certificate. Once the course has been completed successfully, the full stake, including certificate, is released back to the student. Courses have built-in time limits where stake is slashed if course is not completed in time. A student can exit a course with a prorated amount of the staked amount being returned minus the certificate. This incentivizes students to complete the course or to ‘fail fast’ when withdrawing.
Content offered to the DLP may be open for export in multiple formats, including textbooks, and an API.
Collaborating through adding/sharing/forking/merging and Pull Requests creates value and should be captured somehow, either from micro payments to creator balances or captured by the content itself.
- Subject specific
- Collaboration forks, merges, and pull requests
- Bottom up Governance
- Top down Investment
The marketplace will be a place for content creators to collaborate and share content. Content creators have several ways to be reciprocated for content creation.
Philanthropic and impact investments can be made at multiple levels. Funds from each level of investment will be used to back bounties in the creation of specific content. Investment is managed through a daico style tap, where drip rate is controlled by members/stakers. An investor can pull out funds if the bounties or product doesn’t meet their standards. This allows investment to be directed to specific development, research or courses of study. This also allows that licensing can be determined by the investor and, perhaps best of all, provides a paper trail of how and where investment is deployed.
Content creators can register for bounties to create material. Depending on material, licensed content can be shared/forked or merged. The expertise of content creators will be gauged by certificate ownership. TCRs can be used in a similar way to determine validity.
Certification is not only used to prove member identities, but also as content licensing. Each content block can have a certificate that relates to a creative commons license. Check Openlaw.
Value of the content should be distributed between all participants of the community, governance, creators, and students.
Can be paid with community digital currency used for course staking depending on course settings. A project/course/curriculum could have many authors and contributors. Complex royalty splits can be handled with smart contracts. One company that is addressing this is po.et.
Content management and version control
A lot can be learned from Github (the repository used by many OSS developers). Combine this with a distributed file system and a nice editor for ease of contributions. An interesting related project is Pando.
A lot more exploration is needed into this topic, so if any of this interests you and you‘d’ like to join in a decentralized education system check out DOLO (Decentralized Open Learning Organism). Most of the ideas in this article came from discussions within the DOLO community. More on the specifics of how DOLO is growing and tackling these issues will follow.
Check out another community I’m a part of, Odyssy.io. We design and build interfaces in the form of Dapps (decentralized applications) and web apps with a strong focus on improving the human experience.