Learning on web3

Happy New Year!

2022 promises to be a(nother) dynamic year in education. Our environment, our culture, and the coronavirus continue to evolve, and we must adapt. Open-Source Learning is based on systemic interaction between us as individuals, our immediate network, and our surroundings – what is happening out there that may enrich our experience?

Learners are creating more value than ever.

As the Open-Source Learning Academy launches its spring season, I’m looking at Web3.

Blockchains and distributed ledgers have been on my mind for a while. In 2018 I traveled (oh, those were the days!) to M.I.T. and spoke at the Connected Learning Summit about the applications of the blockchain in education. Here is some of what I said:

“Over the past few years, blockchain technology and cryptocurrency have commanded an increasing amount of speculative attention and investment that got us thinking about banking, money, and record keeping in general. Where does the blockchain provide value in educational records? Imagine the job interview candidate in 2027: ‘Thanks for seeing me today. Everything I’ve ever done is in the ledger: See for yourself. It’s been verified. Those institutions and mentors are rock solid. But those aren’t badges. That’s not Sony’s platform. I own my data. It’s my learning record. I may be a recent graduate, and you may not trust me any further than you can throw my résumé, but I don’t take offense. People stopped trusting a long time ago. But I can do this job. Look at my grades trapped in digital amber. You don’t have to trust me. But you will have to pay me.’”

Back to the Future

Since that talk I’ve focused on launching the first Open-Source Learning Academy in a public high school district in the middle of a pandemic and developing open source software for learning communities who want to use the public internet to create value without being fleeced by Big Tech.

Now is a good time to go back to the future. These days, more people are talking about NFTs, DAOs, Web3, and (whatever they mean when they use the word) meta. But there is much more to the technology than “learn to earn.” In fact, it seems that the louder someone touts Web3, the more they’re angling to make money without thinking about the consequences.

The best way I’ve found to test the performance and ethics of software is to engage with it. I want to wade into the surf and swim with Web3 before it becomes just another entrepreneurial wave that crashes over learning and extracts value as it recedes. And, if the current iteration of Web3 doesn’t fulfill its promise to help learners, I’ll provide a use case for that too.

The real value in education

K-12 teachers and college professors know that many students weren’t attending classes even before the pandemic – at least not from the neck up. A young person who has 120,000,000 Apollo missions worth of computing power in their pocket does not need a textbook.

School is a toxic brand that does not make a meaningful value proposition to its constituents. If people didn’t have to go, they wouldn’t. Sometimes they don’t anyway –  teachers continue to resign and students drop out to get away from free, comprehensive services that were designed at great expense to improve their lives.

Higher education is next level. Financial products disguised as prizes have created a $1.5T student loan crisis. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for a degree, when you can take every M.I.T. course online for free?

Learning, on the other hand, is the most valuable thing we do. Learning is directly responsible for every good thing in our lives. So let’s consider where we create value through learning so that we can leverage it more effectively.

That’s the artifact, Jack

Learners are creating more value than ever.

When I was in school, I’d write an essay or take a test on paper. An audience of one (the teacher) would evaluate my work, scrawl a letter or score on it with a comment or two, and pass it back to me after entering a grade in the roll book. I would promptly stuff the pages in my notebook or backpack, where eventually they would migrate to the garbage and be lost to history.

For more than 15 years, however, Open-Source Learning students have curated their work on the public internet. Millions of blog posts, comments, page views, and other discrete artifacts testify to their production each year. These artifacts: attract attention, support, and constructive critique; create a sense of digital identity; and every once in a while, a third party offers payment for access and use.

The problem is that learners are being ripped off.

Why ed tech is so rich and schools are so poor

The school district where I launched the first Open-Source Learning Academy uses Canvas as a Learning Management System for their other online and hybrid programs. So does my daughter’s school, and many others. Canvas is a brand of Instructure Holdings, a Utah-based corporation.

The system’s set up so almost nobody gets paid.

On March 24, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo reported acquiring Instructure at a valuation of approximately $2B. In July of 2021, Instructure announced an initial public offering that valued the company at approximately $2.9B. Today, the valuation of Instructure Holdings is estimated at $3.95B.

What does this have to do with learning and Web3?

Education technology companies are profiting off the hard work that educators and learners are doing during a time of crisis. Schools are staying poor, even as we ask them to do more than ever.

The centralized system in which both schools and education technology companies operate favors a few people at the expense of many. School isolates us even when we’re together: Sit still and be quiet. Business facilitates and monetizes relationships based on collaboration and shared or complementary interests: Be a team player. Business is increasingly agile and entrepreneurs are now taught to “pivot” – school is agonizingly slow to change.

As a result, ed tech companies have moved to develop tools for record keeping, analytics, media, and curation.

