An Alluring Cryptic Future

Technologies continue to outpace us.   As a society we are often unable to keep up.  Take for example the task of explaining the differences between cryptocurrency, blockchain, and a ledger?  We may have heard of each but do we understand them well enough to teach? Or, on an even deeper level, are we able to comprehend the implications they likely will have not just in the financial world but also into education?

With 7,800 cryptocurrencies currently in existence, it is difficult to imagine waking up tomorrow and finding out they have all just disappeared  Further, their establishing more than a foothold is evident in headlines such as Forbes March 31, 2021, “Goldman Sachs To Become Second Big Bank Offering Bitcoin To Wealthy Clients.”  The ubiquity of crypto is becoming more and more apparent.  Currently there are 38,460 Bitcoin ATMs in the United States. Or, on an even more prosaic level, the subject of an email I received from a local coffee company here in Thailand read, “NEW ROAST COFFEE BLENDS & SAVE 50% WITH CRYPTO PAYMENTS.” 

A great deal of my learning about cryptocurrency, blockchain, and the ledger resulted from listening to my nephew’s high school capstone project three years ago. I was quick to realize how much I did not know and have since, paddled hard to stay afloat in the current of change.  True to what Sir Wiliam Haley suggested would be a much more effective education. “…if its purpose were to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they don’t know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.”

It makes sense to define each before considering how they may serve education as an institution.  First though, more important than crypto being a derivative of the ancient Greek κρυπτός (krúptō) which means, ‘I conceal,’is the linchpin or what it all really comes down to.  In a word, de-centralization. Think internet. Or, another illustration might be, how workplaces and classrooms were forced to “flatten” during the pandemic.   Everyone suddenly has more stake and more voice, working together instead of the more traditional top-down passive and reverence for power approach. 

Definitions:

This explanation is contrary to a quote from the creator of Bitcoin.  Using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto he quipped, “If you don’t believe me or don’t get it, I don’t have time to try to convince you, sorry.”

Cryptocurrency: a form of digital money, called this because the consensus-keeping process is secured by strong cryptography.  The “secret writing” is secured by math, instead of people, governments, or trusts.  Like the example of coffee above, you can pay for items (or NFTs, as shared in an earlier post) electronically, similar to how you might with any other currency.  Recently after Amazon posted  how they were recruiting for a ‘Digital Currency and Blockchain Product Lead,’ much speculation followed regarding the company beginning to accept cryptocurrency.  Also of prominence are recent reports of how some countries are adopting cryptocurrencies as national currency.  “A step too far,” according to a recent IMF report.  But, what are some of the  “pulls” of moving in the direction of cryptocurrencies?  As international teachers we either have first hand experience or peripheral knowledge of these two examples:

  • Wire transferring could be likened to travelers’ cheques in its being outdated.  Wire transfers can take more than a few hours or sometimes even days.  Plus the added cost.  Currently, transfer fees from my bank in Thailand to the United States is more than USD $30.  In the case of cryptocurrency, banks/brokers are not able to take “their cut.”
  • Financial inequality continues to grow globally.   An outdated McKinsey & Company article titled, “Counting the world’s unbanked,” cites how 2.2 billion unbanked or underbanked adults live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. They do not have access to financial services. 

Blockchain: According to Dummies, where complex concepts are made easy to understand, blockchains are distributed databases where groups of individuals control, store, and share information. This is done in blocks.  The blocks are then linked, or chained, using cryptography. What makes this especially powerful is that any change is time stamped and visible to all.  Ultimately this assures transparency but also authenticity.

Ledger: In business, ledgers are written or computerized records of completed transactions. In error, many people use “blockchain” and “ledger” interchangeably. One big difference is the distributed ledger is free from blocks or chains. Furthermore, blockchain data is publicly available in the form of a public key, along with a  digital wallet address. This means no permission is necessary and anyone can view transaction histories and participate in a blockchain operation. Whereas, the distributed ledger requires permission to complete a transaction. 

