When we talk about education, we think of a room of about 7 by 8 meters, with two or three dozen children and a man or women in front of the group telling the kids what to do, learn, know and how to act, execute or perform. But what if we could design it all from scratch? What if we had the possibility to design education using blockchain and destributed ledger technologies? What if we could use smart contracts?
In this article I will first tell you about the technologies and then how the world of education would look like when we would fully implement these techniques. And to conclude my article, I’ll share with you my ideas on the road that could take us there (or somewhere near).
1. What is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization?
If you don't know what the blockchain or smart contracts are, see the explination at the end of this article.
A distributed autonomous organization is an organization based on distributed ledger technologies (blockchain) and smart contracts(1). There is no board, anyone can join and participate by investing in the cryptocurrency running the organization and participants can vote on the future of the organization using tokens. Examples you should check out are Steemit and Bitshares.
Besides all kinds of risks, DAO’s have a few advantages: decisions are made decentralized and automated, which makes decision-making faster. DAO’s don’t need employees for administration or organization, cutting costs in overhead. And organizations based on digital trust instead of institutional trust, like Airbnb or Uber, could easily be replaced by a DAO.
2. Education as DAO?
Before looking at how education could become a decentralized autonomous organization, I want to proof education has all the characteristics that make the DAO a logical organization model. I use the three advantages I stated above.
2.1 Decisions are made decentralized and automated
In a lot of countries education is a very layered field. Every field in education has its own representative organizations, employer representatives, student unions and regulations on content and quality. And the complexity becomes clear if you look at the system wide organograms of the education in The Netherlands and the United States in figure 1 and 2.
If anyone wants to make a change in the way a portion of this complex systems works, a lot of discussion, effort and time are needed in the hopes of changing what you want to change. Let’s say we want to change a small part of the curriculum of algebra in middle school. You would need the department of education, algebra teacher organizations, publishers, testing agencies, schools, parent representative organizations, student unions and other teachers to help you change what you want the change and to implement changes. And if a little cog in the contraption doesn’t work, the whole thing will break down and end in disappointment.
But education is basically a very decentral system: a teacher teaches a student something, helps the student with his learning and tests what the knowledge and skill level of a student is. And to make sure the teacher teaches the right skills, the right way and at the right level, teachers have colleagues in their school and in (online) networks. And a lot of decisions are automated in a sense: when you finish subject A, you are ready for subject B; when you have achieved a list of learning goals, you have mastered a certain level. So why do we need all the other people? All the other organizations? All the bureaucracy and processes? Why not build a DAO an make decisions decentralized and automated?
2.2 We don’t need employees for administration or organization
A lot of processes in education, a lot of the workload for teachers and staff members in schools are based on administrative processes and organizing groups of students. We built a complex system around the basic connection between teacher and student, to institutionalize trust for society (diploma’s and standardized testing), for participants (parents need trust to sign up their child to a school) and investors (governments and private citizens paying for an education).
But let’s outline a decentralized alternative. A student learns English from his teacher he met on an online platform for teachers. Likewise, he has chosen teacher for a range of other subjects, both in mandatory subjects and by his own choice. He masters skills, reaches learning goals, and those results are stored on a blockchain. Also the presence of the student at his school or at his individual teachers is stored. When he reaches pre-programmed goals, certificates are provided and new opportunities are unlocked.
So, do we need all these extra systems and load we have created? Can we reorganize education using DAO technology to concentrate on that primary relationship? I think we do and then we don’t need employees for administration or organization.
2.3 Is education based on digital trust?
The last of the three advantages of DAO’s is the easy transition of organizations already build on digital trust (like Airbnb) to become a DAO. But is education based on digital trust? And what is digital trust? Digital trust always is a derivative of trust between people. In organizations like Airbnb, trust is needed to choose a place to stay and to accept certain clients. Does the location meet the promised conditions? Do customers leave your house whole and clean? That kind of trust is digitized in a rating system.
The same kind of relationship between interpersonal trust and digital trust exists in education. The basic trust lies with the teacher, capable of mentoring your child, teaching the right knowledge and skills and reliably testing the skill level of the students. This type of trust is digitized using satisfaction surveys, portfolio’s, standardized tests, diploma registries and many other digital means.
