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Blockchain and Educational Credentials

In "Credentials, Reputation, and the Blockchain" by J. Philipp Schmidt, the use of blockchain in one educational context is examined. I first wrote about this blockchain synergy of technoloy and education earlier this year. This EDUCAUSE article looks at using blockchain and strong cryptography to create certifications and digital degrees with more control. Recipients can share a digital degree with an employer while providing trustworthy proof that the degree was in fact issued to the person presenting it. This raises interesting questions about the nature of recognizing and accrediting achievements.

                        Read the article at educause.edu/articles/2017/4/credentials-reputation-and-the-blockchain  

Blockchain on Campus

blockchainBlockchain is sometimes described as a secure public ledger. I wrote last year about blockchain and its possible uses on campus, but I have not seen evidence of its application on the campuses I have visited. Of course, it is possible it is being used behind the scenes since this is a technology that would not be evident to end-users.

I read an article about Oral Roberts University's recent conference intended to educate and persuade schools to learn about the technology,test it out and collaborate. Their CIO, Michael Mathews, believes blockchain will be as important to transforming education as the Internet was and early adopters will benefit the most.

The first blockchain was theorized by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 and applied the following year as a key component of the digital currency Bitcoin. That connection to the alternative currency that has a still unclear reputation may have influenced some to associate blockchain with had some negative of that rep rub off on it. In fact, it is a technology that adds levels of trust, authentication and recordkeeping. As a public ledger of transactions, it uses a peer-to-peer network (another idea that picked up a bad rep through pirating software and music) to build a decentralized, distributed database. (A more detailed definition here.) Block chain offers an unalterable (for now, at least), public record (that can be made only semi-public) of digital transactions.

Though financial transaction are blockchain's main uses, for a school, the immediate applications would likely be student application processing, transcript evaluations and articulation agreements. 

The conference program may be correct that blockchain is not only the future business model of supply chain, but may be applied to a large education value chain.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn

Is a Blockchain Coming to Campus?

blocks
updatedBlockchain is the backbone of Bitcoin. It's a technology that adds levels of trust, authentication and recordkeeping. I suspect many of you reading this have not heard about it. Those of you that have learned about it probably don't see an immediate connection to education. 
I see it defined as a public ledger of transactions. It is comprised of a peer-to-peer network, and a decentralized, distributed database. It requires a more complicated definition than I want to get into here but  that distributed database provides an unalterable, (semi-)public record of digital transactions. That is the part that makes Bitcoin work and it would obviously be very attractive to financial users. 
The "block" aggregates a time-stamped batch of transactions to be included in the chain/ledger. Each block has a cryptographic signature. These blocks are also all back-linked. They reference the signature of all the previous blocks in the chain. The claim is that the blockchain contains an uneditable record of all the transactions made.
Another author writing about the financial sector says that "Blockchains are new technology layers that rewire the Internet and threaten to side-step older legacy constructs and centrally served businesses. At its core, a blockchain injects trust into the network, cutting off some intermediaries from serving that function and creatively disrupting how they operate. Metaphorically, blockchains are the ultimate non-stop computers. Once launched, they never go down, and offer an incredible amount of resiliency, making them dependable and attractive for running a new generation of decentralized services and software applications."
Some education writers, like Audrey Watters, have connected it to education. The most obvious connections are in recordkeeping for courses, credits, tuition and personal information. Authenticating the individual and the learning is important, but imagine using it globally across many school and non-academic providers. This is digital badging but at a much more secure and sophisticated level. MIT Media Lab announced last year that it was developing software to issue digital certificates on the Bitcoin Blockchain. One developer of this technology for secure sharing of academic records is Sony Global Education.
This is not pedagogy. It won't change how you teach a course. It will change what happens to the students in your classes and so may change the kind of student you have in your classes.  
"Learning Is Earning" was presented by Jane McGonigal at SXSW 2016. She introduced "Edublocks” which would be units of hours of learning written to a blockchain and like Bitcoins can be used to pay for the next learning opportunity. Not all of us are enamored of the credit hour, but I like the authentication aspect. Mentor someone, get paid and use that to pay down your student loan. Acquire new skills and that goes on your learning chain.
Probably, we are going to see blockchain used in places like the financial and healthcare sector and even sharing economy businesses, like Airbnb, before it is in your school's administration offices.
For further reading, check out the book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Don also has a series of videos on blockchain online too.

updatedEDUCAUSE has published "The Blockchain Revolution and Higher Education" by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott (3/13/17)

"Why not be leaders for a new paradigm? The blockchain provides a rich, secure, and transparent platform on which to create a global network for higher learning. We believe that higher education works best when it works for all types of teaching and learning, and we believe that this new platform is an engine of inclusion. Let’s use the emerging Internet of value and the blockchain revolution to recapture our identities and endow them with our detailed and real-time records of learning. Perhaps then we can finally reinvent the past model of pedagogy and transform the architecture of higher education for the future generation of lifelong learners."

Education and the Gig Economy

gigI mentioned the Gig Economy to a colleague at a college last week and he said he had never heard of the term. I said that "gig" is a term I associate with musicians who move from job to job, gig to gig. Now, it is being applied to a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. "But it has nothing to do with education," he commented. That got me thinking. Is it affecting education?

