Blockchain could drag higher education out of antiquity
Since the first compulsory classrooms of the 19th century, the education system has undergone little change. The use of 3D printing, advanced robotics and AI has brought new technological understanding to classroom environments, but there are still many issues with how formal learning facilities are run. In particular, universities have faced backlash from both staff and students over exploitation and high tuition fees. Now, a team of academics based mainly at Oxford University have proposed a pioneering concept that aims to remedy administrative complexities – a university powered by blockchain.
The benefits of blockchain
In 2016, Dr Joshua Broggi and a group of academics from Oxford, Cambridge, Geissen and St. Edwards began discussing the creation of an online university with full degree granting powers in the EU. At the beginning of April, they published a paper entitled ‘Woolf: Building The First Blockchain University’. It provided the reasoning for Woolf University (named after the English author Virginia Woolf), which would leverage blockchain to form a permissionless system for cross border, educational activity.
Broggi, who founded Woolf Development to build the university and launch the network, was initially inspired to think about blockchain’s potential by one of his students, who wanted to bypass traditional administration and pay in cryptocurrency. After studying some of the protocols, Broggi concluded that the decentralised technology could solve a number of the issues associated with higher education. One of the major concerns is the prominence of adjunct teaching.
“Adjunct teaching represents roughly 50 per cent of the university teaching that goes on in America. It may be half time for three to four months, followed by another contract issued for full time for two months, followed by a contract for half time for two months, and then a long gap, and so on. When I look around my faculty, they spend a significant portion of their time acquiring their next temporary position, and that’s really a wasteful use of these extremely talented peoples’ time. I view that as a cost that runs right through society, because they could be researching or teaching students instead.”
By creating a borderless, digital educational society, Woolf aims to help teachers to find more security in their professions. At the same time, students are provided with an ‘Airbnb for degree courses’. Through contractual security enabled by the blockchain, each party would be accountable for their contributions and bypass lengthy administration.
“We’re using a blockchain to help secure future teaching in order to provide predictable employment,” says Broggi. “We’re creating a global talent pool of students and a global talent pool of teachers, and we’re helping them to connect in a regulated, accredited system.”
What’s blocking the way?
The growth of a digitally run university doesn’t come without its problems. Even the idea of pursuing a ‘startup approach’ to education has led to concern.
“There is a negative way of portraying this, which would be to say something like, ‘It’s Uberising faculties and making them highly insecure.’ But if you’re actually a faculty member in a real university, you recognise that student recruitment is a permanent problem. You’re always in a semi-precarious position. So what you have are benefits of scale, where you can teach an alternative class based on student numbers.”
There are also jurisdictional differences – what it means to be a ‘university’ or to be ‘accredited’ varies depending on which jurisdiction an area falls under. Because of this, Woolf University is working to gain accreditation in two separate jurisdictions. This means applying one strategy for most of the world, and a separate one for Spanish speaking regions. Geographic differences will also affect tuition fees. As an aspiring global university, it won’t be as simple as stamping each degree with a £9,000 annual price tag. The challenge is to coordinate global salaries with tuition fees… Luckily, this will be enabled by blockchain’s interoperability.
Future proofing the university
Demand for university places remains high, which has placed strain on the existing structure of these institutions. In order to provide wider access and communications, as well as finding the best staff members, they need to become what Broggi calls ‘geographically agnostic’. In other words, they need to have a global outlook. Amongst all this talk of formal learning, it makes sense to point to the popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These short term, digital qualifications hone in on specific topics, teaching students via prerecorded videos and online assignments. Far from competing with this style of education, Broggi says there is scope for collaboration between MOOC providers and Woolf University. Now that so many forms of learning are available, a combination of techniques will help to carry universities through digital disruption and equip students for a rapidly changing world. This includes ‘micro courses’, which teach specific skills in a short period of time. But first of all, says Broggi, students need to learn how to think.
“The style of education we’re trying to produce concentrates on learning how to think and how make sound judgements in face of increasing data flows,” he says. “One strategy for handling the changing employment landscape is to say that universities are passé, that we should abandon higher education, and that everyone should just take reactionary micro courses in response to changing employment demands. But the problem with any strategy that abandons universities, is that it fails to develop the underlying skills of judgment, reasoning, and intellectual creativity.”
Woolf could eventually help traditional universities to reduce their administrative burden, which in turn will reduce costs. In theory, teachers would receive higher salaries while tuition fees fell. But when will Woolf University be ready to let students through its digital doors? Broggi explains that it will be set up in stages. The first phase will involve opening the first college, Ambrose, and applying for government accreditation. Then, if all goes to plan, Woolf will begin to open the next four colleges. Members of each college require research doctorates from the top 200 universities in the world, which acts as a strong quality filter. Following this, more colleges will be opened and the university will grow. Currently, Broggi is negotiating with different countries and their respective regulatory bodies. Malta, which is a hub for blockchain applications for education, has provided an initial focus point. In the UK, things are not so straight forward.
“The amount of red tape involved is enormous. In some respects, we’re like a FinTech company, walking into the banking system and saying, look, there’s been a lot of stuff accumulating around existing processes and we can reengineer them to be a lot more beneficial to people. The trouble with the UK right now is that the regulatory body is currently undergoing a change, and it’s not yet clear what the guidelines will be.”
Regulatory uncertainty aside, Woolf University could be instrumental in bringing about the change that education desperately needs. By applying blockchain to education, the academics behind Woolf are using innovative technology to reimagine how legacy education systems work. In theory, this will bring both economic and social benefits, and smooth out friction points for students and teachers alike. In short, blockchain’s ability to transcend boundaries is hoped to future proof the university and build a higher educational structure that goes beyond bricks and mortar roadblocks.
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