A group of academics hailing from top universities have decided to create the world’s first ever blockchain university called the Woolf University. They have released a rather illuminating whitepaper on the concept.
Essentially, the University will disintermediate the traditional university structure and leverage ‘trust’ through an alternate federated structure powered by a non-profit trust and democratic principles. All financial and student-teacher transactions in this structure shall be governed using the blockchain, and the currency will be called the ‘Woolf’.
We believe that Woolf University, as the first blockchain university, will increase the efficiency of student-teacher coordination by removing intermediaries, thereby narrowing spreads between hourly tuition costs and academic wages, thus distributing money more transparently, democratically, and justly.
This move will cut administrative overheads through the use of smart contracts. It will lower student tuition costs while at the same time increase the salaries academics are paid. Learning will be high quality because the delivery model will be based on one on one & one-to-two, direct and personal interactions between student and teachers, with the best teachers.
They place this move in context of the current situation in Higher Education. High overheads, lack of tenured jobs, uncertainty of work opportunities & underemployment, high cost of tuition and lack of access to high quality education for all (who can afford it). They draw parallels with Airbnb, seeking to make better use of our academic resources the same way as Airbnb made better use of real estate. They hope that traditional universities will also adopt Woolf, and reduce their administrative overheads.
Credentials will be sought to be legitimized using the traditional legal methods at first (and associated with mainstream options like student financial aid), but ultimately would want to set up a global standard in degree credentials, powered by the best academics in the world.
Academics can, provided they meet the guidelines of a certain common framework of the University, start their own colleges and offer differentiated offerings directly to students. By doing so, they can gain more control over their own futures, rather than remain subservient to the system for their needs. They can be true to their profession, rather than subjugate their beliefs and practices to the pecuniary and administrative goals of the universities.
Woolf University does not compete with for-profits like Udacity and Udemy. They don’t claim to be an online university at all – just a medium that is agnostic, democratic and decentralized. Woolf is also distinguished from enterprise level software like Airbnb or Uber by their claim:
Woolf creates new economic and social relations within the framework of a blockchain. We believe this is essential because we believe that the values to be encoded in the Woolf blockchain – humane, democratic, and ultimately non-profit values – are crucial to the future of the university.
Woolf is not so very different in intent from teachers collectives and cooperatives, which have a fairly long tradition. Both respect autonomy of teachers & democracy in education, promote quality education, drive costs down and promise an alternate way to structure ‘school’. Research in new wave teaching and learning structures, cMOOCs and distributed educational systems are important tools to understand this development. I called these Distributed Educational systems.
By Distributed Educational Systems (DES), I mean the ability of the educational system to distribute itself over its elements – students, teachers, content, technology, certification and placement. Brown and Duguid discuss forces will enable DES. Their 6D notion has demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despacialization, disintermediation and disaggregation as forces that “will break society down into its fundamental constituents, principally individuals and information.” They suggest the formation of “degree granting bodies”, small administrative units with the autonomy to take on students and faculty, and performing the function of providing credentials (read “degrees”). They recommend that “[i]n this way, a distributed system might allow much greater flexibility for local sites of professional excellence.”
The concept is not new and disruptive, but it has always had the potential to be so. Woolf falls short of re-envisioning the formal system because of its dependence upon the same vocabularies as those used on formal education (degrees, tutorials and so on). Traditional online course providers like Coursera and Udacity have also been unable to make the break, but they have come up with options that suit professional learning more than higher education (although the online degree ‘market’ is still something they cherish).
Interestingly, there is already a multi-billion dollar worldwide coaching and tuition market that is largely unorganized and has been supporting the education systems of most countries for decades. India is itself a $40 bn market. I would argue that just that market serves affordably the needs of millions of students and augments the incomes of teachers as well. It is a parallel and incestuous education system that works at a mass scale, helping students achieve outcomes whilst at the same time bearing the sneer of the formalists. If we formally invested in this system, perhaps it would be a more useful non-profit approach?
At a time, when these MOOC providers provide real access to revenue-generating opportunities for good teachers, the problem shifts to how we can generate more academic opportunities for teaching as a profession – perhaps by diversifying teacher skills to suit new areas of techonology enabled learning or other specialist areas.
Woolf’s strategy of taking only the top teachers (“The first 5 colleges of Woolf University require 80% of the faculty members to hold research doctorates issued by the top 200 universities in The Times Higher Education, ‘World University Rankings 2017’.”) will hardly address the claims of mass-scale underemployment of teachers worldwide, nor does it acknowledge the role of universities in providing credibility, infrastructure and research opportunities at an international scale to teachers.
Woolf looks more to be a new disruptive education startup story in search of a business model. They may be non-profit, but they are not free. They will charge for teaching, not offer models that espouse free content and paid assessments or certification. They seek to introduce economies of scale, increase choice and teacher self-reliance, rather than disrupting pedagogy. They emphasize the personal, as opposed to the robotic (which I take includes the whole AI revolution in one sweep).
I suspect that if a traditional university had taken this concept up as an innovation or as a way of generating more revenue, it would have been more successful. All a good university would need to do is establish an army of such virtual adjuncts and endorse them through university credibility, and in that manner acquire far larger customer (student) bases.
Still, the blockchain technology hype and the pedigree of great academics, combined with the fall of grace of MOOCs in the Higher Ed space, among other factors, might be what investors queue up for in this non-profit.I have always held, though, that technology is enabling, not core to an education proposition. Similarly, if only great ‘branded’ academics were the only cure to our problems at scale, then we would really have to reconcile to another elite system.
What is needed is not another populist solution for academics in penury, but strategies for solving global challenges of poverty, health, energy, environment and other crucial areas at an unprecedented scale for mankind. This can only be accomplished if we deeply reflect on our state of preparedness to build the human resources to address such challenges.