How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Trust a Trustless System

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA, Future of Learning

Recently, my colleague Katherine Prince and I had the pleasure of speaking at the World Future Society’s annual conference World Future 2016, a gathering of futurists, thought leaders, and innovators all sharing their research on the future. Our session at World Future 2016 was dubbed “The Learning Revolution,” and we had the honor of co-presenting with Dr. Parminder Jassal of ACT Foundation. Katherine and I shared our research from our most recent publication, “Learning on the Block: Could Smart Transactional Models Help Power Personalized Learning?,” while Dr. Jassal shared ACT Foundation’s research from the Learning Is Earning project.

Though our presentation and Dr. Jassal’s had slightly different points of focus, the common underlying theme was blockchain and education. Katherine and I explored potential impacts of the driver of change that we call smart transactional models, which considers the social trend away from hierarchal authority alongside the emergence of encryption technologies such as the blockchain. Dr. Jassal explored the potential for blockchain to help working learners record progress and earn income while engaged in learning. She also previewed Seek, a platform that promises to help learners map skills and explore careers based on their interests, education, and experiences, including hobbies and other activities.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with blockchain, it a distributed, encrypted ledger technology that tracks and verifies basic transactions. Its distributed approach to verifying transactions means that the blockchain is not reliant on a trusted third party or centralized authority to verify a transaction or grant access to resources. This makes the blockchain a trustless system. It assumes that actors will try to cheat or game it. Blockchain’s verification process means that the nodes in the network must come to a majority consensus as to the historical accuracy of the records it holds. For example, to authorize a purchase, all nodes must verify that the person wishing to buy something does in fact have the necessary funds in their account. Once there is a majority agreement, the transaction is allowed to occur, and the network records the transaction.

Figure 1: Distributed authority on the blockchain
Figure 1: Distributed authority on the blockchain

As our session came to a close, Katherine, Parminder, and I were asked how one would come to trust a trustless system. The answer might be deceptively simple: you don’t need to trust it.

Blockchain was designed as a sort of truth machine. Its approach to distributed authority ensures that participants cannot be cheated during the transaction process. It also makes the blockchain immutable. Because the computers involved in a blockchain network must continuously agree about the current state of the ledger, if anyone attempted to alter a transaction, the network would no longer arrive at a consensus and would reject the altered record.

This distributed approach to transactions is very different than most of the systems on which we currently we rely. The vast majority of today’s trusted systems, such as banking, e-mail, and IT systems, use highly centralized approaches to security. We see them as trusted third parties that help process transactions and keep our data secure. However, a quick scan of recent news headlines reveals that even secure, centralized systems are vulnerable, as evidenced by a New York school district’s recent hack of school records; the Panama Papers, a leak of 11.5 million files from Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm; and the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mail.

Going forward, we may have to become increasing comfortable with the idea of trusting a trustless system, especially for education. Beyond simply needing more secure storage of student data, the act of learning is becoming increasingly decentralized. Schools are no longer the sole purveyors of knowledge.

As education systems attempt to keep pace with changes in learning, the blockchain could provide a new architecture for tracking and organizing learning. The distributed authority that the blockchain provides could redefine how educational organizations are governed. Being immutable, blockchain-based coordination systems could provide increased levels of transparency about how schools and other learning organizations are run and could also log and verify self-directed experiences.

To be sure, the notion of trusting something labeled as trustless feels like a leap; however, the odds that you will have to interact with a trustless system such as blockchain in the future seem high. The benefits that blockchain-based systems could provide education systems are many, and the research that KnowledgeWorks and ACT Foundation have both done merely scratches the surface of possibilities.

What possibilities do you see for applying blockchain to learning, and are they enticing enough for you to starting trusting a trustless system?