Smart Contracts Could Power Personalized Education

Topics: Future of Learning

Last month, I had a chance to immerse myself in some of the learning experiences happening around Columbus, Ohio, where I live. I didn’t find out about them through a school or any other education institution. Instead, I read about them in the digital event listings of local news websites.

On Saturday, I spent a couple of hours exploring The Ohio State University’s Museum of Biological Diversity during their annual open house. I learned about butterflies, mollusks, and plant-based dyes and got to talk to researchers about separating DNA for analysis and identifying the kinds of algae present in water samples. That evening, I attended a classical guitar concert put on by the Columbus Guitar Society, where I got a taste of the shifts in scales and style that took place during the Baroque period. On Sunday, I went on a ranger-led wildflower walk at Shale Hollow Preserve, identifying 16 species of wildflowers in a small wooded area next to the Olentangy River.

In college, I avoided the more traditional math and science classes and met the general education requirement by taking courses on global biological issues and the history of scientific thought (a philosophy course conveniently cross-listed by the physics department). Despite an early aversion to science education, I found the two biology-related experiences last month engaging and enjoyable. While my high school and college experiences didn’t give me the frame of reference to know that I enjoy learning about the natural world, my recreational experiences since my mid-twenties have consistently circled back to the pleasure of engaging with it through situated experiences.

So I had a nice weekend. What does that have to do with education?

In the future, experiences like I had this weekend could be part of a lifelong learning log. Enough of them could, over time, even contribute to some kind of credential. If I were pursuing a relevant learning pathway, my experiences could be part of it, extending and deepening – and at least to some extent replacing – classroom learning. The resources that I needed to access them could even be unlocked based on my learning plan. If in the future I decided to pursue a relevant credential, perhaps I could retroactively incorporate them.

blockchain-imageOne mechanism that could make these kinds of possibilities happen is a smart contract. Smart contracts are self-executing contracts stored on a distributed, encrypted digital ledger called the blockchain. While the blockchain tracks and verifies basic transactions, smart contracts can be programmed to carry out more complex transactions.

In our recent forecast, The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code, we explore the potential for custom learning contracts powered by smart contracts to enable learners and parents to set up agreements around a whole host of functions, from secure payments to learning experience access to autonomous transportation. For example, what if:

  • Each learner had a Smart Learning Fast Pass that unlocked learning opportunities as the student was ready for them and transferred money from learner-controlled funding allotments to the learning experience providers?
  • A universal student record made it possible for comprehensive student data to follow each learner throughout the education lifecycle, creating a rich personal learning history that could inform future learning pathways?

Smart contracts could enable learners and their families to access experiences and resources across more distributed and diverse learning ecosystems, making learning journeys more personalized and more supportive of individuals’ distinct interests, needs, and aspirations. They represent just one way in which blockchain might enable new transactional models in education.

We’re exploring more impacts of blockchain and cultural shifts in our forthcoming publication, Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?©

In the meantime, what do you see smart contracts enabling? What opportunities might they present, and what challenges might we watch for? Which of your experiences might they help connect – even if you don’t yet realize that you’re on a specific learning pathway?