A lot of data is already present in the education system. I think we can safely say the education system is already build on digital trust, digital data representing real interpersonal trust. We can reshape education as a DAO. But should we? And how?
3. First steps?
The first steps of making education a DAO is putting raw data at its core. And that raw data is widely available: in educational apps, in learning management systems (LMS) and student information systems (SIS) in schools, in teacher administrations, in regional or national databases etcetera.
And there is a lot of information about students available. Let’s look at a 17-year-old Dutch student. Born in 2001 he went to a day care centre in 2002. The centre uses Kijk!, an observational system to see the early development (0-9 years of age) in children. Employees observe developments in motor skills, language development and social development.
When the child turns 4, he goes to kindergarten and the school uses Parnassys to track student development. Between 2005 and 2013 the child attends kindergarten and primary school at the same school, so the entire development is tracked in Parnassys, but in the same period several educational applications are being used in the school: CITO Volgsysteem, CITO eindtoets, Rekentuin and Muiswerk. Besides what the school uses, the parents of the student use Squla so he can learn some extra basics at home.
The student doesn’t only go to school, he also attends a music school where he learns to play the piano where he receives diploma’s for his development in musical theory and practice. And he and his friends play soccer in a regional league. Learning also takes place there.
At age 12 the student goes to high school(2), in his case at the havo-level, which will take 5 years. The school has the student information system Magister. For maths the teacher uses GotIt!, the teachers of Dutch uses Diatoetsen to monitor his progress and the school has Simulise an e-portfolio, used for several subjects. The IT-subject informatiekunde uses an online method and several subjects have online tools as a part of their method on paper. And finaly, to decide which study to go to after high school, the student uses Yubu.
Concluding: the data is there, but its locked away in several systems, apps and closed source software packages. We don’t need the new revolutionary killer app, we need to unlock the potential of all the data that is already available! That should be our first step.
4. To what end?
When we put this type of information on blockchain and hand it to the owner, the student, we have a true chance to change the way education works. Because a student, using the power of raw data, can see what he can and can’t do, what to develop next, what road to take to get to the point he wants or needs to be, it empowers the individual student.
A report card doesn’t have to look like a list of numbers or letters, defining a student, a report card could look more like the profile of a professional soccer player in the video game FIFA. A profile that shows strengths, weaknesses, developing or developed skills, a deeper kind of information than “Ronaldo scored an A in soccer”.
And being transparent about raw data to students, also benefits teachers, because they can show what they have taught or tried teaching the students. The student-teacher relationship becomes central part of the educational system again, not all the clutter we arranged around it. If we decentralize education and are transparent about what happens, which institutions would we need? And which institutions could vanish? Would we still need standardized testing? And diploma’s?
Do we reach Nirvana(3) if we build an education DAO? No, utopia doesn’t exist. But following the line of thought of the DAO in every field helps us to rethink what we are doing, to get rid of bullshit jobs and to make the things we do really count.
Of course the most important thing of all is our dependence on technology: the way a blockchain ecosystem is regulated and designed creates the outcomes. And with the development of children and adults on the line, we can’t afford creating a monster. So we can’t delete all the “middle men”, as was promised by blockchain evangelists a few years ago. But we can redesign “the field of middle men” and think about the percentage of overhead and nonsense we designed in the last decades.
But the most important step is the first step! Let’s take that step, using “Education as a DAO” as a thought experiment to make education less about testing, system thinking and accountability, using administration and bureaucracy and more about learning and teaching, about growing, stepping out of your bounds and experiencing and!
(1) (2) In The Netherlands, we don't have middle school. High school is devided in 3 main levels of education: vmbo, havo and vwo. See the chart of the Dutch education earlier in this article. (3) Holy state, highest state the human mind is capable of reaching according to Buddhism
What is the blockchain and what are smart contracts?
Blockchain is a decentralized database that is managed by a network of computers. Bitcoin is the best known blockchain network. If you’d like more information about blockchain, check this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSo_EIwHSd4
Smart contracts are programmed contracts on a blockchain network. They are executed automatically if a number of preset conditions is met. If you’d like more information about smart contracts, check this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZE2HxTmxfrI