Silicon Valley, CA — What does blockchain have to do with education technologies? Apparently the ed-tech startup iQ3R feels it is crucial for two very different, but related reasons. “Blockchain is a phenomena. Maybe it is all hype, but it is an enormous phenomena that many feel is the most important emerging technology since the internet,” said founding engineer and Chief Information Officer Peter Alexander. “The frightening thing is that many people do not understand what it is all about.” iQ3R sees this idea as representative of a growing crisis in education. In a report filed by Nixon Carruthers, the director of iQ3R’s research staff, most school curriculum, teaching, and especially the record keeping systems are all dated; they are way behind the technical revolution that is changing our society.
Enter the second of the two reasons for understanding blockchain — it is potentially a very dangerous threat to education. Applications of blockchain to education are just in their infancy, but many promises are being made and little substance is being given for their justification. iQ3R sees this as a real cause for concern. “It is a pretty significant issue when policies and decisions are dependent on technologies that a generation of graduates can’t even explain, “ Alexander said reflecting on the relevancy of education in the United States. “One of our interns is a really strong student who got through four years of public high school education and one complete year at a leading university with only having heard the term ‘blockchain’.”
A “blockchain” is a loose expression for a data structure that is used to hold records of transactions. What I mean by a blockchain has four essential components; a system of data structures and protocols, a ledger which is reproduced in many copies on many computers and visible to the public, a consensus algorithm for determining when the ledger is updated, and currency to align the incentives of all participants. The currency is usually some form of digital token. Currency transactions are recorded in the ledger. When a consensus is arrived at by all the participants concerning the transactions in the ledger, the “block” is closed and all records can never be modified. A classic model of blockchain technology is Bitcoin.
Since a block of records can never be modified once it is closed, the blockchain is thought to provide a secure source of storage without relying on third party storage services. Since there is only one copy of the ledger, changes in the ledger are visible to everyone. This transparency provides even more security since no one using the system can create fake entries without everyone seeing. At least that is the thinking. But blockchain technology is ultimately about computer programming. Cryptographic methods are used to secure the data. No system is perfect. Flaws in computer code and persistent hacking led to one of the biggest thefts in the history of the world according to Coincheck’s Lon Wong. Wong is the CEO of the Japanese cyber-currency exchange which lost $534 million to a hacker earlier this year.
So where does all this cyber-currency discussion fit into online education? To begin with, major universities from Stanford to Oxford feature online courses and certification programs. Oxford, in particular is using a “blockchain model” as part of its online tutorial program. The blockchain is used to validate student-teacher transactions, attendance, and certification of units. In Alexander’s words “Eventually, they hope to replace the registrar’s office with a blockchain. And that is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Harvard’s expert in technology and internet security, Bruce Schneier, warns of the ominous consequences of misplacing our trust in the blockchain system. He writes,
“When that trust turns out to be misplaced, there is no recourse. If your bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If your bitcoin wallet gets hacked, you lose all of your money. If you forget your login credentials, you lose all of your money. If there’s a bug in the code of your smart contract, you lose all of your money. If someone successfully hacks the blockchain security, you lose all of your money. In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit?”
Blockchain technology presents us with irreversible transactions. Now consider Schneier’s comments as applied to Alexander’s earlier remarks. I am working on my doctoral studies in education technologies. It would be a terrible thing if the records of all the work I have done were lost forever due to a glitch in the technology replacing the “registrar”. And we can take this idea even further. There are people who hope to use blockchain “solutions” to replace IRS transactions, accounting, HR, and just about any other situation where there are records, transactions and trust. The consequences of misplaced trust could be horrific.
“It is just one of an enormous number of issues that students these days are very much in the dark about,” said Matt Permutter, iQ3R’s head of data science. “It is kind of Orwellian,” he added. “You keep students focused on irrelevant issues in the schools until you eventually can do away with the schools.” iQ3R aims to provide students with the reasoning skills to tackle tough relevant problems like “blockchain” as they actually present themselves in our society now. They fully sponsor the Next Generation Science Standards and design their courses around them. Their Common Core courses focus on relevant topics like “blockchain”, data mining, the meaning of probability, ethics and the internet to name a few. “Why can’t we start talking about these subjects as young learners?”, Alexander asks. “Maybe we’re afraid the kids might just teach the parents … things we don’t want them to know.”
Thanks iQ3R for taking these issues seriously. We all need to be more informed!