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This post is the second in a series of five blog posts designed to explore, inform, and encourage public discussions about the possibilities, opportunities, and challenges arising at the intersection of Open Badges and blockchain technology. Find the first post, “The Open Badges Part” here.
– Carla Casilli & Kerri Lemoie
Starting from open
Over the last five years, we have dedicated ourselves to working in the open as key players in the open badges revolution. With this series of blog posts, we continue to share our ideas, insights and explorations publicly.
A quick aside
Since we began preparing this second post a few weeks ago, a number of truly excellent blockchain posts have been written here, here, and here. Those recently published posts have made the writing journey of “the blockchain part” of From Badges to BadgeChain both exciting and tremendously humbling.
No matter what else you take away from this post, keep in mind that blockchain technology is still very much in its early and experimental phases. In terms of development, this is blockchain’s Cambrian period. We’re excited to be part of the Blockchain Cambrian Explosion happening right now. And while the technology can get deep, we’ve worked hard to keep it entirely readable and understandable.
A very brief history of blockchain
Nowadays every post about blockchain seems to have the fabled history of where and how blockchain came into being, and this one is no different. Aside from wanting to keep up with all the other Nakamotos, including it here helps to explain our fascination with this potentially game-changing new technology.
The Bitcoin initiative has grown significantly and achieved much over the years, not the least of which is succeeding as a testing ground for blockchain technology. Two current examples in the education space making use of the powerful Bitcoin blockchain include MIT (issuing digital certificates) and the Holberton School (who partnered with Bitproof todeliver academic certificates).
As we think about blockchain let us not underestimate the huge amount of work that has gone before: it is impressive and profound. We can talk about blockchain technology today because of Bitcoin. Thanks to this rather seminal connection, it’s exceedingly difficult to talk about blockchain without talking about Bitcoin. Still, the gauntlet has been thrown and we’re giving it a go. Therefore, if you are searching for deep information about Bitcoin, these aren’t the droids you’re looking for. (Instead, feel free to go here and here and here and here and here.)
What is blockchain?
In the simplest possible terms, blockchain technology builds a continuous time-based ledger. A bit more detailed definition: blockchain technology builds a continuous list of records or transactions that result in a time-based ledger. Even further defined: blockchain technology uses peers to build, encrypt, and host a continuous list of records or transactions that result in a time-based ledger (or blockchain). The result: a list of records that build upon each other, one after the other in a sequential fashion.
The peer-based distributed and decentralized database is key. The database achieves its distributed-ness through hosting: all blockchain participants host the ledger in its entirety. Together the ledger and the distributed and decentralized database create powerful opportunities for direct peer-to-peer sharing of things like content, money, contracts, etc. Blockchain eliminates the need for a central authority: because each block must be unique and relative to the previous block, transactions can’t be duplicated. Also, once a block is written to the chain, it is permanent and cannot be changed.
Even with this limited definition, it’s quite obvious that Nakamoto’s apparently simple system possesses great conceptual strength and technological rigor. Imagine the possibilities of this sort of system and you can begin to see why we’re at the beginning of an explosion of interest and development.
Blockchain technology: a growing revolution
Innovations that go beyond what might be called the traditional Bitcoin blockchain are already underway. Two such projects include Ethereum and Multichain. Ethereum custom built their blockchain as a way to decentralize processing of smart contracts (tiny programs that can do things like modify data or perform decision-making tasks). Multichain’s open source solution aims to address issues of privacy and openness by providing the capability for the creation of private blockchains.
While financial transactions have been the dominant historical reference point for discussions of blockchain, new use cases for the ledger are arising, e.g., identity management, and storage for government data, legal, and business records. Its seemingly endless potential has convinced us that further exploration, especially with regards to open badges, is warranted.
This intentionally brief synopsis of the birth and technological structure of blockchain provides meaningful context for what we’ll be covering in upcoming posts. With each post we continue to provide the rationale for our ongoing interest in BadgeChain. Our next post will dive into how the two protean tools, open badges and blockchain, might work together.
We welcome your questions and comments and encourage you to continue to contact us at badgechain.com. Thanks!
“All digital technology is ideological. All education technology is ideological”
“Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology”
One problem with the word technology is that it both refers to a “collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes” and the technical objects, the artefacts where they are embedded.
Technology is the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation.