All tech talk aside, why ultimately should we care?

Past, Present, and Beyond

It is difficult for students today to comprehend the world many teachers grew up in. B.G (Before Google).  Or, actually pre-Smartphones and even the Internet! “What, there was life before the Internet?” Equally I remember dreaming as a child, of a phone I might be able to see my aunt and uncle on, though the idea of portability and carrying the phone in my pocket evaded my imagination.  Yet now, as fast and far as we have come, we seemingly accept the digitized world as commonplace.  So too, will be the future of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and ledgers.  In 10, 20, or 50 years it may be similar to the internet and it will be impossible to imagine a world without them. 

We need not look far to recognize diminishing trust in institutions and governments. School as we traditionally have known it as well.  Centralization is flailing. Best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin shared in a blog post, “Centralized control gives us predictable, reliable, convenient results. Until it suffocates.” In its place is what is being called, the shared economy.  Peer-to-peer connections as evidenced through the use of Airbnb or Uber are examples of a cultural shift towards decentralization.  A similar decentralization in how information and currency is stored and also shared. A movement that is expected to only get bigger in the coming years and appears here to stay. 

Implications on Education

Currently there is no system for reliably recording a person’s educational achievement.  In our accelerated world, alternatives to the traditional ways of education are likely to continue to bloom.  Credentialing is quickly becoming the norm.  One million, or to be exact, 967,734.  That is how many unique credentials are in the U.S. alone.  The beauty of this increase in degrees, certificates, and badges is that there are more options.  Yet, according to Credential Engine,“There has never been an efficient system to collect, search, and compare credentials in a way that keeps pace with the speed of change in the 21st century and is universally understood.” Blockchain technology is an efficient and consistent way to keep track of a person’s entire educational history and is likely to be of increasing importance. 

American Council on Education to lead the Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI) was launched in 2020 in effort to re-think our educational system and how to utilize technologies like the distributed ledger. For example, Blockchain protects against falsified credentials but also allows students to be in control of their own transcripts.  One well-known university’s registrar outlined the process for a student to obtain their transcript as:  “Between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. place your request at Registrar Services, first floor lobby. The transcript fee is $10.00 per copy for processing within three (3) business days.”  To think a busy college student or graduate would have a thirty minute window to make a request and have to wait three days is archaic to say the least.  EBI continues to evaluate ways that blockchain might improve the flow of data but also empower the individual.  So transcripts are not under a lock and key or on a high hill.  This flow seeks to decentralize information so communication is within and across institutions and into the workplace.  

In the Midst a Shifting Culture

Nearly four years ago Tom Van der Ark of Getting Smart reported how Scott Looney launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium.  “The new nonprofit started by defining the problem: current transcripts mark time not learning–they value information regurgitation over making meaning, disciplines over integration, extrinsic over intrinsic rewards, and encourage grade inflation. The whole charade is based on the premise that grades are replicable, validated and meaningful.”  In programs such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium a motivating force is students being empowered to drive their own authentic learning. This is purposeful for students but also to universities and employers.  Manoj Kutty, CEO and founder of Greenlight Credentials remarked, “The big future opportunity is a marketplace where universities can search for applicants by category and credential and invite them to apply (or even offer acceptance based on verified credentials).”  In an interview with Van der Ark, Kutty asserted, “In 20 years, students won’t be applying to colleges; colleges will be recruiting students.”  However, we need not look into the future to comprehend the cultural shift clearly underway, as employers are becoming more interested in the trusted and verifiable skills a person possesses.  At one of the most sought after job places in the world, Google, ‘college degree’ has no place in its official guide for hiring employees.   

Decentralization will continue to gain traction. As freedom, transparency, transference, and a person’s competencies are valued more, Blockchain and similar technologies will be as vowels are to the alphabet. We are in the nascence of a new “language.”  Blockchain is clearly a catalyst of change and already we are in the midst of a significant shift.  

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