A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. Most discussions of the gig economy talk about job sharing apps like Uber, Instacart and TaskRabbit. There has long been short term, contract and freelance work being done in the labor market. But the type that is being done by college graduates is said to have grown by more than 50% over the last decade.

Jeff Selingo referenced studies that contend that all the net job growth since the Great Recession has been in the gig or contract economy, and that 47% of college-age students did some sort of freelancing work last year, along with 43% of millennials.

My first thought about gig work in higher education is adjuncts. With more and more adjuncts (and fewer full-time faculty) being used in colleges, many adjuncts put together gigs at several schools. If teaching is your only job, that means trying to get three or more classes per semester fall, spring and summer.

I pulled some books off the bookstore shelf this past weekend and looked at what is being written about The Future Workplace ExperienceThe Gig Economy and Thriving in the Gig Economy are examples. 

They talk about dealing with disruption in recruiting and engaging employees A lot of the popular of the media focus is on the low end of the skill spectrum. Less attention is given to college grads and professionals who have chosen this independent employment route.

I found so many different stats on the size of this gig workforce that I hesitate to link to a source. One book says more than a third of Americans are working in the gig economy. That seems high by my own circle of friends and colleagues, but this includes short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments 

I am now officially in retirement - or unretirement as I prefer to say. I have written elsewhere about unretirement and freelance work which is part of the gig economy. I take on teaching, web and instructional design gigs on a very selective basis. I choose things that interest me and allow me the freedom to work when I want to work and from where I want to work.  Sometimes the work comes from traditional places. I did a 6-month gig with a nearby community college that I had worked at full-time in the past. I have two new web clients for whom I am designing sites and e-commerce stores.

But let's return to what this might have to do with education. Higher education as preparation for a job has always been a topic of debate. "It's not job training," is what many professors would say. Employers have always played a large role in the training and professional development of their workers whether they have degrees or not.

In a gig economy, freelancers have to be self-directed in their learning. They need to decide what knowledge they’re missing, where to acquire it, how to fit it in to their day and how to pay for it. The free (as in MOOC and other online opportunities) is very appealing. Do schools that charge tuition and have traditional classes have any appeal to these people?

Certainly, driving for Uber doesn't require a degree, though having some business training in order to be self-employed would be beneficial. But my interest is more with "professional" freelancers. Take as an example, someone who has some college, certification or preferably a degree, that makes them able to promote themselves as an instructional designer or social media manager. I choose those two because I have done both as a freelancer and I know that if I look right now on a jobs site such as Glassdoor I will find hundreds of opportunities for those two areas locally.

Businesses and colleges save resources in terms of benefits, office space and training by employing these people. They also have the ability to contract with experts for specific projects who might be too high-priced to maintain on staff.

For some freelancers I know, a gig economy appeals because it offers them more control over their work-life balance. In that case, they are selecting jobs that they're interested in, rather than entering the gig economy because they are unable to attain employment, and so pick up whatever temporary gigs they can land. The latter is often the case with adjunct faculty. 

To someone mixing together short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments, where would they go to find additional professional development?

Books like The Gig Economy - with its appealing subtitle offer of being "The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want" - is more interested in real-world corporate examples (Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Etsy, TaskRabbit, France's BlaBlaCar, China's Didi Kuaidi, and India's Ola) as crowd-based capitalism.

The freelancer may not be much concerned with emerging blockchain technologies, but she is certainly part of the changing future of work.

The future is always a land of questions: Will we live in a world of empowered entrepreneurs who enjoy professional flexibility and independence? Will these gig economy workers become disenfranchised, laborers jumping from gig to gig, always looking for work and paying heir own health benefits? How will this affect labor unions, self-regulatory organizations, labor law, and a new generation of retirees who have a more limited social safety net? Are long-term careers at one or two companies a thing of the past?

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, said, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine. My kids will have six at the same time.”

The one thing all observers seem to agree on is that the way we work is changing.

Jennifer Lachs writes on opencolleges.edu.au about that changing working world and the possible impact it may have on education. I hadn't thought of it as a gig economy job but of course substitute teachers in K-12 education have long been employed on a freelance basis. The education and training industry is among the top 5 highest demand industries for freelance workers due to the high level of specialization and rise of virtual education.

I know of a dozen or so teachers who do online teaching and tutoring as a way to supplement their income. For decades, professors have done freelance writing and thesis editing and much of that has moved online. My wife and I are currently editing a dissertation via email and shared files along with the occasional phone conference.

The writing center I helped build at a community college has relied on online tutoring for student writing as a way to supplement the face-to-face tutoring. Online appealed to students, but it also offered additional work for some of out part-time tutors and others who added it to the gig list.

Are we preparing students for the gig economy once they graduate? No. 

A friend pointed me at "It’s a Project-Based World" which was a thought leadership campaign by Getting Smart to explore the economic realities of a project-based world. The purpose of the campaign: to promote equity and access to deeper learning outcomes for all students. There are blog posts, podcast interviews, publications, and infographics around the preparation of students, teachers and leaders for a project-based world. The focus there seems to be less on obtaining deeper knowledge, and more on teaching skills that students will need in the modern working world.

Finally, I think that the gig economy will have a greater impact on traditional education than traditional education will have on the gig economy. It accounts for employment growth statistics, but secondary or post-secondary schools don't prepare students for this type of work.