With a global mission to “accelerate the world toward 21st century education and workplace infrastructures, address inequity with student and employee centric models, and connect the fragmented ecosystem of stakeholders into a unified hub of innovation”, Learning Economy is focused on solving some of the world’s toughest challenges.
And how do they plan to accomplish their ambitious mission? A key way is through blockchain, the technology that allows for capturing and tracking digital data in a very secure and decentralized way while ensuring integrity and transparency.
Utilizing blockchain, Learning Economy hopes to establish a protocol that can bring together data from every source of education for every learner, to understand where value may – or may not – be created.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Jeff talks with Learning Economy’s Chief Strategy Advisor, Taylor Kendal and Community Director, Duncan Cox, about how they’re using blockchain to change how we track individual learning and the idea of an open education graph to provide a visualization of the value being generated across the supply chain of education.
They also discuss what they describe as the four archenemies of what they’re up against and share about a pilot that Learning Economy is getting ready to launch in Colorado that will provide a concrete point of reference for implementing the protocol more broadly.
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[00:18] – Before we turn to our interview, we want to once again highlight one of the many resources we offer beyond the weekly podcast. One we like to be sure to mention frequently is our Leading Learning newsletter.
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[01:35] – You might consider the reflection question below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- Try to think in as much detail as you can about what the practical implications of something like the Learning Economy protocol. If you were able to – or had to – treat your learners as part of a larger, connected ecosystem – one in which both learners and teachers can be fairly and efficiently rewarded for their efforts, what would that change for your learning business?
[04:30] – Introduction to Taylor and Duncan.
What is Learning Economy?
[05:15] – Can you explain a bit more about what Learning Economy is and what you do there?
Duncan begins by explaining more about their origin and says about two years ago, the founders asked themselves how to make blockchain a tool for good.
Things like paying refugees to acquire a new language; rewarding an adult learner displaced by the rising tide of automation for reskilling; or finding a way to create an economy that comes around the whole of education where students are rewarded for learning, teachers are rewarded for teaching, and all of this added value is captured in a decentralized ledger so we can truly understand education to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.
Today Learning Economy is really made up of three pieces:
- Information layer – an open source ledger for storing student records and badges.
- Value layer – can quantify the impact of each stakeholder on the life of the learner.
- Application layer – mobile friendly ways to interact with this information layer and value layer. Includes the Learn Library, a learning management system and workgroup and research hub; and the Learn Bank, a universal portfolio for students and employees to record their progress and earn equity in their own education.
[07:03] – From what I understand, blockchain is really at the core of this—we’ve talked about blockchain before on the podcast—but I’ve still wrestled with what blockchain actually is. Can you talk a little more about what blockchain is (at a high level) and why it’s the approach to doing what you’re doing?
Taylor explains that at the highest level, a blockchain is really just a record of chronological transactions (much like a traditional financial ledger) with each new set of transactions, which represents these blocks being recorded and cryptographically linked to the previous record.
This creates a really powerful chain that has some interesting characteristics and it ensures a number of things. First, they ensure integrity because the cryptographic linking makes this chain of information nearly impossible to tamper with.
There’s also a transparency element. He says it’s interesting that a number of these open, public blockchain ledgers are sort of peer-driven and network-driven, so everyone has the same view and copy of the information.
Ultimately, blockchain allows the trust that gets built into a system to happen in a new and novel way that, prior to bitcoin, just wasn’t possible—trust was really fallible between humans and now we’re looking at new methods of actually baking trust directly into protocols and digital systems.
When it comes to Learning Economy, Taylor says there’s no way to allow information to flow and trust in this sort of capacity without utilizing something like blockchain.
He notes that things like credentialing are a big part of why this has power and also discusses identity systems. There’s a new movement towards self-sovereign identity and being able to provide power and control back to individual students or users. And other elements they are looking at are with governance, voting, and even tokenized micro-markets.
This goes back to the idea of building entire economies that are really based on the value of learning itself.
Through utilizing some of this new technology around cryptocurrency and blockchain, we’re actually starting to get to the point of being able to realistically explore what an “earn to learn” model might really look like. As opposed to taking on life-ending debt in many ways for many students, you can actually look at providing value back to learners and users just for the mere act of gaining a good education.
