Sony Corporation and Sony Global Education (SGE) recently announced development of a system to apply blockchain technology to education. Parents who are concerned about the increasing digitalization of their children’s education, about security of their private data, and about the future of education in general should take note.
Blockchain technology is a “distributed database through which digital transactions can be securely made and recorded without approval from a central authority.” The obvious current example is Bitcoin, a digital currency that allows direct online exchanges of money without going through a central institution.
In education, blockchain would enable all student records from any source to be uploaded into the system and shared with authorized users as part of a life-long dossier, or “digital transcript.” The concept fits nicely with the emerging fad of “competency-based education” (CBE) that is being implemented in New Hampshire and other states. As described by the U.S. Department of Education, CBE “allows students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content” and to compile credentials through “online and blended learning, . . . project-based and community-based learning, and credit recovery . . . .” CBE would lead to “digital badging,” which awards an online “micro-credential” when a student has demonstrated a particular skill. The badges would then be included in the blockchain.
Superficially, the concept of CBE and the blockchain has a certain appeal. Wouldn’t it be more effective and efficient for every student to advance in his own way, at his own pace, and track his own credentials online for sharing with authorized parties? But a closer look reveals a dark underside.
One problem that the extreme so-called “digital learning” or “personalized learning” is highly unlikely to engender real education. As we’ve discussed, digital learning allows students both to advance without committing information to long-term memory, and to slide by with the bare minimum of effort. In traditional education, teachers can make sure students avoid these traps. But then, traditional teachers are so 20th century.
But even if digital learning “worked,” parents would need to understand the totalitarian nature of the scheme. Ideally, say the blockchainers, a child could be assigned an “identity” so that every time he logs in at school, all of his skills and behaviors can begin being compiled into his blockchain account. His permanent, lifelong account. And the digital record of his skills and behaviors would be all-encompassing.
One reason Big Data and its attendant industries and foundations are pushing so hard for CBE/blockchain is that a student compiling all these micro-credentials via online platforms is a data goldmine. Every keystroke he makes, every video image he produces, every physiological reaction he experiences (heart rate, skin temperature, etc.) tells the software something useful about him – useful to corporations, to advertisers, or potentially to the government. The invaluable parent activist Alison McDowell explains how this new digital-heavy, teacher-light system empowers these outside entities to scrutinize and analyze every student’s entire being, as a means not of educating him but of slotting him into his niche in the managed economy.
Blockchainers have ambitious goals. For example, the Learning Is Earning futuristic forecasting game (created by the Institute for the Future and college-testing giant ACT) introduces a blockchain system called the Ledger. According to the promotional video, the Ledger would grant individuals an “edublock” for every hour they learn something, whether in school or from an audiobook or playing an online game or whatever. Then the “learners” could teach what they learned, earning compensation in various forms (for example, discounts on their student loans).
Obviously, this imagined scheme makes a mockery of real education. One of the actresses in the Ledger video speaks of having her university post all her course records to the Ledger, and then “I’m pre-approved to teach any subject I passed.” Seriously? This author once passed a chemistry course, but it would be educational malpractice to have her teach it to anyone else.
An “employer” on the video reports that her company has no full-time employees but rather examines job-seekers’ Ledger accounts and selects a person whose edublocks and badges match the demands of a particular project. That project completed, both parties move on. So students shouldn’t waste time on studies that don’t translate directly into micro-credentials and (even temporary) employment. It’s unclear what would happen to employers who prefer candidates with actual educations to those who simply solved an online puzzle and now count that as one of their credentials.
The aspirational Ledger illustrates the totalitarian nature of the system. A fully operational Ledger would “track everything you’ve ever learned.” “We’ll keep track,” its creators promise, or threaten, “of all the income your skills generate.” Other analysts note the blockchain might include “smart contracts” that could “automatically schedul[e] a tutor in response to a student’s academic issue.”
If you don’t want some anonymous entity tracking all your knowledge, skills, income, and academic shortcomings, you must be a selfish person insufficiently oriented toward the good of the collective.
Speaking of the collective, the blockchain as represented by the Ledger would become a “permanent part of the growing public record of our collective learning and working.” And as Sony points out, “permanence” is a feature: The blockchain allows a “secure network in which programs and information are difficult to forge or destroy.” Whatever’s there, whether accurate, misleading, or false, stays there forever. “Permanent record” indeed.
And what about the claim that information in the blockchain would be more secure from hackers than are current system? Don’t count on it. Analysis of the security of Bitcoin transactions has already determined that online trackers can see sensitive details of those transactions, and has exposed the weaknesses of commonly used technological security mechanisms.
Even if security were airtight such that only authorized parties could have access, how much pressure will be placed on college or job applicants to allow full access to admissions directors or potential employers? Refusal to turn over one’s entire life as memorialized in the blockchain could be interpreted as having something to hide.
From a broader perspective, this plan means the end of the American ideal of education as a stepping stone to a better life. It is inconceivable that the children of the elite will be relegated to this minimalist skill-training, to edublocks and digital badges. They’ll attend non-Common Core private schools that still teach real academic content, and then go on to real universities that require substantially greater preparation than Common Core provides. But for the children of the masses, a “badge” on an “edublock” will be good enough.
The good news: Some IT analysts doubt that blockchain can revolutionize education, because of problems with governance, costs, and capacity. But the threat of invasive data-collection and -storage, and damage to genuine education, is real. This is where the data gurus want to go, and they are very good at getting their way.