Decentralized schooling for the 21st Century: an Open Space Education proposal
“True progress lies in the direction of decentralization, both territorial and functional, in the development of the spirit of local and personal initiative, and of free federation of simple to the compound, in lieu of the present hierarchy from the centre to the periphery.” Peter Kropotkin
What is decentralization?
In general, the term decentralization applies to a decentralized approach to decision making or authority. A decentralized approach is one that places the power of decision making in the hands of people, communities, local organizations, and governments over a central governing authority.
What does decentralized education mean?
In referring to a decentralized approach to education, we are referring to a system that transfers power back to individual students, families, communities and local organizations. By using the same concepts that can be applied to decentralizing the internet, we can create peer-to-peer protocols for education. Some areas that could benefit from reducing the central authority include testing and evaluation methods, grading and growth tracking, curriculum standards, instructional models and delivery methods, administrative functions, and even the built environment.
Why is decentralizing education important?
Centralized education systems are less personal and adaptable to individual students. They are slow to adapt to innovation or the changing needs of students over time. Changes that do occur often require a great deal of effort, time, money and administrative oversight. Centralized systems of education have long been criticized in three main areas: finance, efficiency and effectiveness, and distribution of political power. (Winkler, 1989)
Allocation of resources by a central authority has often brought about inequities in education.
Efficiency and Effectiveness
Remote decision making is inherently inefficient and costly. It creates undue delay and unnecessary procedural hurdles. It discounts both the assets and needs of students, families, schools, and communities by creating a system that is removed from these stakeholders yet makes decisions regarding them.
Distribution of power
Ironically, centralization was created in part to reduce inequities in education, particularly in providing by right of law a free education for all. This right to education is viewed by some as a means of leveling the playing field among marginalized groups in societies. While this may be true to some degree in more modern times, historically, the colonialization of peoples and land has led to these groups being forced into education that strips them of their languages, religions, collective knowledge, cultures, and in many cases, their families and communities. While the atrocities of historical colonial education may not be as overt in modern times, the content and delivery methods of contemporary education systems can be just as oppressive to marginalized groups. In these centralized curriculums, history is ‘white-washed”, often in the name of nationalism and patriotism, designed to identify national actions in a positive light and to neglect to mention or to change details in the case of actions that could be construed in a negative light. Those histories which reveal the criminal, unethical and malicious actions often initiated or condoned by central governmental bodies are often disavowed or banned. Thus the very education that is meant to free oppressed peoples is further oppressing them.
Decentralization and blockchain in the 21st century
Decentralization is a buzzword these days in the tech and business industries. Not only is it a buzzword, but this concept of decentralization of power in information technology is being viewed by some as the next greatest innovation, perhaps as big as the advent of the internet itself.
To understand why decentralization is being touted as such an important innovation, it’s important to understand how the internet itself has evolved over time.
Initially, the internet brought about vast changes in access to information. Prior to the internet, publishing on paper was the only means of disseminating information quickly to the masses. The ability to publish was controlled by publishing companies, and access to published materials was controlled by economic and geographic factors. But the internet changed all of this, allowing anyone with a computer and the financial means to connect to vast stores of information published on the web.
The second movement of the internet brought about even more changes. The cost of computers and internet service came down, and changes were seen in faster and more widespread access to information. This next phase also brought about another important change: it greatly expanded who could publish information and share their knowledge with the world. In many ways, this Web 2.0 movement was seen as a leveling of the playing field in publishing, particularly for marginalized groups, who lacked the majority power and financial resources. However, with the increase in publishing ability also came a decrease in editorial oversight, fact-checking, and unbiased information sources.
The web 3.0 movement promises more personalization and faster access to information, as our search engines improve and adapt to public demand for fast and relevant content. This 3.0 phase is happening now and has been for some time. Free access to materials, open-source materials, and self-publishing platforms have also greatly expanded. We have witnessed crowdsourcing of data for scientific and social research and crowdsourcing of funds for businesses and startups. While anyone with access to the internet and a computer can publish information and anyone with access to the internet and a computer can now access that information, there still exists a level of control of that information and the dissemination of that information.
All information is housed on servers, and those servers are controlled by those who own them. This means that information is completely controlled by human beings and able to be altered at the whims of those who control it. For an example of how this kind of control can be dangerous, one needs to look no further than the recent scramble of scientists in the US to preserve scientific data on climate change that the new administration tried to delete from the server, and thus the record of history. Also, when it comes to records of information such as property ownership or education this information is controlled by central authorities such as governments or schools. Accessing the information or certifying a record requires intervention by a third party and often time and money on the part of the person who needs the information. Think of ordering a copy of a property deed or your transcript from your college or records of standardized tests.
But all of this is now changing.
Decentralization of the internet is the next phase, Web 4.0. Similar to the general definition, decentralizing the internet simply means putting power back into the hands of people, rather than in the hands of companies and central authorities such as governments or schools. This is possible because the blockchain ecosystem essentially spreads out transactions among many computer systems which are connected (via the chain) rather than having those transactions centrally located on a particular server.
