Blockchains, ledgers, and the engineering of education

Some of my favorite edublogs are exploring different aspects of a new fad in educational policy and engineering.  It has a lot of different names, but perhaps the most general “container” for the various components is “personalization.” (I’ve had my eye on this for some time, and written about it in this space, as Constant Readers will know.)

I say it’s a “fad,” but it may well be more than that, because “it” is being advocated by a lot of influential people and institutions.   (I say “it,” but its name is Legion, because of the various bits being developed or favored by different champions. Only from certain vantage points can one see how all the different pieces fit together.  Synergy is, for once, an appropriate term here.)

Key terms include “anytime-anywhere learning” (and its variants), competency-based education (the 2016 version), along with “competencies and skills,”  “micro-credentialing” and “badges” (as in Hillary Clinton’s proposed College Compact, which seeks to incorporate ” badges, specializations, certificates, or Nanodegrees” into the education-funding universe.)

The promise is that you can build up a record of educational attainments independent of any “traditional” educational institution, whose value is warranted by some version of the (admittedly decrepit and unsatisfactory) accreditation process.  “Life-long learning,” coupled with the (as they claim) unprecedented new freedom we now have to learn on our own time, logically “demand” that society develop new ways to get credit for all that learning, in ways that can be used to increase your value in the market.

The rationale for this includes [1] accepting the “hell in a hand basket” view of education; [2] buying into the ideology of the market, and [3] the claims about the “new economy,” 21st century skills, etc.;  [4] equating “knowledge” with “information”, and the tendency to an analytical atomization of “what you need to know and be able to do” which is (unintentionally, for the most part, I think) encouraged by the latest round of standards;  [5] buying into the vision of “gig economy,” everyone-an-entrepreneur, and other fashions which build on the view of people first and foremost as economic atoms whose mobility and transposability is a key virtue for the New Economy.

There is a variety of implementations for this general approach (theorized or actualized), but as the deep thinkers confront the issues of quality assurance, and the development of portfolios or other records of one’s life-long nano-accomplishments, a lot of attention has been focused on the “blockchain” technology underlying “cyber currencies” like Bitcoin.  With the blockchain, personal data (including “assets” like “badges” or “nano-accomplishments” become part of a distributed, permanent, unalterable record.  The benefit is that it can (at least) serve as an always accessible “portfolio” (anytime, anywhere!);  but there remain important issues of privacy and property rights — whose data is it, anyway?  Audrey Watters, at HackEducation, has a very valuable primer on the technology and various proposals for its use in education.

One vision, which is being touted by the ACT Foundation (a foundation that is a spin-off of the testing agency) is “the Ledger,” whose key theme seems to be “learning is earning.”  Peter Greene, of, has a thorough and, well, critical review of a video which seems to be designed to build awareness of, and a market for, this particular blockchain project.  If you follow the links, you quickly get a sense of how broad the coalition is that is trying to create this future for education;  as far as I can tell, it represents a new (another) version of business-based education design, intended (to quote the “National Network” website) to “connect what America learns to how Americans work”  through a competency- and skills-based approach to education and learning.

In a related post (the latest of many on this topic), Emily Talmage asks, “Will public education survive the next administration?”  She points out that the new ESSA act includes provisions that open the door to a wide range of “alternative credentialing,” of the sort envisioned by ACT Foundation and other blockchainers:

The new system is designed to expand the education market by allowing out-of-district providers – including  online programs, non-profits, local businesses, and even corporations- to award credit for student learning.  At the same time, it doubles down on workforce development by aligning educational outcomes to the needs of industry leaders.According to the U.S. Department of Education, students will “no longer [be] tethered to school buildings or schedules.” Instead, the system will require students to earn “digital badges” that they will display in individual competency-profiles accessible to potential employers and investors.

Groups like the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg,  and other mega-philanthropist education players, organizations like KnowledgeWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not to mention “education industry” players like the publisher (or whatever it is) Pearson Education, are getting very excited about this general approach.  Talmage quotes from a Pearson publication:

“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,” …. Pearson Education.

Following up on this, to track all the voices singing in this choir, you’re not just going down a rabbit hole — it’s entering a whole warren, whose inmates are ramifying interconnecting tunnels so as to reach further and further beneath the educational landscape.  Dissatisfaction with institutions of all kinds, and schools in particular;  the denigration of teaching as a skilled profession;  the increasing acceptance of education as essentially an economic enterprise, and the drive to incorporate ever more technological sophistication for command, control, and monitoring, under the guise of “choice,” “freedom,” and “personalization, all are converging on this model of the future of education.

Of course, the policy dialectic is still in motion, and other, competing,  visions are out there as well, but there is much to learn about educational values and framing in our society, and the machinery by which new policy is incubated and propagated,  by a few hours’ ferreting through the personalization labyrinth.

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