I care a lot about adult education because I’m a life-long learner. Having gone through a fair bit of academic, professional as well as continuous informal and unstructured learning, I have begun thinking about the topic from a wider angle. I have previously uttered some thoughts. This article outlines broad ideas how blockchain can help advance adult education.
Adult education — The status quo
In my experience, adult education, including course design and knowledge assessment, is largely based on traditional school methods and takes a ‘one size fits all’ approach. What constitutes educational achievements is narrowly defined. Career change into a different discipline can mean resetting to Square One when transferable skills are neglected by education providers and employers. Oftentimes, life has to be fitted around education instead of the curriculum adapting to individual circumstances. This can mean taking a year out, which involves direct costs like tuition fees and opportunity costs from the job you give up. Such compromises, even sacrifices, are not feasible for everyone. Thus, there is inherent waste and discrimination in the current adult education system and, consequently, hiring practices.
What if ?
What if academic and professional educational organisations leveraged the plethora of content creators out there in the world wide web to allow learners to engage in a variety of quality study material and earn learning credits outside the inhouse material? This way, institutions can stay up-to-date and relevant instead of locking learners into inflexible lengthy curricula.
I imagine a world where established large educational institutions collaborate and partner with freelance content creators and other education facilitators. Partnerships would require vetting of external content. Learners would have a guided choice of what to study and the level of credits and certifications they want to achieve. These can be built up over time instead of having to complete an entire prescribed programme in a set timeframe.
What if we consciously gave adult learning a much wider meaning? Lifelong learning constitutes more than classes and prescribed assessments. Intuitively, we know this already. Allowing for a wider definition will pave the way for a comprehensive integration of an individual’s experiences in their formal professional track record.
What is decentralised adult education?
In this proposal, adult education covers any formally recognised education, training or other relevant experience after school (or generally after age 18). In decentralised adult education, creation and delivery of recognised, even accredited, educational content is no longer limited to central academic or professional institutions. It can be sourced online & offline from various trusted service providers and feeds into a certificate, diploma, degree, performance score or other voucher of successful completion; henceforth collectively referred to as credentials. Once issued, the individual holds the credential and has full control over sharing these data.
What’s in it for everyone?
- It will enable reliable content creators to monetise their efforts, which are currently often offered for free (like personal blogs, video channels), and partner with institutions. This will also increase the creator’s audience.
- It will enable institutions to outsource some content creation and course delivery to freelancers or other small organisations. As a result, the content and curricula will be kept up-to-date, as content creators renew content frequently because they have more flexibility and possibly also unique insights that add value to the more rigid approach of large organisations. Institutional staff will focus on curriculum development, provider review, student assessments, inhouse core modules.
- For learners this means that certain self-study will be recognised by official certification. Flexible curricula will adapt to the lifestyle, instead of life having to wrap itself around the curriculum. Curricula will enable the learner to shape their educational journey by offering a wider choice of study, training & experience modules.
There are various ways in which distributed ledger technology (DLT) can improve adult education. One central administrative element is a professional reputation management platform. Key aspects of such a platform are outlined below.
User-controlled data storage & sharing
Data, such as CV and credentials, are kept by the user in encrypted storage that facilitates information-sharing with others without the need for data transfer. Documents are to be shared by their owner via user-defined access permissions, which keep owners in control of their data at all times. In the case of a job application, basically, the hiring agent comes to the application documents instead of the documents being sent to them. This increases not only convenience but also preserves data security and user control, as no data transfer to another system is required.
Collaborations between creators of educational content is facilitated by a platform that tracks each one’s contributions transparently. For example, freelancers can collaborate directly with each other or with educational institutions to develop a course for learners. Version control, contributor ID and intellectual property (IP) are tracked via blockchain logs. Non-fungible tokens (NFT) may be used for credential tracking, authentication and IP protection. In effect, this platform supports the vetting of educational service providers and quality control and feeds into the creator’s and learner’s professional reputation management.
People collect various certifications from different educational institutions. Freelancers build up performance scores on online service platforms. Similarly, gamers build up success scores. Competitive athletes win trophies. These are just some examples where we already have systems that measure performance in a quantifiable manner. All such experiences add to a person’s knowledge and skill set. They are a part of adult education.
However, at the moment those different systems do not communicate. Issued credentials are usually controlled by the issuer, much less by the recipient. Logging achievements via blockchain in a way that protects data privacy and allows the individual to control access permissions, creates a verifiable track record that can feed into the individual’s professional reputation management system. Legacy systems could be linked via third party connections to allow learners to build on historical achievements.
- This will enable complete, verifiable blockchain-based tracking from issuer to recipient, which underpins the trustworthiness of a person’s credentials. Through access control mechanisms the recipient can choose with whom to share which credential.
- The accumulated data can be used to calculate a single overall professional reputation score. This can be split into relevant categories such as technical skills, soft skills or community engagement.
- This will facilitate and integrate micro-credentialing. There is already a trend towards ‘badge’ collection for courses and learning achievements. As a result, these can quickly become numerous in a person’s profile, and it is easy to lose oversight and grade the significance of different credentials. Having a credential management platform will provide structure and clarity to both the credential collector and the credential viewer, e.g. job seeker and potential employer.
- Credential management in a digital, globally accessible and verifiable system makes it easier for internationally active professionals to manage their credentials literally on the move, benefit from education services in other countries and seek employment across borders.
The thoughts above focus on immediately quantifiable credentials. However, the idea does equally apply to currently less measurable outcomes. For example, volunteers work for charitable or other projects gaining real-life practical experience. At best, they receive some kind of feedback or thank you. There is an opportunity to help such organisations design experience accreditation processes that can be linked to a person’s professional profile.
In principle, cryptocurrencies and fungible tokens already enable frictionless payments globally. This capability can be integrated in financial compensation mechanisms for content providers. There are several options. For example:
- Direct payment by learners for access to content in pay-as-you-go, subscription or other business models.
- Direct contractual payments between collaborators.
- Direct voluntary tipping of free online content on the creator’s website or other online platform to say thank you, just like we tip waiters in a restaurant.
- With NFT or other blockchain-based IP tracking, payment systems can be set up in a comparable fashion to blockchain-based solutions for music royalties management. This provides passive income from material that is propagated by others as long as the originator can be attributed.
- NFT- and smart contract-facilitated leasing of content can provide contractual passive income to content creators who do not deliver classes themselves.