Of all the technologies covered in this book, blockchain is perhaps the most perplexing, both in how it works and in terms of its purpose in education. I include it because it received a lot of attention, but also because it is indicative of the type of hype that surrounds a new technology that does not seem to address a clear need. Let’s address the technical part first, although part of blockchain’s appeal is in not understanding how it works, which we shall come to later. Tapscott and Tapscott (2016) defined blockchain as “an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value” (p. 5). They argued that “as a decentralised system, it can’t be hacked, and it enables you to bypass the complex network of intermediaries currently needed to verify transactions” (p. 5). A blockchain is formed from a database that is shared across a network of computers. These networks are public but encrypted, so when an update is made to the database, such as a new transaction, it is automatically updated across the network. This distributed nature makes it very difficult to hack since any hacker would need to make changes across the network. Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin use blockchain to create a ledger that holds the records of Bitcoin transactions. The lack of a central location storing this database makes it secure and ideal for online, peer-to-peer transactions.
If you are thinking that this all sounds fine for finance, but what has it got to do with education, students, and learning, then you are not alone. In 2016 several people independently approached me about blockchain, and their question was always the same: “Could we apply this in education somehow?” The imperative seemed to be that blockchain was an interesting technology, and therefore it must have an educational application. In a review of its possible applications in education, Grech and Camilleri (2017) proposed four possible areas of impact:
- A system for certification — Records of achievement could be securely stored via blockchain. This could be expanded to include credit transfer and recognition of informal learning.
- Verification of validity — Users can automatically check the validity of certificates, without the need to contact the issuing organization that originally issued them.
- Ownership of data — Users could potentially gain increased ownership and control over their own data, which would reduce the data management costs for universities.
- Cryptocurrency payments — Institutions and individuals can use cryptocurrency payment methods, which could enhance grant or voucher-based funding models.
Similarly, Fagan (2018) reported on several university pilots and start-ups experimenting with blockchain approaches for credentialing and recognizing competency-based achievements, and the University of Bahrain announced that it was using blockchain to provide all students with a digital record of achievement (Galea-Pace, 2019).
Viewed in this way, blockchain could be seen as a means of bringing together several of the preceding technologies: e-portfolios, with the aim to provide an individual, portable record of educational achievement; digital badges, with the intention to recognize informal learning; MOOC and OER, with the desire to offer varied informal learning opportunities; and PLE and personalized learning, with the idea of focusing more on the individual than on an institution. A personal, secure, permanent, and portable ledger may well be the ring to bind all these together. However, examining the list of applications above, many of them could be realized with existing technology, such as a conventional database with personal encryption. As Orlowski (2018) bemoaned: “Any claim made for blockchain could be made for databases, or simply publishing contractual or transactional data gathered in another form” (para. 8).
In addition, the trumpeted security of blockchain comes at a huge environmental cost. As the ledger grows, so it is distributed across more and more computers, and these all need to be updated any time a transaction is completed. The energy consumption required for this is staggering, as Reed (2017) has claimed:
If Bitcoin’s network were a country, it would rank 60th in terms of global energy consumption, on par with the nation of Bulgaria. The energy used by a single Bitcoin transaction could power the average U.S. household for eight days. (para. 2)
More environmentally-friendly methods are proposed, such as deploying unused storage on hard drives (Jackson, 2018), but given the inherent energy demands in blockchain, it would seem a strange choice on which to base a global education ledger when we are seeking to reduce such consumption.
The history of the related technologies listed above should also be a warning for blockchain enthusiasts. With e-portfolios, for instance, even when there is a very clear and reasonable connection to educational practice, adoption can be slow, requiring many other components to fall into place. In 2018, even the relatively conservative and familiar educational technology of open textbooks is far from being broadly accepted. Therefore, attempting to convince educators that a complex technology might solve a problem they don’t think they have is unlikely to meet with widespread support.
If blockchain is to realize any success, it will need to work almost unnoticed; it will succeed only if people don’t know they’re using blockchain. Nevertheless, many who propose blockchain display a definite evangelist’s zeal; they desire its adoption as an end goal in itself, rather than as an appropriate solution to a specific problem. Many of the impacts suggested above have the air of looking for a problem that blockchain could solve, rather than existing problems for which the technology is the ideal solution. Offering students access to a digital record of achievement, for example, will become increasingly commonplace, and blockchain provides a means of realizing this. However, a trusted, encrypted database from a university would achieve much of the same. As with MOOC, what is evident in much of the blockchain hype is that rebranding fairly conventional offerings with the new term generates media coverage and provides an image of innovation. For example, existing online courses were rebranded as SPOC (small, private online courses) in an attempt to acquire some of the technological glow of MOOC.
