In early 2015, I started getting really curious about the potential for blockchain to impact education. Not for the technology in and of itself, but because it felt as if the new transactional models that it could enable had the potential to shift the forms of coordination used in education. Even if blockchain came and went, it seemed as if blockchain’s use of distributed security could have a lasting impact the underlying metaphors that we use when considering options for learning and for institutions generally.
KnowledgeWorks’ strategic foresight team began to explore blockchain more closely when writing The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code. Combined with cultural shifts toward openness, transparency, and distributed authority, we saw blockchain and smart contracts as having the potential to enable smart transactional models that could reconfigure institutions, enabling the development of flexible value webs comprised of many organizations and individuals and even going so far as to enable the creation of distributed autonomous organizations that operate with little, if any, management.
A futures project often starts with querying something that niggles at the edge of current reality and asking, “If that took greater hold, then what?” For me, choosing a project often involves feeling around the edges of my understanding and looking not as the latest shiny new development but at signals of change that could indicate a more fundamental shift, either on their own or in combination with other factors. When I ask, “If so, then what?” and can see layer upon layer of implications, I start getting really intrigued. My interest piques further when I see more and more people asking similar questions.
There’s never just one answer to the question of “If so then what?” – especially not in this time of exponential change. We can’t know what the future will bring until it arrives. As futurist Paul Saffo observes, “The future constantly arrives late and in unexpected ways.” Our vision is skewed by the difficulty of anticipating unexpected turns. It’s clouded by the difficulty of combining multiple trends all at the same time. It’s colored by our hopes and fears, by both our optimism and our dread.
When forecasting, it’s especially easy to over-hype the impact of new technologies. It’s imperative to look at them not just in isolation but also in combination with other types of changes: cultural shifts, evolving mindsets, economic and political trends, and so forth. It’s also important to take a systems perspective, which includes looking not just at forces of change but also at the inertia and reinforcing loops of the status quo.
With blockchain, I hoped. I sensed a fundamental shift emerging. Having taken a closer look through the Learning on the Block project, now I’m not so sure. That shift might well happen, but its impact on education – and particularly on public education – seems likely to depend on whether people use it to optimize the current system or to enable new approaches to coordination in service of putting learners at the center or other goals.
Blockchain is gaining increasing traction, and smart contracts are on the verge of moving from concept to implementation. Now is the time to look at possibilities and decide not just how we could use these technologies in education, but also how we want to employ them. As we consider possibilities, we need to be open to ceding centralized control to more distributed coordination. That cultural shift is happening, with or without blockchain. But we shouldn’t shift our approaches to educational authority without asking thorough questions and projecting out layers of potential consequences.
Will smart transactional models enable a new architecture for education and help power personalized learning? They could, but the answer to that question will depend on how all of us answer it.
Katherine Prince is the Senior Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks. She is excited about the future of learning, transformative leadership, and building resilient solutions for a sustainable world.