The first ghost that Ebenezer Scrooge meets in “A Christmas Carol” is the spirit of his business partner, Jacob Marley. When the specter appears, he has a chain “wound about him like a tail,” made out of “cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
Scrooge asks the spirit of his old friend why it’s shackled.
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” the ghost replies. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free-will, and of my own free-will I wore it.”
Doomed to drag its chains throughout the world, the ghost cautions still-living Scrooge that, thanks to his own financial dealings, he bears “a ponderous chain” of his own.
In the classic story by Charles Dickens, this phantom chain of business transactions serves as a warning—about the consequences of valuing money over mankind. Yet to many modern entrepreneurs, a phantom chain of business transactions sounds like a promise—of new ways to make money, claim property and organize enterprise.
That would be the blockchain. The technology that tracks digital records has spurred a cryptocurrency gold rush and an NFT explosion. It has also led to the rise of new groups, called DAOs, that are experimenting with less-hierarchical ways to conduct business.
To folks in the crypto community, these developments all seem to point to a new era of the internet: Web3. It’s a digital world where internet users retain ownership of their online activities—their intellectual property, or IP—which are tracked by blockchains, which help everyone make money without having to rely on governments, institutions or corporations.
At least, in theory.
Some edtech entrepreneurs are eager for Web3 to arrive and change education. They envision an ecosystem where learners buy access to courses without enrolling in colleges; where teachers profit directly from their teaching; where students track progress on ever-lengthening credential chains; and where people who invest in the right tokens gather in learning groups to explore topics of mutual interest.
It’s an ecosystem that could transform schools—sites for teaching and learning—into marketplaces—sites for buying and selling.
It’s an ecosystem that could transform schools—sites for teaching and learning—into marketplaces—sites for buying and selling.
And that raises questions. Among them: Are crypto-entrepreneurs imagining better systems for education—or just systems that pay off better financially for themselves?
Could both answers be true? Cryptocurrency and the ideas behind Web3 attract both “mercenaries” and “missionaries,” says Jon Allen, managing partner at investment fund Mirana Ventures. If the former are driven by money, he argues, the latter want to create alternatives to institutions—“these greedy central points that are controlling the revenue flow”—so that more value goes directly to individuals and communities.
Before forging our own ponderous chains, then, let’s explore what Web3 innovators might have in store for education.
Fans of cryptocurrency and Web3 champion the idea of decentralization—freeing commerce and other activities from government oversight and regulation.
That’s not a new ideology within education. From modern mask mandates to historical integration efforts, schools often host tugs-of-war between sides preferring less or more centralized control. Should parents determine what their kids learn and how they learn it—or should authorities set the curriculum and rules? Should local communities determine how education gets funded and who has access to public schools—or should the federal government intervene?
New technology could push these questions further by offering people more alternatives to institutions of all kinds. Folks in the crypto space are questioning whether industries can be reimagined to operate in ways that are “less extractive, and more community-owned,” Allen says.
That includes higher education. In the vein of MOOC platforms, Web3 systems could make it easier to “unbundle” college courses from degree programs and universities, enabling individuals to sign up for whatever classes they want and instructors to market their courses to consumers directly, says Vriti Saraf, a former charter school teacher and administrator and Teach for America alumna who founded a startup called k20 Educators.
“Universities are curators of content,” Saraf says. In the past, she explains, in order to get a Harvard education, “I had to go through Harvard; I couldn’t just go straight to a professor.” But in the future, she predicts, “Harvard could still be curating classes of professors, but it’s not Harvard’s intellectual property.”
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to design blockchain credentials that enable people to track their own learning without having to rely on university-controlled transcripts.
“For a very long time, our credentials have focused on grades and the name of the verifying institute,” Saraf says. “Instead, what if we focused on the output and performance you’re able to gain? If I took a class on robotics, I could put the actual robot [coursework] on the chain, not the grade. People could track the process, and it’s a much better indicator of who I am and what I learned.”
Not everyone is sold on this vision, though. Blockchain credentials are currently “a solution in search of a problem,” says Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“If and when there is a rich economy of micro-credentials that have independent value, and there is a viable self-sovereign identification ecology, representing degrees and other university-issued credentials on a distributed ledger, or as NFTs, could be quite useful. There are intriguing developments moving in that direction,” Werbach told EdSurge in an email interview. “However, we’re a long way from the point where it would be a significant impact on higher ed.”
Plus, not everyone thinks it’s a good idea for students to drag their permanent record chains around the internet with no hope of escaping them—like Marley’s ghost. If blockchain records follow learners throughout their lives, asked San José State University professor Roxana Marachi in a recent interview with The Markup, what would that mean for people’s data privacy, and their right to be forgotten?
New Learning Communities
A buzzy concept among blockchain fans is DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations. And just so you know, it’s pronounced “dowwww.”
They’re communities of people who share a pot of cryptocurrency and who decide by voting how to spend that money—kind of like a co-op.
DAOs have popped up with various goals and functions. The concept could eventually “be a more efficient way of distributing grants than a traditional foundation, government funding agency, or corporation structure,” Werbach told EdSurge, also noting, however, that there are “a variety of concerns and reasons for skepticism about DAOs.”
Some groups call themselves “learning DAOs,” organized to educate members of their communities. And what are they learning about? Well, mostly about cryptocurrency.
But Bhaumik Patel thinks the learning DAO he’s part of puts a twist on the concept. Called Crypto, Culture, & Society, the group organizes courses that bring knowledge from the arts, humanities and social sciences into conversations about the Web3 world being dreamed into reality.