Similarly, we will see fairly conventional database methods rebranded as blockchain initiatives. I received an email recently encouraging me to purchase the world’s first blockchain craft beer, which would allow me to track the source of all the ingredients. This could be easily realized previously (but no one thought it was particularly worthwhile), yet the lure of adding blockchain to the process somewhere was too great for this company. I can’t verify whether it enhanced the flavour of the beer, however, as I resisted the urge to buy.
Beyond this labelling, there is a tendency to promote blockchain as a magical solution for all manner of problems. For instance, the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, suggested it was the means to solve the potential border issue with Ireland in the event of the UK leaving the European Union, stating, “I don’t claim to be an expert on it but the most obvious technology is blockchain” (Cellan-Jones, 2018, para. 3). How blockchain would realize this and overcome the far larger social issues that would need to be resolved in order for the blockchain to be effective was not made clear. It was a mythical solution.
Maintaining this aura of magic is not accidental. Blockchain is after all a solution that will be sold by providers, and transparency and understanding are not always in their interest. In an analysis of 43 blockchain applications, Burg, Murphy, and Pétraud (2018) found “no documentation or evidence of the results blockchain was purported to have achieved” (para. 5). None of the providers offering solutions were willing to share data, results, or processes. The authors concluded that “despite all the hype about how blockchain will bring unheralded transparency to processes and operations in low-trust environments, the industry is itself opaque” (para. 6).
Blockchain can be seen as the latest instantiation of a recurring theme in ed tech, which can be termed “technology as alchemy.” The history of much of chemistry was plagued by the completely false notion of alchemy and the idea that base metals could be transmuted into gold. This dominated any experimentation in chemistry for centuries and reappeared in different cultures and at different times. The dogged pursuit of alchemy was characterized by the following:
Greed — Unlimited wealth awaited the successful alchemist.
Obfuscation — Alchemy persisted through rumour and secret formulas, adding to its allure. The process was never made public.
Magical lexicon — This obfuscation worked not only by being secretive but by creating a language that was difficult to penetrate.
Vagueness — Although the ultimate aim of producing gold was clear, it was accompanied by vagueness regarding other benefits, including immortality, spiritual awakening, and improved health.
Occasional side benefits — Almost inevitably given the time devoted to it, there was the occasional chemical breakthrough which occurred as a side benefit of alchemy, such as, the discovery of phosphorus.
Persistence despite results — Despite the obvious lack of success people persisted, and indeed this complete lack of success was only seen as a reason to continue. Succeeding where others had failed represented an irresistible challenge and some of the best minds in history (such as Isaac Newton) were involved in this fruitless pursuit.
While blockchain is not as nonsensical as alchemy, there are similarities with how it is sold and portrayed. Blockchain is by no means alone in employing an alchemic mindset in its promotion — proponents of AI, learning analytics, and automatic assessment could all be said to deploy similar tactics. From the perspective of blockchain, we can consider the similarities with my alchemy list:
Greed — The education market is estimated at $6 trillion annually and selling a universal solution across all providers that is linked to their most treasured asset (accreditation) would provide significant returns.
Obfuscation — It is frequently made obscure by commercial interests with black box algorithms. As the study above highlights, they report questionable results which are difficult to verify and do not share their data.
Magical lexicon — It has its own lexicon of algorithms, ledgers, and encryption that increasingly begins to look like magic to outsiders.
Vagueness — There is often a vagueness around improved efficiency, learner agency, lifelong learning, and so on. The four potential impacts suggested by Grech and Camilleri (2017) indicate some of these ill-defined possible benefits, such as improved efficiency in institutions’ data management systems.
Side benefits — Perhaps not accidentally, but amidst all the investment, it is likely there will be some practical advantages of blockchain, which will be over-reported. For instance, instant access to trusted digital certificates without the need to contact institutions will benefit refugees whose original paper certificates may have been lost or destroyed.
Persistence — Watters (2013b) has talked of “zombie ideas” in ed tech that just refuse to die. Automatic tuition and micro-credentialing are amongst these, and blockchain represents the latest technology to offer a solution for these ideas.
This is not to suggest that blockchain cannot be successfully implemented and possibly solve very specific issues that provide real benefits for learners. The objection here is to the overblown claims and the often-unspoken alchemical tradition that persists in ed tech, of which blockchain is merely the latest realization. The effective way to combat this is through openness (of data, algorithms, claims, and results), focusing on very specific problems to address (instead of grand revolutions) and bringing a critical perspective to any “magical” solutions.
As with alchemy, the danger is that there will be wasted time, effort, and money in the pursuit of an unattainable goal instead of focusing on smaller, achievable ones. Just as with alchemy, once experimenters stopped trying to produce gold, they went on to discover elements, invent medicines, and create all manner of new materials that could be used every day. As educational technologists, then, we should always be wary of any technology that has the whiff of alchemy about it, and the traits above provide a useful checklist against which to review any technological solution.