Saturday, 11 June 2016

#Blockchain in Education Summit Madrid - Some thoughts

On Monday I'm participating in a mini-summit on Blockchain and other emerging technologies in education involving the Universities of Liverpool, Antwerp, Hamburg and Madrid (who are kindly hosting us) as well as CETIS and Gameware Europe. The meeting arose from a rather hurriedly assembled H2020 bid which centred on Blockchain and education, alongside technologies which are concerned with transactions,  including Comparative Judgement (see and, games and analytics (from the perspective of the RAGE project:, and the emerging importance of Bots (see and

I've always believed there is great merit in submitting to the stresses of writing proposals (and EU proposals are horrendous!) because they concentrate thinking on important developments in technology and education at a moment in time. In my experience, the projects that result can sometimes be disappointing because they get mired in bureaucracy and fear about compliance with Commission requirements (who tend to wave big sticks over projects in ways that are sometimes counter-productive). I wrote about this here: But the best bits of projects are always the free exchange of ideas among academics and business partners looking at important questions from different angles. Even if our bid isn't successful, using a bid as an excuse for a summit meeting is a way of making this exchange of ideas happen.

What's important about our proposal? Whilst writing it, I had many arguments about technology and education. Universities currently behave as if they've 'sussed technology': they have VLEs, they have e-Portfolio, they have MOOCs, class response, etc. As far as Universities are concerned, technology has been 'done'. Partly what this means is that the technology has been successfully integrated in reinforcing the way that institutions have always organised education. We've been here before (1993 is the classic date - "we've got DTP, WYSIWYG, Multimedia, etc, what more could you want"). Even the TLTP funding programmes of 1996 were still aiming at the production of Multimedia CD-ROMS, ignoring the internet completely! Every time we see "it's all been done", technological developments blind-side institutions with developments that fundamentally change their world-view.

Blockchain appears to be important. The UK chief scientist seemed to think so in January when this report was released: But in engaging with the central argument I found myself involved in a debate with David Kernohan  who wrote this:, Audrey Watters who produced this and  others. The argument centres around the extent to which the new technology was an escalation of predatory commercial forces in education, or to what extent it might be emancipatory (Watters and Kernohan are suspicious - it's interesting to see Educational Technology scepticism become significant!) Then there was the question as to what extent education was transactional (Blockchain is all about 'transactions') - this is a much more complicated question.

There are transactions in education: "I've done my assignment - you give me a mark; I've completed the course, you give me a certificate". What we actually do is process all of these transactions in batch: education still deals with cohorts, and technologies have been deployed to meet individual needs through teaching cohorts. The H2020 ICT22 EU call (see talked about more flexible and personal ways of delivering education. They say:
"the current environment limits development to silo products, creates barriers to technological and market innovation and cross border adoption of new learning technologies."

At the heart of the problem is the way that the institution positions itself as the guarantor of its transactions. Blockchains seem to be able to create a data-driven system of trust that bypasses institutional authority. Whether one wants to uphold the existence of institutions (which I think we should) or find ways of re-organising education in new ways and recongfigure institutions (which I also think we should) this new technology needs investigating. Which is why the questions surrounding our proposal are important.

There are (at least) two areas which need to be unpicked here. First of all, Blockchain technology hasn't come from nowhere. It is fundamentally a particular kind of distributed database, and there have been radically changes to database technology over the last 10 years which have upset the dominance of 'traditional' relational databases. Today, we might reach for a non-relational tool like Mongo ( or Neo4J ( sooner that we might reach for a relational database. Data and its storage is fundamental to the systems that we create. If we change the way data is stored and queried, then we change the things that we do and the way that we organise ourselves. Blockchain is fundamentally an immutable, replicated database. It's immutability has implications for trust and institutions.

The other critical issue concerns transactions. The rise of mobile, Bots, Virtual Reality, gaming and so on all equate to an increase in the number of transactions between a user and a service provider. Service providers harvest data from transactions, and their continued existence is dependent on maintaining and increasing the number of transactions that an increasing number of users have with them. Everything that we do through our phones is (I think) a transaction - even if we are not consciously aware of it. Bots are designed to engage us in conversations that we would not otherwise have had; VR captures every head (and maybe every eyeball) movement; games engage us in actions in environments which are configured to continue our making of actions. What we consider to be personalisation is really a transactional relation.

So, with fundamental changes to databases, fundamental issues arising from the ways we engage with technology, what does this all mean for education? That's what I'm hoping to dig into in this meeting...

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