Stop the presses. I have found the worst education article of the decade so far. It is by Don & Alex Tapscott, and it is called The Blockchain Revolution and Higher Education.
How dumb is it? Solar-powered flashlight dumb. Tripping over a cordless phone dumb.
The problem is that because it’s Don Tapscott and he is – for reasons that are completely beyond me – treated as some kind of national gem, no one ever calls him on his deep wrongness when it comes to education (remember the time he dramatically announced that in the third week of January 2013 was the week universities changed forever?), so the likelihood is that some people may take this article seriously. And this would be a terrible mistake because it is nonsense.
A little background. A blockchain is a distributed database which is both secure and decentralized – something which has interesting applications in finance, electronic money (eg. bitcoin) and contracts. Some also claim it will have a huge effect on creative industries because it solves a host of intellectual property issues, but this is more speculative, and it requires a whole lot of legal and policy changes, which at this point are pretty speculative.
But databases, no matter how funky and tech-y they are, don’t have many educational uses. Imagine for a second we are back in 1981 and someone wrote an article about how Higher Education was about to go through a Lotus 1-2-3 Revolution. They’d probably have been dismissed as fantastical dreamers. Those were better days: sadly, no one will think of doing this to the Tapscotts.
Now, if you can get past the start of the article where the authors claim the internet hasn’t actually changed how companies do business (yes really) you will come to the claim that bitcoin will revolutionize education in four ways., to wit: student records, pedagogy, student debt and “the meta-university”. The heart of the argument here is that blockchain is going to create a sea change in records management. Now, student records are admittedly still fairly clunky. And it’s possible (as I noted back here) that in a decade or so that people will come up with universal CVs that will standardize and revolutionize the way people describe credentials and achievements. And it’s even possible that once that happens people will be able to record those certificates and achievements on blockchain. But then…so what? Blockchain’s main advantage is that records can’t be altered, which means it could be a great way of dealing with fraudulent records. But that’s not really that big of a deal. It begs the question, for those of us not in the habit of producing fraudulent records, what exactly are the benefits of blockchain?
Well, according to the Taspcotts, it basically comes down to the idea that blockchain could let you record competencies and skills in a reliable way, thus changing the way universities work completely. Huge, massive, changes. And once everyone knows reliably what skills and competencies you have, most of the machinery around universities disappears and higher education becomes just one big worldwide open-learning park, and those people who can demonstrate through blockchain that they have certain skills and competencies will be paid to teach others the same things and poof! No more student debt.
Honestly, I’m not making this up. This is their claim.
The fact that we are having trouble figuring out skills and competencies outside narrow professional frameworks? Irrelevant. The fact that badges and other such newfangled credentials aren’t really being embraced by employers because they are often finicky and vague)? Irrelevant. The fact that you still need institutions to actually manage the learning process and institutions to measure outcomes (they do not, I acknowledge, need to be the same institutions)? Irrelevant. The fact that not having blockchain is no barrier to people paying students to teach other skills and yet no one does it because that’s not really how education works and blockchain changes nothing in that respect? Irrelevant.
Is higher education over bureaucratized, insufficiently innovative, in need of a jolt? Sure. But a piece of code doesn’t fix all that. There are lots of other problems – often genuine political problems – which have to be solved before the alleged minor blockchain revolution can happen. And just because it can happen doesn’t mean it will. The kind of higher education system the Tapscotts seem to want is a type which – to quote Tressie McMillan Cottom – really only appeals to free-ranging autodidacts. For other learners, the kind of institutions the Tapscotts want is a deeply alienating one. But techno-fetishist windbags never let issues as small as “what customers want” get in the way of a good fantasy.
In sum: Worst. Higher Ed Article. Ever. Or pretty close to it. A pretty much textbook case of how you can be a tech guru while understanding literally nothing of how the world works.