“Philosophers have been thinking about alternative realities for centuries. The metaverse should probably reference them,” says Patel, who previously held positions at workforce-training companies Thinkful, On Deck and Maven. “Anthropologists and people who study religious texts, what can we learn from them? Artists and musicians, what can we learn from them?”
Classes planned for the group’s upcoming semester (its second) will tackle subjects such as “simulated realities: mythology to metaverse”; “Web3 and social impact”; and “ethics and crypto.”
The Crypto, Culture, & Society DAO is also an experiment in building an educational institution directed by learners, not administrators. At most colleges, “students rarely choose where tuition fees go and where and how they can learn,” Patel says. “We have a say where the budget goes—so it doesn’t all go to the football team.” (That’s a joke. There’s no football team. But the point stands.)
To make the group financially sustainable, the DAO plans to sell NFTs that grant owners access to future courses, plus provide educational services to other DAOs. Some of the non-fungible tokens will be reserved as “scholarship seats” for people underrepresented in the crypto world, Patel says. And for the general public, the group wrote up summaries of its first-semester courses and made them available for free.
“I am really inspired by this idea of bottom-up learning,” Patel says.
I am really inspired by this idea of bottom-up learning.
DAOs are also emerging at traditional higher ed institutions, too. Allen of Mirana Ventures is involved with EduDAO, an effort to support student groups that are exploring cryptocurrency at MIT, Oxford, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, the University of Michigan, the University of California at Berkeley and Tsinghua University in China.
It’s a goal inspired by the journey Allen took into the investing sector. Allen says his family couldn’t afford to send him to college when he finished high school, so he joined the Army and suffered an injury while serving in Afghanistan. It was during his long recovery that he read about Bitcoin and “went down the rabbit hole,” he says, feeling kinship with members of the crypto community hoping to change the status quo.
When Allen enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, he co-founded a student group called Blockchain at Berkeley. The opportunities that afforded him, he says, “changed my life.”
To help other young people find a place in the crypto world, EduDAO will provide its student-group partners with grants—about $187,000 per organization—and money for students to invest—about $430,000 per organization. The hope is that any profits earned will go back to support the activities of the student groups.
If it works as planned, Allen says, it will be a “virtuous circle” that helps sustain student learning.
Into the Metaverse
Blockchain fans see potential for another emerging tech trend to shape education: the metaverse.
Imagine a virtual version of New York City, where everything is open 24/7 and geared toward teachers’ needs, desires and crypto-wallets. That’s what Saraf, of k20 Educators, says she’s building. She calls it the Eduverse.
In the Eduverse, teacher avatars will teleport around to digital edtech hubs, where they can learn new technology skills to add to their credential chains. They’ll pop into marketplaces, where they can, say, trade lesson plans they’ve created for tokens. They’ll check out career centers where they can look for new jobs. And they’ll relax in lounges, where they can chat with fellow teachers from other countries.
“The purpose is to create this live, central location where educators around the world can connect with each other,” Saraf says.
It’s one example of what proposals for a coming “metaverse” could mean for teachers and students. The phrase that originated in a science-fiction novel refers to an immersive virtual reality that blurs the boundaries between digital and physical spaces.
Some enthusiasm for the metaverse is coming from large companies, the type of entity that members of the crypto-community seem determined to work against. They include Walmart, Facebook, which changed its name to Meta, and Microsoft, which recently purchased game developer Activision Blizzard for nearly $70 billion, as part of a stated goal to stake a claim in the metaverse.
So it remains to be seen whether the metaverse will be developed by corporations, by newfangled groups like DAOs—or even at all. But if it comes into being, in theory it could support new, creative ways for educators and students to interact remotely. (And simultaneously create new concerns about safety and privacy.)
One big hurdle to realizing that possibility, though—and to inviting educators from around the world to gather in a virtual teachers lounge—is the digital divide, which exists both within the U.S. and between the U.S. and other nations.
“Web3 is a developed-world, first-world conversation,” Saraf says. “In the developing world, most people don’t even have access to Wi-Fi. That’s definitely a barrier.”
Buying and Selling
Public schools are supported by public dollars—with help, in some cases, from donations from the PTA. But what if public schools raised their own money through decentralized finance and the crypto-economy, maybe so the rest of us didn’t have to support these institutions by paying taxes?
That’s an idea pitched in a recent blog post co-written by Saraf and entrepreneur Scott Meyer. The article names “generating revenue” as a “major challenge for districts and individual schools”—an assertion that might surprise school leaders who thought they were supposed to be teaching, not running a business.
But Web3 could turn these schools into businesses, the authors explain. School-businesses could mint their own tokens and give teachers a share. If a school-business does well—say, by successfully charging students to participate—then teachers would profit and school-businesses would earn money.
Students could get in on the action, too. One idea proposes that high school students earn cryptocurrency for completing school assignments and for peer-grading each other’s work, money they then use to pay for the opportunity to take exams, which grant them course credit.
If all that sounds kind of like turning a neighborhood high school into a for-profit college-slash-multilevel-marketing network—well, proponents ask, why not? As investor Balaji Srinivasan, former CTO of crypto company Coinbase, said in a recent interview, everything could be for sale in the crypto-future, even “things we could never price before, like a minute of your time.”
Whether that sounds appealing or appalling may depend on your appetite for risk, your hunger for reward and whether you think either belongs in education.
Not everything should be decentralized, Saraf acknowledges. But in the Web3 world, so much more could be. Educators, students and everyone else may find themselves making new calculations, choosing between traditional institutions that better ensure quality and decentralized providers that dangle the tantalizing chance of a higher financial payoff.
“Do you want to own your own intellectual property, and potentially gain a lot? Or do you want somebody else to craft that journey for you?” Saraf asks. “We’re going to have to come to this crossroads for everything we do.”