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MSPnet Blog: “Blockchains, ledgers, and the engineering of education”

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posted August 22, 2016 – by Brian Drayton

Some of my favorite edublogs are exploring different aspects of a new fad in educational policy and engineering.  It has a lot of different names, but perhaps the most general “container” for the various components is “personalization.” (I’ve had my eye on this for some time, and written about it in this space, as Constant Readers will know.)

I say it’s a “fad,” but it may well be more than that, because “it” is being advocated by a lot of influential people and institutions.   (I say “it,” but its name is Legion, because of the various bits being developed or favored by different champions. Only from certain vantage points can one see how all the different pieces fit together.  Synergy is, for once, an appropriate term here.)

Key terms include “anytime-anywhere learning” (and its variants), competency-based education (the 2016 version), along with “competencies and skills,”  “micro-credentialing” and “badges” (as in Hillary Clinton’s proposed College Compact, which seeks to incorporate ” badges, specializations, certificates, or Nanodegrees” into the education-funding universe.)

The promise is that you can build up a record of educational attainments independent of any “traditional” educational institution, whose value is warranted by some version of the (admittedly decrepit and unsatisfactory) accreditation process.  “Life-long learning,” coupled with the (as they claim) unprecedented new freedom we now have to learn on our own time, logically “demand” that society develop new ways to get credit for all that learning, in ways that can be used to increase your value in the market.

The rationale for this includes [1] accepting the “hell in a hand basket” view of education; [2] buying into the ideology of the market, and [3] the claims about the “new economy,” 21st century skills, etc.;  [4] equating “knowledge” with “information”, and the tendency to an analytical atomization of “what you need to know and be able to do” which is (unintentionally, for the most part, I think) encouraged by the latest round of standards;  [5] buying into the vision of “gig economy,” everyone-an-entrepreneur, and other fashions which build on the view of people first and foremost as economic atoms whose mobility and transposability is a key virtue for the New Economy.

There is a variety of implementations for this general approach (theorized or actualized), but as the deep thinkers confront the issues of quality assurance, and the development of portfolios or other records of one’s life-long nano-accomplishments, a lot of attention has been focused on the “blockchain” technology underlying “cyber currencies” like Bitcoin.  With the blockchain, personal data (including “assets” like “badges” or “nano-accomplishments” become part of a distributed, permanent, unalterable record.  The benefit is that it can (at least) serve as an always accessible “portfolio” (anytime, anywhere!);  but there remain important issues of privacy and property rights — whose data is it, anyway?  Audrey Watters, at HackEducation, has a very valuable primer on the technology and various proposals for its use in education.

One vision, which is being touted by the ACT Foundation (a foundation that is a spin-off of the testing agency) is “the Ledger,” whose key theme seems to be “learning is earning.”  Peter Greene, of, has a thorough and, well, critical review of a video which seems to be designed to build awareness of, and a market for, this particular blockchain project.  If you follow the links, you quickly get a sense of how broad the coalition is that is trying to create this future for education;  as far as I can tell, it represents a new (another) version of business-based education design, intended (to quote the “National Network” website) to “connect what America learns to how Americans work”  through a competency- and skills-based approach to education and learning.

In a related post (the latest of many on this topic), Emily Talmage asks, “Will public education survive the next administration?”  She points out that the new ESSA act includes provisions that open the door to a wide range of “alternative credentialing,” of the sort envisioned by ACT Foundation and other blockchainers:

The new system is designed to expand the education market by allowing out-of-district providers – including  online programs, non-profits, local businesses, and even corporations- to award credit for student learning.  At the same time, it doubles down on workforce development by aligning educational outcomes to the needs of industry leaders.According to the U.S. Department of Education, students will “no longer [be] tethered to school buildings or schedules.” Instead, the system will require students to earn “digital badges” that they will display in individual competency-profiles accessible to potential employers and investors.

Groups like the Gates Foundation, Mark Zuckerberg,  and other mega-philanthropist education players, organizations like KnowledgeWorks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), not to mention “education industry” players like the publisher (or whatever it is) Pearson Education, are getting very excited about this general approach.  Talmage quotes from a Pearson publication:

“By collecting skill-based badges, the record of achievement begun in secondary school becomes the foundation upon which workers build their capabilities and tell their stories to employers,” …. Pearson Education.

Following up on this, to track all the voices singing in this choir, you’re not just going down a rabbit hole — it’s entering a whole warren, whose inmates are ramifying interconnecting tunnels so as to reach further and further beneath the educational landscape.  Dissatisfaction with institutions of all kinds, and schools in particular;  the denigration of teaching as a skilled profession;  the increasing acceptance of education as essentially an economic enterprise, and the drive to incorporate ever more technological sophistication for command, control, and monitoring, under the guise of “choice,” “freedom,” and “personalization, all are converging on this model of the future of education.

