Decentralising Education in Paradise

Rain, temples, lush jungle and undereducated workers are the staples of Bali in general and Ubud in particular. From taxi drivers to waiting staff to construction workers (mostly women, from what we have seen).

Like many developing countries education is reserved for those who can pay. Here, a Travel and Tourism course costs 30 million Rupiah a year. For five years. And this course just gets you through the door in the hospitality game; it doesn’t elevate one to management or supervisory positions.

Those who are born into families in and around the poverty line are in danger of missing out on higher education altogether unless their folks can scrimp and save to afford the exorbitant university fees. Even then, it’s usually one child who is sent into higher education at the expense of the others.

What options are there if you are young and fall by the wayside, academically speaking? The options are universal, manual work such as driving, construction or low-level service roles in restaurants and bars. One of the taxi drivers mentioned that knowing the right person is the key to driving a better van or car – networking is the key to elevation the world over.

Of course, taxi drivers are slaves to the commission structure imposed by their company’s boss at any given time. But this is a story for another time, probably.

Now to the blockchain aka the technological Jesus that will save us all. I’m not a complete sceptic (I work for a blockchain company, after all) but, like many, I am waiting for the killer app, the sliver of sunlight on the horizon heralding the coming of a new trustless technological dawn.

What is interesting, to me, is the idea of localising and placing education on a decentralised platform, thus disintermediating the path of longest trust and breaking down walled gardens so that higher education becomes accessible to everyone.

This is not a new idea in the blockchain space since there are a bunch of companies that are looking to solve this problem. Odem is one that springs to mind. The main benefits of such a platform are:

  • The removal of a central academic authority – education is placed in the hands of the platform’s contributors. Courses and educators are validated via the platform’s consensus mechanism. Student attendance and course submissions are also validated in the same way. It is completely trustless – education is democratised.
  • The cost of educating oneself should be lower than traditional university courses – more on this below.
  • An immutable record of academic performance. Exam and coursework grades  (and degree certificates) are stored on the blockchain as an immutable record. The blockchain could also store one’s performance in extra-curricular activities. The student is in control of this data and can distribute it to prospective employers who, in turn, can trust the veracity of the information received.

Going back to point 2, above. I understand that cryptocurrency-based platforms such as Odem need to incentivise “honest” activity (and educators need to get paid) but there is still a cost incurred by the prospective student. In volatile crypto-currency markets, the cost of a series of courses is at the mercy of market sentiment and for those in developing countries, this is may not change the status quo. Call me an idealist, but education should be free and a meritocracy. If you’re good enough to study a course then that course should be free.

Another barrier is the academic reputation of a blockchain education platform. Oxbridge, MIT, Harvard – these venerable institutions are vied over by students the world over and they not only provide world-class education but the network that one builds is the real benefit of studying at these universities. To me, this idea of reputation is probably the biggest hurdle that a new blockchain platform has to overcome – credibility in front of future employers is key. As we see in the world of MOOCs, things are changing, with universities creating courses that are delivered completely online for the fraction of the cost. But, we are yet to see a full Oxford University MBA (for example) delivered using the MOOC – or similar – methodology.

So, back to Bali. I believe that a decentralised blockchain platform that is backed by a number of venerable academic institutions, where educators are incentivised to create world-class content and students are incentivised (to learn) by the reputation and quality of the degree offered, could work.

Any takers?

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