Academics Propose a ‘Blockchain University,’ Where Faculty (and...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Academics Propose a ‘Blockchain University,’ Where Faculty (and Algorithms) Rule

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 25, 2018

Academics Propose a ‘Blockchain University,’ Where Faculty (and Algorithms) Rule

A group of academics affiliated with Oxford University have proposed a new model of higher education that replaces traditional administrators with “smart contracts” on the blockchain, the same technology that drives Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

“Our aim is to create a university in which the bulk of administrative tasks are either eliminated or progressively automated,” said the effort’s founders in a white paper released earlier this year. Those proposing the idea added the university would be “a decentralised, non-profit, democratic community in which the use of blockchain technology will provide the contractual stability needed to pursue a full course of study.”

Experiments with blockchain in higher education are underway at multiple campuses around the country, and many researchers are looking into how to use the technology to verify and deliver credentials. Massachusetts Institute for Technology, for example, began issuing diplomas via blockchain last year.

The plan by Oxford researchers goes beyond digital diplomas—and beyond many typical proposals to disrupt education in general. It argues for a completely new framework for how college is organized, how professors are paid, and how students connect with learning. In other words, it’s a long shot.

But even if the proposed platform never emerges, it is likely to spur debates about whether blockchain technology could one day allow professors to reclaim greater control of how higher education operates through digital contracts.

The platform would essentially allow professors to organize their own colleges, and teach and take payments from students directly. “Starting a college should demand equal or less bureaucratic work compared, for instance, to organising an academic conference,” the white paper argues. (Like all things involving blockchain, it’s complicated, and the group has an FAQ to answer some questions.)

Leaders are calling their platform Woolf University, and named the first college in the system Ambrose. The plan is for professors in the college to offer courses online or in person.

“Like at Oxford or Cambridge, the typical undergraduate coursework at Ambrose consists of writing two essays per week for three years,” says the plan. “The academic year at Woolf consists of three terms of 11 weeks, during which at least eight weeks concentrate on tutorial teaching. Terms conclude with a summative assessment.”

As the plan continues:

“Ambrose will encourage its faculty to produce lectures to complement each of their weekly tutorial sessions. The lectures will be made publicly available on the Woolf website, YouTube, and as podcasts. This will not only be an aid for students studying a particular paper, but the lectures will also attract students to teachers by raising theirs visibility, and by raising the profile of the college.”

Each college in this blockchain university would determine its own admissions standards, and each would set its own tuition price, which is expected to be less than the cost of traditional universities.

Joshua Broggi, the founder of Woolf University, is a junior research fellow in philosophy at Oxford University, said in a blog post this summer that the blockchain university is opening a branch in Malta and applying for accreditation through the regulatory body there. “As a global university, we do not plan to have only one regulatory partner, and we remain in discussion with several European regulatory bodies (expect more news on that),” he wrote.

Broggi told The Times of London that the system would better connect professors and students: “Underemployment among academics and poor coordination with students is the intellectual equivalent of allowing the most expensive real estate in London or New York to sit empty. In the same way that we saw Airbnb allow for a more refined allocation of real estate resources, we believe that Woolf can make better use of academic resources.”

Woolf’s leaders are hardly the only ones arguing that blockchain has the potential to rewire higher education, said Michael Matthews, CIO at Oral Roberts University, who is a frequent speaker on the potential of blockchain at colleges. Matthews says the technology could lead to the kind of disruption that automation has brought to retail.

“Blockchain is really potentially a supply chain for education,” he said. “This allows a university to say, ‘We’re going to bypass all these processes and connect students directly to the content.’”

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