Ideology is a collection of doctrines or beliefs shared by members of a group. It can be described as a set of conscious and unconscious ideas which make up one’s beliefs, goals, expectations, and motivations.
For the clarity of this part of the rebuttal I will use “technical objects” to refer to artefacts and technology to refer to the “collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes.” With that being said, a blockchain is a technical object that, as any object, is subject of investigation and discourses, including ideological.
The problem with statements like “All digital technology is ideological. All education technology is ideological” is it can be applied to everything without adding an iota of understanding. Remove “digital” and you have “all technology is ideological.” Then remove “technology” and you have “Everything is ideological.” Well, so what?
The relationships between individuals, technical objects, technology and ideology are more complex and less univocal than implied by the initial statements. For example, for a philosopher like Jaques Ellul, regarding technology, instead of it being subservient to humanity, “human beings have to adapt to it, and accept total change.” For Ellul, it is the technology itself with its own impetus which is dehumanising:
“Not even the moral conversion of the technicians could make a difference. At best, they would cease to be good technicians. In the end, technique has only one principle, efficient ordering”
For Ellul, not only there is no need to make any reference to ideology to explain the negative impact of technology, but even the application of what we could call a “progressive ideology” could only result in technicians loosing their professionalism!
In an interview William Gibson (who coined “Cyberspace”) develops a reflection similar to that of Ellul:
“Technology invariably trumps ideology. And I am inclined to think that history increasingly suggests that human social change is more directly driven by technology than by ideology. I think we develop ideologies in an attempt to cope with technologies and that in fact we’ve been doing that all along. Technology is knowing how to grow, harvest and store cereals without which you can’t really do a city. Technology is knowing how to build efficient sewage infrastructure without which you can’t build a slightly larger city. So I think of technologies as the drivers and ideologies as an attempt to steer.”
From these two distant authors in time, space and culture, technologies, i.e. “the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services” have a life of their own.
Another important philosopher in relation to the dynamics of technologies is Gilbert Simondon who, as Wikipedia recalls is “a major source of inspiration for Gilles Deleuze and Bernard Stiegler.” Simondon’s theory of individual and collective individuation, states that the individual subject is considered as an effect of individuation, rather than as a cause. Thus the individual atom is replaced by the neverending process of individuation creating simultaneously both the individual and the collective. For Simondon, this process does not only apply to humans but also to technical objects, his main object of study — c.f. “Du mode d’existence des objets techniques”.His philosophy is at the opposite to that of Jacques Ellul as he sees in our understandingof the genesis of technical objects a means for dis-alienating our relationship with them.
Following Simondon, one possible reading of the emergence of the blockchain, as technical objects, could follow that given earlier to the Open Badges as the outcome of the individuation process of the ePortfolios (source). While the blockchain is first and foremost a database, what makes this database different from all the preceding databases is that it is autonomous (in fact, ubiquitous) and capable to interact with its environment as an individual autonomous subject. Although it is still a matter of discussion, this autonomy seems even reinforced with the possibility to include “smart contracts” the “methods [used] for restricting the transactions performed in a database” (source).
Now that we have established that blockchains are just a new form of database we should have the right to question the explanatory value of a category like the “ideology of blockchains” (sic). If there is such a think then there must be an “ ideology of databases” and may be a “MySQL ideology.” Was MySQL the product of an ideology?
I would be also very curious to know whether there is an “ideological” difference whether it is stored in a solid state disk, a hard drive or static ROM (Read Only Memory) or a live RAM (Random Access Memory). Is it where we should find the DNA of “Silicon Valley ideology” (sic)?
The next rebuttal will explore into more detail why the following sweeping statement does not provide more explanatory information that a mere tautology:
“Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology”
“When it comes to issues of “trust” and, say, academic certification, who is not trusted here? Is it the problem that folks believe students/employees lie about their credentials? Or is the problem that credential-issuing entities aren’t trustworthy? I mean, why/how would we “trust” the entity issuing blockchained credentials?
