Thursday, June 21, 2018

Blockchain – got married on it but fell out of love with it….

Way back, in 2001, I built a decentralised P2P learning system. Long story but it eventually produced a successful company, Learning Pool (I’m still involved), albeit after a pivot into more mainstream technology. This eventually led to an early interest in Blockchain when it first appeared. I gave talks on Blockchain, even got remarried on Blockchain. But I’ve come round to see it not so much a solution to problems but a solution looking for a problem. Having read tons on the subject and got far too interested in Satoshi NakamotoI saw yet another a presentation this week touting it as the next big thing in learning, and gave it a rethink. Nothing wrong with changing your mind on something. Here's my thoughts...
1. Extremes of capitalism
You can’t go all ‘activist’ on me and blame the man, then use Bitcoin (therefor Blockchain). All you’re doing is playing around in the extremes of capitalism – the really bad bit, where capital is hidden, secret and not subject to tax. I said two years ago that the Wild West world of Bitcoin could do with some Sheriffs. I'm now of the opinion that it needs to be closed down.
2. Scams
Serious problems have emerged with the technology. Bitcoin looks increasingly like a money laundering scam, wracked with hacks, fraud, theft, ransoms and Ponzi schemes. The hackless future that was promised turned out to be a bit of a dystopian Westworld. This should worry those who want it used in the public sector.
3. Security
Another problem with many of the proprietary solutions is not Blockchain but the security layer. It has been noted that many of these are just Blockchain distributed databases with all the front-end security vulnerabilities of older systems.
4. Control
Sure Blockchain was created to democratise, decentralise and disintermediate institutions, so why keep it locked up within institutions? Much of the interest I now see is from traditional purveyors trying to lock down the technology for their own ends. A private Blockchain isn’t really a decentralised Blockchain, in that it is 100% owned. It’s basically a transaction ledger for interested parties, not the democratising, decentralising, deintermediating force many imagined. 
5. Environmentally disastrous
Bitcoin, for example, need an enormous amount of processing power for permissions. This is huge – estimated to be the equivalent of the energy needs of 159 countries. To be fair this is a Bitcoin problem, not Blockchain, but it is a PR issue, as Bitcoin may take the whole thing down, casting a big shadow over the whole Blockchain industry.
6. Credentialism
But the main problem is that Blockchain in learning simply reinforces runaway credentialism. Bryan Caplan’s book shows that Higher Education has expanded on the back of ‘signalling’. This has resulted in credential inflation, where more and more young people stay at college for longer and longer, just to get the inflated paper they need for a job. If Blockchain simply makes credentialism easier, then forget it. Ah, I hear you say, but it’s really about micro-credentialism. That’s fine but I also think that this has had its day. The badges movement has run out of steam, as they turned out to be motivationally suspect, lack objectivity and therefore credibility, as well as the awful branding. It has flopped.
7. Complexity
Lastly, it is just too complex an idea to sell, and education is a notoriously slow learner. Education and training also struggles to cope with innovative technology. Its infrastructure is largely old LMS technology and flat HTML delivery. Anyone investing on Blockchain in education will have to be in for the long haul and I mean a very long haul.
Conclusion
I'm not saying that Blockchain has no role to play in the world, only that it doesn't, as yet. seem to have a clear role in education and training. If it solves problems in Microfinance or in healthcare, fine. Blockchain is basically a transaction ledger and learning is not primarily about transactions. Not only is there no real problem to be solved in learning, it may just exacerbate over-credentialing. Sure there’s lots of projects around, funded by bodies that wouldn’t know a block if it was in their soup. Looks great on a grant application but, if I were to be honest, I haven’t seen a single example in education and training that has legs. I was wrong.

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