The relationship between students who create data, schools, and the ed tech companies who profit brings to mind Courtney Love’s description of the music industry: “The system’s set up so almost nobody gets paid.”

Forcing people to use proprietary software that creates value for corporate executives and shareholders is unethical.

Learners and educators deserve to own the value of what they create online. Further, they deserve to own their own identities and likenesses.

“This will go on your permanent record”

The centralization of education data and the concentration of wealth seem analogous to economic and banking conditions that made cryptocurrency appealing in the first place.

But I get concerned when I see Gavin Wood of Ethereum, the original promoter of Web3, say “I think trust in itself is just a bad thing all around.”

If we’re not going to trust, let’s take a more cynical view of Web3. Will learners will be “locked in” to one network or centralized blockchain? Will this just be another locus of concentration of power over their stuff? Who will help if there is a problem? If we’re not going to trust, where is the regulation that will determine what will happen when things go wrong?

Web3 offers learners and educators ways to authenticate and evaluate the artifacts they create. What if every lecture or composition were an NFT? The creator could trace and participate the transactional value for the life of the artifact. Once upon a time, if you were a painter, and you sold the painting, that was it. Now, if you sell the NFT, you get paid, and you get paid again when it sells the next time, and so on… Check out the market on OpenSea, the Ebay of NFTs.

Again, however, since technology evolves faster than law, I don’t know whether NFTs are just emblems and signals, or whether they actually constitute legal, intellectual property. I also don’t know the auction rules well enough to understand how these transactions transparently account for previous ownership stakes, or what’s left for creators if the value of the NFT stays flat or goes down.

Apart from any monetary value (I don’t know who’ll buy your paragraphs on the theme of The Great Gatsby), that artifact is undeniably yours as you created it in that moment of time.* (*At least according to the ledger you chose. So choose your ledger wisely.) As a practical matter, though, there would be no more need for keeping a grade book.

Add in smart contracts with educators and/or content experts, and now you’re looking at the longitudinal development of a person who is learning ideas and developing skills, as validated by (a) people with credible credentials of their own, and (b) the artifacts themselves.


People thrive in connection. Social models of learning (see Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Krashen’s input hypothesis, and code-switching, for example) have shown how our relationships can influence and accelerate our learning. Loneliness is bad for brains.

But developing and maintaining healthy relationships doesn’t necessarily depend on physical presence. It’s true that we derive a great deal of meaning and benefit from nonverbal cues and touch. We also have successful models for creating and sustaining healthy relationships online. Consider The WELL, whose YOYOW community guidelines inspired Howard Rheingold to coin the phrase and write the book Virtual Community nearly 30 years ago.

Open-Source Learning gives learners opportunities to connecting with each other, peers, and content experts around the world. The internet enables learners to instantly transcend institutional and geographic boundaries to connect with other online content creators.

Web3 claims to expand our ability to connect directly and add layers to enrich our connections. Consider Friends With Benefits, a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) of creators who join a “digital city” by applying, buying tokens, and participating in both profit and decision-making. Then again, FWB also introduces a layer of artificial scarcity that has caused the value of its token to appreciate steeply in a short time, attracting rich investors and effectively slamming the door on artists who can no longer afford to join.

Whether that sort of wealth-building and exclusivity is an intended or unintended consequence of Web3, it would be a deal-breaker for me.

Howard Rheingold, who wrote the foreword for Academy of One, has described technology for decades in terms of mind amplifiers. Can Web3 technologies help us integrate specialties and collectively apply what we know in real time to solve problems and value our contributions?

The Ingenesist Project uses the blockchain to “unify the global engineering and scientific disciplines by incentivizing individual practitioners to form knowledge asset networks among each other by producing claims and validations related to observable and measurable events.”

There are emerging tools for everything. You can use the Unlock Protocol to manage NFTs and Web3 communities by locking content and granting access across platforms, or the Interledger Protocol to accept payment across different networks, or Open Collective to transparently accept donations and sponsorships.

Moving forward

This is way beyond getting paid for homework.

The hype and proliferation of tools around Web3 invite inquiry. School can do much more to help learners leverage technology and create value. Sticking our heads in the sand is not an option. Neither is desperately embracing a tech panacea. Or blindly trusting people who are telling us not to trust.

In 2012 I gave a talk at UCLA in which I said: “This isn’t about apps or tools. If Enzo Ferrari, God forbid, had focused on a screwdriver the way today’s educators and policy makers focus on tools, we never would have gotten the car.”

Considering Web3 – or any new technology – is an opportunity to reconnect with our purpose, our vision, and our humanity. We need to focus on the Ferrari.

As we begin 2022, let’s keep the conversation going. Is your learning community Web3 ready? Contact me and share your story.