What’s the main difference? Well, as mentioned above the current web is centralized, thus transactions and information is housed on a specific server and those servers are owned by private companies or government entities. The data is subject to the whims and capabilities of those entities, thus is hackable, alterable, and not truly secure. Not so with the blockchain. When data is run on a blockchain, since multiple computers are used to process the information or transaction, there is a record of that information across so many systems that it makes the information unalterable. If it were to be tampered with, the systems would recognize this and react immediately. This is what is known as a distributed ledger.
In order to record all transactions and to ensure that all the computers in the blockchain stay in sync, every transaction is distributed to every computer so that they all contain the same version of the information.
In order for the information to be verified, a majority of the computers or nodes in the chain must concur. This process is what is known as consensus. This process takes place in blocks or a list of transactions. Each block contains three sets of metadata:
- structured data about the transactions in the block
- the timestamp and data about the proof-of-work algorithm
- a reference to the parent block (or the previous block) via a hash or cryptographic algorithm
Thus the chain is created, consisting of the new information, time and date stamped, connected to the previous information. All of this data verification occurs through a process called “mining”. The computers which are part of the worldwide blockchain use their computing power to verify the information and to store it. When these processing blocks occur is designated by the particular blockchain.
What does this actually mean in terms of progress? It means that the internet of the future will truly belong to the people, and that we will be able to eliminate the middleman for many contractual transactions, such as land purchases and real estate deals, money transfers, stock purchases, and a host of other infrastructures which will benefit from peer-to-peer protocols and be able to do away with centralized authorities.
How could blockchain technology decentralize education?
There are many ways in which blockchain technology can help to decentralize education.
Record Keeping, credentials, transcripts
At it’s most basic core, the blockchain is just a ledger. It is a record of transactions. It’s not a ledger housed on a single server though, it’s housed on multiple servers, thus it’s a distributed ledger.
The concept of utilizing a ledger in education has been discussed previously by several groups. One, in particular, Edublocks, is an initiative that attempts to tie earning to learning in a unique way. The Institute for the Future (IFTE) recently organized a keynote on the topic, given by Jane McGonigal , a well-known game designer and writer and also an affiliate with IFTF. Describing the model as a ledger account that tracks everything in units called Edublocks, representing one hour of learning in any particular subject.
MIT is now exploring cryptographically-signed, verifiable certificates. There are also what are known as “teacherless” schools. Students engage in online work and receive a verified certificate without the intervention of a 3rd party such as a teacher.
Using a token economy to incentivize school work is not a new idea. Teachers have been using various reward systems such as gold stars, stickers, points, since the beginning of time. Most recently, with the development of systems like Badge OS, a WordPress based badge/ reward system, many online classes are offering badges for course completion. This is the new “gamified” school concept. By creating a game like atmosphere where students are rewarded with points, students can relate to schoolwork as they do video games, and, in theory, motivation to do well is increased.
So what would be different about a blockchain based reward system? For starters, those tokens that students are earning could actually have monetary value. Imagine if someone had paid you to complete quality school work? Talk about changing the game. Secondly, those rewards don’t have to be handed out by just faculty according to a class-specific rubric. Rewards could come through the delegation of peer votes (see below) as well as through successful solving of real-world problems posted by individuals, businesses, communities and even governments.
Steemit is a blockchain based social media platform that rewards both content creation and curation using peer to peer evaluation through the process of members upvoting content. A similar platform could be developed for evaluating student work through peer to peer interactions, which could replace the top-down teacher evaluations used in traditional school models. This same process could also be used to reward faculty who create valuable content for students, as voted on by students, thus eliminating the need for administrative oversight. This type of model would reward and incentivize both students and teachers to publish work (projects and online courses respectively), that is useful to the community and that is of the highest quality.
A centralized education system has traditionally brought about inequities in terms of access to information and resources. Many governments, particularly the US, collect money from citizens and then redistribute that money to schools in ways that are not equitable. Students in poor areas often receive fewer resources. Those in areas of wealth receive more resources. Student performance has been directly tied to resources. Privatization of schools often furthers the resources and performance gaps along wealth lines.
Decentralizing the finances of education is a huge task. But blockchain could provide a step in the right direction through a new economy for learning. The earning for learning concept developed by Edublocks could present new avenues for merit-based resource distribution. Funds could also be pulled from other sources such as individuals, employers, universities and communities that desire to buy into the learning economy for their own benefit.
Distribution of Power
Centralized education has been used to strip individuals of their languages, religions, history, communities, and families. Through a central authority that dictates learning topics and content, knowledge is controlled. Students are less likely to be taught how to learn or discern the veracity of sources than they are to be told exactly what to learn and why. Many books and topics of study important to marginalized groups are even banned if they do not agree with the central narrative.
Through a decentralized system in which content is not controlled, and students are rewarded for unique end products and individualism rather than conformity, autonomy in learning can be restored.
The Open Space Education approach to decentralized education
OSE is taking several approaches to decentralizing education:
- We do not work with any governing authority nor do we plan to seek approval, accreditation, or other quality assurance by an external body or centralized system.
- Student assessments are done through peer-to-peer interactions.
- Our learning community is built on an open-source platform. All of our code will soon be published on GITHUB.
- We plan to create a block-chain based application, with tokens that can be earned by students as they engage in learning opportunities and that can be utilized for purchasing further educational opportunities.