There is a widespread scramble in the blockchain industry to apply the technology to almost any imaginable industry. Projects now seek to update existing standards, enhance efficiency or upgrade every known tool across a broad range of sectors, from finance and banking to music sharing and data privacy.
While it’s not improbable that most industries could benefit from a blockchain upheaval, there is some merit in asking the question: is the education system in need of distributed ledger technology? Also, is a blockchain university really necessary?
Joshua Broggi, Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University, certainly thinks so.
Broggi has founded Woolf, a platform that is designed to deliver higher education degrees through a decentralized, democratic system, with the intention to protect both students and teachers. Billed as “the first blockchain university, Woolf allows anyone around the world to access higher education outside of their own jurisdictions.
With platforms like the Open University and other universities allowing for distance learning degrees, this is blockchain’s foray into the sacred institution of education?
Bitcoin News got in touch with Joshua Broggi to help unravel some of the broader questions surrounding Woolf’s innovation on modern education.
Bitcoin News (BN): When did it become apparent to yourself and others behind the Woolf project that higher education needed to undergo some rigorous readjusting?
Joshua Broggi: Higher education faces many challenges, and these have occupied my thinking (and public debate) for many years. Two economic problems have stood out: student debt and adjunct teaching. In the UK and US, student debt is a major and visible problem – it damages the lives of many students and keeps them from reaching their potential.
At Oxford, my home university, most of the faculty members – 63% – are on temporary contracts. This is typical of all major British universities. In the United States, roughly half of all university teachers are on extremely precarious ‘adjunct’ contracts. The human costs of this employment practice are incredibly damaging.
Meanwhile, university administrations have been growing for decades. In 2015, university administrators finally outnumbered academics in the United Kingdom. So we are left with a situation in which the normal employee of a university is either an administrator or a badly-employed academic. That’s not a good arrangement.
BN: The economic downturn caused quite a stir across all industries; a heavily discussed issue was the decline of college and university entrants, this in tandem with increased university costs has left many sceptical. However, there seems to be somewhat of an upswing over the past couple of years, what do you think has caused this?
Broggi: Without engaging in an interpretation of the data, I can say that at Woolf, we are committed to providing access to an education that prepares students for a changing employment situation. We’re asking ourselves, “How can we best prepare the next generation of students? How can we reach across borders so that we can broaden student horizons?”
At Woolf, we are committed to the long-term benefits of a formative university education – the kind of education that results from the extended, concentrated effort demanded by universities – because that is how the underlying skills of good judgment, sound reasoning, and intellectual creativity are developed.
But we don’t think the current system is agile enough to create the courses that students most require. We need to prepare students for a more global world in which the employment demands are changing. This is one thing that makes senior professors excited about joining Woolf: they can craft innovative curricula across borders.
BN: What can a blockchain-based education system do to remedy the employment challenges that faculty members face?
Broggi: At Woolf, we are creating blockchain processes that enforce regulatory compliance for teaching activities, and that provide government accreditors with assurance about cross-border teaching data.
This eliminates a number of administrative processes and facilitates a global, collegiate, democratic, university structure. The result is potentially very powerful: a system in which professors do not need to ask for permission to practice their profession, but in which regulators and students can be confident about the quality of teaching.
BN: The Open University has been delivering a similar service to what Woolf offers and is in the pursuit of utilizing blockchain also, so can this medium of education overtake the present standard?
Broggi: The Open University has been doing marvelous work exploring blockchain’s potential in higher education – as have Alex Grech and Anthony Camilleri, who wrote the European Commission Report on Blockchain in Education. We are really supportive of their work on blockchain.
At Woolf, however, we aren’t just researching blockchain; we’re focused on delivering a full university system to the public as quickly as possible, and we have been beta-testing our smart contracts since March of 2018. Woolf is in the process of obtaining full degree-granting powers in the European Union – so many of our considerations are practical rather than theoretical.
BN: In a recent Forbes article you were quoted saying that “teachers and students from outside the EU can join our platform and earn a full EU degree – a non-EU student with a non-EU teacher in a non-EU language“. The broader implications of this guide me to a point where educational qualifications have the capacity to become borderless, but will the degrees hold any weight in a country that could deny the legitimacy of those qualifications?
Broggi: The whole design of Woolf is meant to incentivize higher standards. But you raise an interesting point, which is that there are no agreed global standards for accreditation. Every agreement is the result of political negotiation and consensus.
Our work with various governments has reinforced how varied the standards are across jurisdictions, but Europe has agreements like the Bologna Process, which not only help to harmonize standards but also to make them more globally recognizable. At Woolf we have had to develop a strategy to ensure the widest global reach for our credentials – this is an ongoing process, but it is going well, and we are committed to ensuring that our future students will be proud of their degrees!
BN: Protecting the educators, as well as the students, appears to be a priority for you and the platform. However, how can a professor be sure that there is any employment or financial security when the tuition fees will be significantly cheaper and they’ll be getting paid in a cryptocurrency, which is often well known to be rather volatile?
Broggi: Every academic department faces employment challenges because it is uncertain how many students will enroll in a given course. Woolf has several advantages. First, we are focused on a personalized education with Oxbridge-style classes – so we only need one or two students per class. Second, we’re creating a global pool of students and a global pool of qualified teachers – and this makes it much easier for students and teachers to find each other across borders. Third, lowering tuition fees does not mean lowering salary. Many traditional universities only pass on a fraction of tuition fees to their teachers, in their salaries.
This is why we have been working so hard to eliminate and automate bureaucratic processes. Fourth, our blockchain-based enrollment system is designed to give teachers greater financial confidence about future student enrollment, so they know exactly what their teaching load is in the future.
Digital currencies are more unstable than most fiat currencies when they are compared to each other. (Of course, for any currency, one unit is stable in relation to another unit of that currency; so volatility is always a description of external relations.)
At Woolf, we’ve been developing a stabilised payment system to dampen volatility with relation to specific external values, but you’ll have to wait for future announcements on that front.
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