Monday, September 19, 2016

Why I got married on Blockchain and paid by Bitcoin

I got remarried on Blockchain this year. Seriously, in Edinburgh, I opened a Bitcoin account and we both entered our details via two iPhones onto a blockchain system and renewed our vows. Why not? When I got married in that same city, 34 years ago, we signed a document and that document lies somewhere in Edinburgh – to be honest I couldn’t tell you where. We were doing the same thing but getting it confirmed by a piece of technology that is arguably more transparent, safe and tamperproof. This piece of tech was provided by my alma mater, the University of Edinburgh. I was determined to learn abut this stuff by doing something. So what role has academia had in Bitcoin and Blockchain?
Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
Let’s go back to 2008 and the first appearance of Bitcoin and Blochchain. Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? This has become a modern myth, like the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti or Bigfoot. There have been lots of candidates, one disastrous false claim, lots of denials and a recent false claim. We don’t know. We don’t even know if it is one person. What we do know is that Satoshi Nakamoto published one of the seminal papers in computer science Bitcoin: A Peer-to-peer Personalised Electronic Cash System at the very time that the world’s financial system was on the brink of meltdown.
He has good reason to remain anonymous, as he, or she or they, had created a dangerous piece of technology that threatens to reshape, not only the world’s banking system, but the way government and many other areas of human endeavour operate. Satoshi disappeared just as the US government, the CIA and the FBI, even the department of Homeland Security, were becoming active around Bitcoin. It was clear that they saw it as a potential threat to the dollar and existing banking system, as well as a system that could be used for money laundering and drug sales (they weren’t wrong and closed down Silk Road some time later). When Wikipedia became the target of US agencies, who used Visa, Mastercard and PayPal (disgracefully) to starve it of funds, Bitcoin was associated with Wikipedia, but Satoshi Nakamoto did not want to become another Julian Assange and went to ground.
Academia’s reaction
Academia was slow to react. This was clearly an astonishing technical achievement and serious figures in the computer world agreed that it could be a game changer, some claimed it could be as great a shift as the invention of the internet itself, certainly a major advance. Yet they were nervous of its disruptive and transgressive nature. The main players were not academics but hardcore coders and hackers, often with strong libertarian views. They weren’t fond of institutional values and inertia.
Nakamoto’s astonishing nine-page paper was not published in an academic journal but part of a community of coders and hackers, where the real action was on Reddit and Sourceforge. These are people who comment quickly, contribute and do things. They quickly went on to create exchanges, wallets and dozens of applications in the Bitcoin ecosystem. The players lie largely outside of institutions and prefer the world of doing and action, rather than research and papers.
As things progressed, however, academia started to take an interest. So where is the activity on Bitcoin and Blockchain? There’s a curious dynamic here. Bitcoin and Blockchain were created to decentralise and disintermediate institutions, so why keep it locked up within institutions? And if you offer courses can learners pay in Bitcoin? Should they be decentralised and free MOOCs or MOOC-like? Should the qualifications be on Blockchain?
There seems to be four approaches to Bitcoin and Blockchain, in terms of academic activity. First, the technical stuff around cryptocurrencies and the design and coding of Blockchain. Second, courses and research on the governance, social and policy issues. Third, the practical applications, in different domains. Fourth, the actual use of Bitcoin and Blockchain to deliver education. So who is doing the interesting stuff?
Academic offers
Joichi Iti, college drop-out and Director of the MIT Media Lab (where else could that happen), was first to do something substantial. He saw a role for academia to provide research and stability. In a bold move MIT had already offered 4500 students $100 in Bitcoin. 3110 took up the offer but 40% traded it for cash (so much for their appetite for innovation). Two years later about 14% are using it in anger, the rest holding it as an investment. This, perhaps, says more about the modern student than Bitcoin or Blockchain. Iti wanted something more substantial and set up The Digital Currency Initiative (DCI) with some serious developers and an ex-White House advisor. Interestingly, he sees this as a way of opening up Higher Education to successful entrepreneurs like himself, making it more agile. In his own words “It’s an opportunity to pilot the future of academia.”
Simon Fraser University in Canada has been doing some edgy stuff, as have many other research departments around the world. Courses in business schools have become common, with appropriate price tags for corporate customers, not perhaps entirely in the spirit of the exercise.
There’s even a free textbook on Bitcoin from Princeton, which is both readable and informative. Although, for the less technically minded I’d recommend Dominic Frisby’s Bitcoin: The Future of Money, which is an excellent introduction to the topic. Blockchain Revolution, by the Tapscotts, is a thorough introduction to Blockchain.
MOOCs
One University that offered something substantial was in 2013, when the University of Nicosia, who offer a MSc in Digital Currency, started to deliver courses on Bitcoin but also accepted Bitcoin for tuition fees. Andreas Antonopoulos and Antonis Polemitis also launched the first free MOOC in the area - An Introduction to Digital Currencies. In the true spirit of the thing, you got your certificate on Blockchain.
The University of Cumbria offer a MOOC on Money and Society and you can pay with Bitcoin. Princeton has a Coursera MOOC on Cryptocurrencyand Blockchain. There’s a French MOOC on Blockchain itself and Bitcoin and Blockchain increasingly appear on more general Fintech courses and tech-oriented MOOCs.
EdTech
In our own EdTech world, Audrey Watters has taken a keen interest with her Blockchain for Education: A Research Project. She’s rightly taking neither a hyped nor skeptical approach, simply asking some key questions.
Future
In this age of concern about finance and banking, advances in cryptocurrencies, along with a general trend towards things being decentralised, open, transparent, yet secure, has led to intense interest in Bitcoin and Blockchain. There is a sense in which institutional research and teaching can emasculate a technical movement and Bitcoin/Blockchain started outside of academia and certainly does not rely on academia for its progress. However, it has rightly become a topic of interest in research, formal courses, MOOCs and books. That is a good thing as the Wild West world of Bitcoin could do with some sheriffs. Whether it has any impact on the actual delivery of education remains to be seen.
But there are others, such as academic, Melanie Swan, who set up the Institute for Blockchain Studies, who think that “academia is not the right place to do academic thinking about very new things like the blockchain”. This is a fast moving world where the speed of academic publishing is too slow.  Her vision is one where students are paired with courses, accredited or even more relevantly, she thinks – MOOCs. The decentralised MOOCs could benefit from blockchain functionality around identity, actual attainment, accreditation, cost and payment. Going further she sees the possibility of directing donor funds to poorer countries, straight to families and learners, at little or no cost, based on progress and attainment.
It's an interesting clash between one world and another. Education does;t cope with change very readily, certainly not the rapid rate of technological change that we've seen over the last 20 years. On the other hand technology doesn't often see the nuances in education, and is often too quick to prosthelytise solutions. In a series of blogs, I plan to explore Bitcoin and Blockchain further. The first is here 10 ways blockchain can be used in education. If you're interested, I'm giving a talk on the subject in Berlin at Online Educa in November.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Brian Mulligan said...

“academia is not the right place to do academic thinking about very new things like the blockchain” -unfortunately the same might even be said about EdTech. I stepped back from Badges because I thought they were developing too slowly and am glad I did as I think that Blockchain may be more fruitful. However, I still think I'll wait until some tangible products and services emerge (for course and skills certification). Any guesses on when that might be?

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