There is a lot to “unpack” here: first, there is a confusion between trust and distrust. If the question was about trust, then one should develop the question around trust. Building an argumentation about distrust to support an argument on trust is a non sequitur. Some researchers (e.g., Priester and Petty, 1996; Lewicki et al., 1998) argue that trust and distrust are separate dimensions, and thus not opposite ends of one single dimension or continuum (source). Other authors, Steven Van de Walle, Frédérique Six, explain why trust and distrust should be addressed as distinct concepts:
Scholarship of trust in institutions has tended to see trust and distrust as opposites on one continuum. Theoretical advances have challenged this view, and now consider trust and distrust as different constructs, and thus, as constructs with different characteristics and partly different determinants. Current empirical research on trust in government has yet done little to incorporate these findings, and has largely continued to rely on traditional survey items assuming a trust-distrust continuum. We rely on the literature in organisation studies and political science to argue in favor of measuring citizen trust and distrust as distinct concepts and discuss future research challenges. Trust and Distrust as Distinct Concepts: Why Studying Distrust in Institutions is Important (source)
As I have argued several times, many of the so-called “trust technologies” should be rechristened “distrust technologies.” With the first ones, trust is the natural state and “distrust” is produced as the result of experience, while with the others, “distrust” is the default state and “trust” has to be earned.
One can make a parallel with conditional and unconditional love: conditional love, especially with children is destructive (see here and here). This should be an invitation to reflect on the idea of the dangers of conditional trust and benefits of unconditional trust:
A teenager had spent many months in a young peoples psychiatric hospital.When he was about to leave a therapist asked him what was the most significant thing which helped him in his recovery. He responded that it was the moment when in and art group the therapist asked him to fetch some art paper from a cupboard in another part of the building.The therapist handed him the keys to the cupboard which were on a key ring with many other keys to the rooms in the building.
The young man said he felt so good, not just because he had been chosen to do the small job when his esteem was very low but because the therapist had not hesitated but just handed him the keys. He knew he could have used those keys to get up to all sorts of mischief but he felt trust to act responsibly.
Julie Lunt <julie at newpaths.eu>
The anecdote is unambiguously an example of unconditional trust, the kind that can heal. The problem with Audrey Watters’ question on trust is what she is really trying to address is distrust. She is victim of the kind of confusion that lead me write: the deleterious effects of mistaking security for trust.
The next point I need to raise is the institution-centric view and the implicit defence of the current power relationships between institutions and individuals: “When it comes to issues of “trust” and, say, academic certification, who is not trusted here?” followed by the rhetorical question: the potentially lying student or the potentially incompetent issuer? At no time the question considers the learner as a sapient agent that has the right to trust (and distrust!) creating thus the conditions for the emergence of alternatives to formal credentials.
These views are developed further in the latest post:
“A move to place certification — degrees, badges, and the like — on the blockchain implies that students’ own claims about their education cannot be trusted and must be authenticated and secured — and authenticated and secured specifically via technology.”
“It’s worth asking here, of course, which students’ claims are likely to be viewed as suspect? And a related question: which certificates, “verified” via the blockchain, might find a new legitimacy?”
For Audrey Watters, a blockchain seems to be something that is necessarily done to the learners, if not against them. Could learners and citizens use blockchains to regain a sense of agency through the control of their data does not seem to be a question of interest to the author.
1088, Bologna gave birth to the world’s first University. Centuries later, in 1999, Bologna hosted the ministers of education of 29 European countries to adopt the Bologna Declaration setting-up the European Higher Education Area. The ambition of ePIC 2016 is to associate the name of the great city of Bologna to one grand ambition: making learners and citizens the leaders of educational and social innovation!
After having explored the power — and limits — of ePortfolios, then Open Badges, as instruments for educational and social innovation, we are very excited at the perspective of introducing a new theme to this year’s conference: the blockchain (also referred to as Distributed Ledger) the technology underpinning Bitcoins, the alternative currency revolutionising the world of finance and beyond. While ePortfolios and Open Badges developed their own idiosyncratic technologies, the advent of the blockchain, a general purpose technology used by a wide range of innovative services well beyond the world of finance, could be the tipping point to eventually achieve the initial goals of educational and social innovation set by the early ePortfolio and Open Badge practitioners.
A blockchain is the historical record of all the transactions between the participants (nodes) of a network. This record is referred to as a ledger, the artefact accountants use for book keeping. Adding new entries to the ledger, or modifying existing ones, is done by adding a new block to the chain.
Ledgers are unfalsifiable. This is done by providing a copy of the full ledger to all members of the network and defining an ingenious protocol for adding new blocks to the chain so that even if someone tried to add an invalid block, the network would detect the fraud and reject the chain containing the invalid block.
