Fostering An Appreciation Of Decentralization
These days, it seems like everyone is talking about blockchain technology. News about bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is hard to resist, especially when their value shoots up and down and everyone wants to know how the blockchain can make them rich or poor — financially. But the real value of blockchain isn’t necessarily tied solely to disrupting the monetary status quo. It also lies in how this technology could transform and streamline transactions and recordkeeping in all sorts of fields — specifically education.
A Blockchain Primer
If you’re not familiar with how blockchain technology works or need to brush up, it’s helpful to compare cryptocurrency with the way your regular bank does business. Banks basically have all your account data on one digital spreadsheet to keep track of your transactions. That’s fine, but a highly centralized data system is vulnerable to hackers, and you can’t send money to a family member without going through an intermediary (the bank). Cryptocurrency, on the other hand, depends on a totally decentralized network of users to store information about all transactions. There’s no bank as a gatekeeper, but information (the block) is added to a permanent chain that no one can change. It’s safer because everyone in the network has access to the information at all times, so if someone is trying to change the record, everyone can see that happening — and stop it.
An Educational Revolution
Last year, MIT delivered its first blockchain diplomas to graduates — on their smartphones. It was more than just a digitized certificate: Unlike a paper diploma, which could be easily lost or falsified, blockchain ensures that this important piece of data is never lost. It also cuts out the university or traditional clearinghouse as the intermediary needed to issue transcripts. Instead, students have direct access to their educational records right on their phones. Whether their house burns down or they move across the world, their diploma is secure.
Anatomy of a digital diploma: “The MIT digital diploma ‘makes it possible for [students] to have ownership of their records and be able to share them in a secure way, with whomever they choose,’ says Mary Callahan, MIT registrar and senior associate dean.” -MIT News
“Using MIT’s new digital diploma system, employers and schools can quickly verify that a graduate’s degree is legitimate by using a link or uploading the student’s file.” -MIT News
“The presentation layer has a customized image of a traditional MIT diploma; the content layer contains code with the student’s public key and generates the image; and the receipt layer proves the transaction has been recorded on the blockchain.” -MIT News
This is more than just a matter of convenience. If other credentials like certificates and badges are also stored on the blockchain, it will become much easier for students to move between universities and dictate their own educational trajectory because barriers to transferring credits would begin to fall away. In this world, MOOCs could also be more easily completed for meaningful credit that leads to a degree. A person’s entire educational record could be accessed at the touch of a button.
If individual educational records were encrypted in this way, K-12 assessments could be better coordinated as well. Instead of annual high-stakes tests that vary by state and grade level, one could imagine a more longitudinal assessment system that tracked achievement over time. For example, if an eighth-grade student passed a tenth-grade geometry test, she would carry that accomplishment on her record wherever she went, allowing her to continue her math education at the appropriate level for her as an individual, rather than having to retake the same test for the next several years. In this way, blockchain could help revolutionize personalized education.
Integrating Blockchain Into STEM Education
If blockchain is the wave of the future (as it certainly seems to be), it seems logical to make sure that today’s students are prepared to engage with this technology in their careers. This is already happening in higher education, as colleges like Virginia Tech and NYU add blockchain concentrations. Studying blockchain capitalizes on a number of STEM disciplines, including computer engineering and higher math to encrypt the data.
Because the technology is relatively new and complex, there are currently very few opportunities for K-12 students to learn more about blockchain. Though some independent courses do exist, there is a real need to develop age-appropriate curriculum in this area. For younger students, understanding the basics about networks and honing relevant math skills is a good start; for older students, financial literacy dovetails nicely with cryptocurrency to spark interest. Additionally, learning to code is always an important STEM skill, and classes in Python will be particularly useful in understanding blockchain. As with all STEM education opportunities, the earlier it begins and the more hands-on it is, the more likely kids are to stick with it and see themselves as the blockchain contributors of the future.
A Philosophy Of Decentralization
Finally, it’s worth noting that blockchain represents a major step in the cultural shift towards decentralized knowledge. Just as the technology itself eliminates an intermediary that stands between you and your money (or your educational record), so too does it hint at a world in which stuents may have more direct access to and control over their education. If blockchain leads to decentralized records and greater access to global databases of knowledge, education will be further democratized and many more people will have access to the learning that they desire.
This movement comes at a time when education — and particularly STEM education — is highly corporatized. There’s money to be made from selling people an education, but it would be a real mistake to allow corporate monopolies to have all the power over what we teach our students. Despite colleges becoming ever more commodified, no single organization “owns” STEM education. In order for the STEM education movement to thrive, it must remain decentralized and accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic standing or country of origin. It should also not be co-opted by special interests that value profits over innovation and authentic learning experiences.
By teaching students the STEM basics they need to understand blockchain, we can also foster in them an appreciation for the values that it brings to the table. It’s a valuable technology, to be sure, but it’s also steeped in a culture that sees information as something everyone has a right to obtain freely, without having to pay a mediator for access to it. In this philosophy, knowledge is a birthright — and an effective STEM education can help keep it that way.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on November 30th, 2018.
“Democratizing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education through sound policy & practice…”