What it Looks Like for Users & Learners
[11:36] – I’m assuming your average learner/user doesn’t really have to understand the concept of a blockchain holding all of this together. But they’re obviously going to benefit from the fact that their learning records are being captured and stored in a certain way. Practically speaking, what does that look like for a learner who’s participating in the Learning Economy? Let’s say I’m somebody who’s finishing up college, heading into my career—what’s different now that Learning Economy exists and the technologies that you’re talking about exist? How does that play out, practically speaking?
From a high-level user/consumer perspective, Duncan says that behavior doesn’t actually change a whole lot as a learner. If you’re a recent college grad looking to reskill, for example, you would take the course (just as you would without the app). The course and your progress would be measured and then you could go out into the world and with a sort of universal credentialing system that blockchain could empower.
You could then take it to any employer, university, or measurement system for educational attainment, and be able to frictionlessly prove you have this particular knowledge or have taken this particular course.
Think of it less as changing how your behavior looks and changing what you do with education, and more about what education can do for you—and getting more out of your education.
Sponsor: Community Brands
[14:01] – If you are looking for a platform that will help your learners get more out of their education, check out our sponsor for this quarter.
Community Brands provides a suite of cloud-based software for organizations to engage and grow relationships with the individuals they serve, including association management software, learning management software, job board software, and event management software. Community Brands’ award-winning Crowd Wisdom learning platform is among the world’s best LMSes for corporate extended enterprise and is a leading LMS for association-driven professional education programs. Award-winning Freestone, Community Brands’ live event learning platform, is a leading platform for live learning event capture, Webinars, Webcasts, and on-demand streaming.
Open Education Graph
[14:58] – Somewhere buried into this is the concept of an open education graph. Can you talk a little more about what this is? And are there any concerns around data and privacy (as there are with Facebook’s open graphs) that go with it or does blockchain take care of that?
Taylor admits that blockchain never takes care of everything. That’s a danger and you hear a lot that blockchain is this hammer that’s in constant search of nails. He says it certainly has a place but it’s not the end all, be all. What they are trying to build is an open protocol.
Taylor shares that he really thinks history is going to favor those who embrace open source, open innovation, open governance models, open data standards, and just collaboration on a broader level. So proprietary tools that extract and profit from user data, he thinks will continue to fade and don’t really have much value in this new learning economy that they’ve ultimately envisioned.
As far as the open graph, the goal is to provide a visualization of the value being generated across this supply chain/value chain of education. He points out we often don’t speak about it that way, but ultimately that’s really what education is—it truly is a supply chain.
It’s not linear but you do have this graph across this entire ecosystem, which is some research that gets adopted by certain institutions that ultimately drives the curriculum and certain pedagogies that are developed within that institution.
Taylor talks more about this supply chain and says the idea of the open graph is at the state level. In Colorado they are about to launch a project where they are going to start actualizing some of what this looks like.
With this graph and other groups such as Credential Engine (who are doing some really interesting work related to pulling together all credentials), they are building in open protocols that allows credentials to sit in a single repository. And then building in APIs and a means to access that open information utilizing blockchain technology and IBM Hyperledger. Then aggregating that data with this idea of a student-owned universal passport that crosscuts a number of learning opportunities can get quantified across this supply chain of education.
When you start to build all of that information into a single education graph that’s shared and understood by a certain group of stakeholders, you can start to really quantify and understand where value is being generated across that entire chain.
Using other technology like machine learning you can actually start to look back and see what research on the front end of that entire supply chain led to actual quantifiable skills that led to benefits to society broadly.
Ultimately, you can really start to do some amazing things once you start to unify that entire [block]chain and understand where value may or may not be created. And right now, Taylor says we just have no way of doing that. Everything is completely fragmented and there are silos.
[20:36] – As a concrete example to make sure I’m understanding this correctly, in the world of [continuing] medical education, for example, there’s often a question of whether it really has any impact or not. Meaning that if doctors are continually engaging in CME credit, that’s fine but does it actually move the dial for patients? Would something like an open education graph as it’s accumulated data over time contribute to understanding whether continuing medical education is actually improving patient outcomes?
Taylor says that’s exactly right and notes that one of their key driving research questions is, can you quantify the value of education and if you can, should you?
Duncan shares how their hope with Learning Economy (if you can quantify the value of education) is not only will they be able to find the intended patient outcomes – so does a particular CME course lead to an intended outcome – but also to discover other, unintended outcomes, whether positive or negative, of individual courses.