Of course, the policy dialectic is still in motion, and other, competing,  visions are out there as well, but there is much to learn about educational values and framing in our society, and the machinery by which new policy is incubated and propagated,  by a few hours’ ferreting through the personalization labyrinth.

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merit badges for bits of knowledge and maybe understanding

posted by: Amy Cohen on 8/23/2016 11:37 am

I once earned a Girl Scout merit badge for being able to recognize trees by the shapes of their leaves, the patterns of their bark, and the shape of their branches. I can no longer do this. But my merit badge is a permanent "mini-credential".

In many decades of college teaching, I have met many students whose I idea of learning is passing a "unit test" on a 3 to 6 week run of material. They seem unaware that they might be called on to use that learning later in their education. "But we had a test on that! Why should I think about it now?" If this is what employers in the US or world economy will be satisfied with, we are in for a hard time.

If Pearson can market test-prep materials for "badges" and then market review materials, why would they want their initial instructional materials to be successful in helping kids achieve a life-long mastery or even a life-long partial understanding?

Happy Tuesday
Amy Cohen

merit badges and the purpose of schools

posted by: Joanne Olson on 8/24/2016 12:07 pm

Agreed. When I begin discussions with graduate students and prospective teachers about our goals, but insist that we address the purposes of school first, they look at me like I'm wasting their time. These educators and the public alike struggle to clearly articulate why we have schools, and in this void, publishers/business and "reformers" have filled the space with an agenda of economic utility and simplistic job preparation.

I recommend reading the January 2016 issue of Fortune magazine, where the business community is quite explicit in describing their involvement in trying to steer education toward their interests.

The Girl Scout badge is a great example. I have a young relative who announces each at the end of each term on social media, "Semester, thou art vanquished." And that's really all it is--just jump the hurdle and put it behind. I'm now very careful in using the term "schooling" rather than "education" unless I'm confident that education is actually the appropriate term in that instance.

Business stakeholders

posted by: Brian Drayton on 8/25/2016 2:12 pm

First of all, thanks for the "Semester, thou art vanquished" line -- it will come in handy!
More substantively -- I tried to find the Forbes article you referenced on-line but their website is confusing. Can you send the title of the piece you were referring to, or even a link to it if possible?
The business-based people who think about education tend to be better than some other people are at formulating their vision for education. This is only a problem when other stakeholders don't offer their alternatives as clearly formulated. As has been pointed out many times, Americans have a fondness for business, and are likely to accept the idea that business people are "more competent" and realistic than other players in our system. Alas, the debate is only partly about evidence, but more about framing and cultural constructs.

Business stakeholders

posted by: Joanne Olson on 8/29/2016 1:55 pm

You're welcome! The article is in Fortune, not Forbes. The January 2016 issue. Others are discussing the contents, and I found one commentary here: r-that-shows-how-big-business-pushed-common-core/

I'm trying to get a copy of the initial article, which is stunning in the arrogance conveyed about who schools are meant to serve. I highly recommend reading the original article. I've ordered a back issue, and it hasn't yet arrived.

Business stakeholders

posted by: Howard Dooley on 8/30/2016 9:02 am

Are we referring to Elkind's "Business Gets Schooled"? If so, it is available on line at

common core aspirations vs high stakes tests

posted by: Amy Cohen on 8/30/2016 10:53 am

The US has a fairly mobile population - at least geographically. Corporations move their mid and high-level employees around the country. it is reasonable that they - and parents too - should not want kids to miss some topics or study others twice because different school districts teach different topics in different years. It is also reasonable that parents and local employers should want kids to have a deep enough understanding of the math they study in school to choose appropriate mathematical methods to solve unfamiliar problems "on the job". These were two of the main reasons that the common core state standards were written and initially adopted.

Shortly later various private enterprises saw a marketing opportunity to lobby state and federal governments to pay out lots of money for proficiency tests.

The public should be careful to distinguish testing schemes from learning trajectories about what kids should learn when.

States and parents have repeatedly discovered this when they try to set new standards to replace the CCSS-M.

Much of the trouble came from rolling out the standards without careful construction of a curriculum and careful vetting of books that publishers claimed were aligned with the standards and rushed adoption of tests and testing schemes which turn out not to work well.

Any marksman knows that you can't hit the bullseye if you don't aim at it. Let's try to focus our complaints and our demands with care.

A couple of other links relevant here

posted by: Brian Drayton on 9/13/2016 3:00 pm

First, from Emily Talmage, about the "sales pitches" that often accompany "competency-based education" (CBE) or "personalized education" advocacy:

and another blogger links CBE to some strategies linked to the Common Core: -the-culmination-of-the-common-core-agenda/

and Nancy Bailey's post from January about "CBE online": nor-higher-order-thinking/