What makes blockchains particularly interesting is that there is no need for a trusted authority to ensure the trustworthiness of transactions. Nor does one need permission for creating one’s own blockchain — Bitcoins would never have existed, had their creators asked banks and governments the authorisation to proceed! Blockchains give us the power to re-create a bank without a bank, Uber without Uber, Facebook without Facebook and LinkedIn without LinkedIn — in fact, a blockchain-based LinkedIn would be far superior to the current one!
How could blockchains impact ePortfolios, Open Badges (and more!)?
What blockchains allow is a clean separation between the storage of data and the associated services — the blockchain is first and foremost a [trustworthy] storage mechanism. The same blockchain could be used to store badges, and prior to that, the evidence submitted to get a badge such as references to work, artefacts, achievements, testimonies and more. From the data stored in the blockchain multiple services could feed-in and be fed-from: resumé builders, accreditation portfolios, learning and assessment plans, etc.
As a storage mechanism, a blockchain provides a function similar to an ePortfolio repository. Yet, there are major differences: 1) it is a trustworthy record, 2) it is stored in a shared space independently from any ePortfolio platform, 3) it can be fed-in automatically, 4) data mining can be used to provide feedback in real time. Imagine what would be possible if Moodle, Canvas, Mahara, PebblePad, Badgr, the Open Badge Passport and other applications made use of the same repository and if that repository was open to other applications and services under the control of learners!
One of the powerful features blockchains now provide is the possibility to execute smart contracts (a small piece of code) something that could be handy for example to set conditions for keeping a credential current: “this badge will be revoked after one year, unless getting at least 5 endorsements each year from 5 different peers holding an equivalent or superior badge.”
The name we have given to that particular blockchain is Personal Ledger, i.e. the trustworthy record of one’s personal assets. Personal Ledgers could be combined to create Community Ledgers and Organisational Ledgers, thus creating a seamless continuum of learning individuals, learning communities, learning organisations, learning cities and territories**.
Shall Personal Ledgers prevail and transform the world of learning, its technologies and practices? Or shall institutions assimilate blockchains to continue business as usual? Shall ePortfolios, Open Badges and other technologies unite to create a seamless learning environment? Or shall a learning landscape remain a discontinuity of independent silos? The work has just started — c.f. below the information on the Open Badge Passport and the BadgeChain initiatives.
Join us In Bologna to meet the experts, practitioners learners and citizens leading educational and social innovation
* For an overview of current development based on Ethereum, one of the platforms to create blockchains, see dapps.ethercasts.com. Other main Blockchain creation platforms include Hyperledger (IBM) and Multichain.
** Conversely, a Personal Ledger could be a personal “view” on a collection of various ledgers. The point is only about eliciting the fluidity between the different contexts where learning takes place, not a technical choice — it’s much too early for that!
The BadgeChain Community Call launched today with really excellent results. A group of about twenty-four individuals from the US and as far away as Lithuania, France, and Spain participated in today’s call. All in all, a propitious start to our collective endeavor of exploring and building blockchain for badges and other digital credentials.
We began by referencing the BadgeChain mission: Explore through research, advocacy and development how Open Badges (and related technologies) can be advanced by blockchain.
One thing that we stressed during today’s call: we are aiming for proactive inclusivity. Other areas we addressed included logistics regarding calls, methods of communication, upcoming website efforts, potential for twitter chats and podcasts. We also had a wonderful round of introductions that took up the majority of the call. During that time everyone spoke about themselves and what brought them to the BadgeChain call. This action allowed us to learn a bit about one another and identify levels of knowledge and interest in both badges and blockchain.
Building on that information, we spent some time silently writing on the etherpad about our areas of interest, the things we would like to build, and, questions we have.
Unsurprisingly, the BadgeChain community shared a ton of great thoughts, questions, and suggestions in response to those prompts. Needless to say, many of the comments, suggestions, ideas, etc. will inform upcoming BadgeChain Community Calls. So stay tuned!
How do I join?
The BadgeChain calls are public and open to the community! Along with notes from today’s call, you can find future conference call information including dial-in info on today’s etherpad. You can also stream the recording of the one hour call here.
Thanks to all who participated — we look forward to hearing from you as well as new community members on our next call, April 27th at 8am PT / 11am ET / 3pm UTC!