The Four Archenemies of Learning Economy
[22:37] – You also talk about what you refer to as your four “archenemies”—the big issues you are really trying to address with the protocols and the technologies that you’re developing. Can you walk through each one of these and how does what you’re doing address each?
- SKILLS ≠ JOBS – Skills Gap: Educating with 19th century tools, in 20th century classrooms, to learn 21st century skills doesn’t work. Duncan explains that one of the key reasons for this is a lack of understanding why that gap exists and what skills are needed now and in the future. Their hope is that through an open education graph they can understand what that difference is, where that gap comes from, and how they can fill it.
Taylor adds that this gap is only going to grow. There needs to be more real-time data and real-time in the moment reactionary sorts of mechanisms to allow those that are in the business of education and with a true interest in providing important skills and knowledge to students to understand what the skills of tomorrow are in a more flexible and adaptive way. Otherwise he doesn’t see tightening that gap, it will only continue to grow.
- STIFLED INNOVATION – Centralization: Controlling data and information stifles innovation and coordination. Duncan points out that we have the data out there, but the problem is that it’s controlled in silos. But it should be used as fuel for the greater good so we can work together and coordinate to solve the world’s biggest challenges. If we don’t gather together a lot of our collective knowledge, especially within education, he thinks it will be difficult to overcome some of these global challenges.
- BAD ACTORS – Confusion: Blockchain is largely misunderstood due to bad actors, lack of regulation, and poor communication. Taylor explains that it’s confusion around blockchain, but it’s also about providing education to minimize confusion across the entire ecosystem.
- HIRING PRACTICES – Inequality: Discrimination in education and hiring ignores true merit and skills for unfair bias, undermining the commonwealth. Duncan says what they hope to do with Learning Economy is to really understand and measure the skills that actually exist. They believe that this lack of transparency about a person’s real abilities is the root of inequality within the education system and within hiring in the workforce as well.
Collaboration and Success at Learning Economy
[29:48] – You obviously have a big vision and are ambitious as an organization but I’m assuming Learning Economy alone can’t tackle all of this. And it seems to be central to what you’re doing that this does require collaboration across multiple parts of the world of education, work, etc. What is the collaborative environment around this right now? Who do you collaborate with and what’s going to ultimately make this vision as you have as Learning Economy a success?
Duncan shares that the next steps for Learning Economy are unifying all the stakeholders in education. They want to bring in everyone to understand what’s happening in the world of education. With this open education graph, they hope they’ll be able to do that.
So, in a nonproprietary way, bringing in all these different educational and credentialing standards together in creating a sort of interoperability so they can really understand what’s happening in the world and everyone can all work together.
Taylor notes that Learning Economy is a non-profit with an interest in creating a protocol that becomes a common [public] good.
He talks about what they’re working towards in Colorado with the Colorado Education Work Lab (C-Lab) (set to launch Jan 30, 2020) to offer some more practicality to how this will work. Their hope is that over the course of about three years, this biodome in Colorado leads to an implementation report that really lays out how this is possible.
[36:28] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve each been involved in, as adults, since finishing your formal educations?
Duncan shares about his experience as a teacher for an adult English as a second language class and how it unified learners of all levels of ability. This helped him understand that everyone is a teacher, more about how people learn, and how he could apply this to his own life.
Taylor talks about his experience as a recent graduate of a local school of improv and how it taught him that everyone has something to bring to the table. It helped him realize that in a traditional education setting, there’s a really interesting power dynamic. But working through the curriculum of improv helped him learn about what it means to navigate with a group and how they can all be learners and teachers in every moment.
He references the quote, “One mark on a canvas will determine where the next one will go” and says their approach at Learning Economy is that although they have big visions, it takes that first mark on the canvas to know that we should all take that next step.
Taylor highly recommends improv to anyone who is interested because of how powerful it is.
[41:30] – How to connect with Taylor and Duncan and/or learn more about Learning Economy:
[42:25] – Wrap-Up
- What are the practical implications of something like the Learning Economy protocol? If you were able to – or had to – treat your learners as part of a larger, connected ecosystem – one in which both learners and teachers can be fairly and efficiently rewarded for their efforts, what would that change for your learning business?
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[44:25] – Sign off