Blockchain in HE: Adapt and Adopt, or Perish (2)

Sieber (2017) discusses the future of universities. Western universities were born from need, trade routes, and energetic collectives. A millennia ago, teachers were hired to teach only what students demanded. Teachers were fired if auditoria were not filled, if students became bored, or if their knowledge was incomplete. For academics, the system was challenging; for students, it was ideal. Universities issued no diplomas or credentials. Students designed their own programmes. In format however, teaching was almost as now. i.e. one-to-many didactic lectures. (Sieber asks, rhetorically: “Why is it we still teach that way?”) Perhaps the only significant recent introduction is the laptop, which is now a constant feature, commanding space and disrupting the line of sight between lecturers and students.

In 2017, online teaching businesses were flourishing. Examples include Coursera, Udemy, FutureLearn, edX, and Udacity. It is rational and predictable that Silicon Valley-based organisations will leverage their IT capability to capture a portion of the market. Online teaching businesses develop courses innovatively and aggressively. Universities are market-insensitive and less agile; they are slower and suffer market-blindness.

In 2011, HE experienced its first serious post-web 2.0 disruption. Stanford University ran its first MOOC. Worldwide subscriptions totalled around 120,000, but only 2% of the initially enrolled completed. (Sieber speculates: had all participants been offered a Stanford credit, the completion percentage would likely have been much higher.)

Algorithmic data harvesting produces online learning that is adjustable, relatable, and customisable to the needs of each learner-customer. Born of the web, online teaching businesses are intrinsically tech-savvy and responsive. Intelligent course design can be achieved by machine learning. Crucially, they have also learnt how to gamify education and thereby add value and efficiency.

The trust protocols enabled by blockchain disintermediate third-parties and obviate the administrative processes required to verify connections between strangers. In the case of HE, the strangers would be the applicant and the institution, and the disintermediated parties would be the costly administrative/registrar layer.

A personal education blockchain would contain a record of all the diverse components of the owner’s educational experiences, which could include learning at traditional institutions, evening classes, workplace training, and weekend crash courses. The learner would assemble his/her own portable educational profile, and make it available to employers and HE institutions.

Importantly, education blockchains would be discoverable. Searchable community databases already exist (e.g. LinkedIn), but blockchain records would contain verifiable data only and not be stored on a proprietary platform.

Universities will need to rationalise their offerings (Sieber uses the phrase “scale back”, which suggests, incorrectly, that volume, not variety is the constraint.) Instead of attempting to provide everything, HE must focus on what it does best. If HE fails to adapt, it will become irrelevant in the new ICT-based ecosystem. “Just-in-time” courses for global, lifelong learners must be offered.

Universities today can serve millions; the global universities of the very near future will have to serve billions, and with personalisation offered for all. The blockchain will be a part of this capability. The future is here: the necessary components – technical and pedagogical (detail on this latter is not provided) – already exist.