Audrey Watters recently published a series of posts in the hope “of writing a clear explanation […] of what blockchain is”: The Blockchain in Education: Questions, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, and The Ideology of the Blockchain (for Education)
Part 1 challenged the author’s understanding of “trust” and the use of non sequitur, part 2 challenged the author’s understanding of the complexity of the relationship between technical objects, technology and ideology and the use of non-refutable statements (like the one quoted below). This part will challenge further the understanding of the author and her capacity to construct well structured arguments.
To elicit Audrey Watters’ sense of argumentation, let’s take the following statement:
Technologies, particularly the new computer and communications technologies of the twentieth century onward, help reinforce dominant ideology
While this might sound like a profound insight to the casual reader, the problem is that it fails the most elementary falsification test — being able to refute its contents. For that we suggest the following questions:
- What technologies have not reinforced the “dominant ideology”?
- Did computer and communications technologies only profit the “dominant ideology”?
In the third post, The Ideology of the Blockchain (for Education), Audrey Watters makes some sweeping statements:
“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? Continue reading
As I was looking for documentation for this post, the top result from Google was a link to “Rachel Botsman: The currency of the new economy is trust” (link) followed by an OECD forum with a highlight on “Trust is at the heart of today’s complex global economy.”
While Botsman’s lecture, punctuated with examples of the emerging collaborative economy, is worth viewing, what I challenge is the idea that trust is a new currency or that trust is more important in today’s economy than it was in previous ones. With the exception of war and predatory economies, trust has always been at the very centre of the economy. If something has changed in the economy it is how globalisation has affected trust, its currency.
Trust is at the heart of the economy — and open societies!
In Adam Smith on Trust, Faith and Free Markets (link) Jerry Evensky writes:
In a constructive society, trust and security are based on mutual respect among citizens and between the citizen and the State. It is the maturation of the citizen and of the State together that makes the emergence of a commercial free-market society possible. It is the trust engendered by this maturation of civic ethics and institutions that makes it possible for individuals to enter the market system with confidence that the competition will be a game played by just rules.
When trust is shaken, individuals pull back and the system contracts. Where trust grows, individual energy and creativity are unleashed and the system grows. In Smith’s vision of humankind’s progress, trust is the central theme.
In 2016, Open Badges will encounter blockchains and this will most likely change the way we issue, store and exploit Open Badges and open credentials. This change will also affect Open Badges themselves, or more precisely, we will have a chance to get rid of the dictatorship of the “pretty picture” and move beyond the narratives of the girl and boy scouts’ merit badges.
Open Badges are wonderful and it was a brilliant idea to store metadata within a picture, but let’s face it, there is a time, in fact many of them, where designing a “pretty picture” to recognise one’s achievements or competencies is simply a waste of time or a hindrance — and the use of pre-digested graphics often an insult to our sense of aesthetics! We have now reached the situation where it is the tail wagging the dog: the “pretty picture” is the “need to have” in order to issue any credential in the happy world of Open Badges. No “pretty picture”, no credential! Does it have to be so?
Moving the Open Badge movement from infancy to adulthood needs new metaphors and narratives — the badge for the girl and boy scouts. It is precisely what the blockchain technology is offering. The metaphor on which the blockchain narrative is constructed is the ledger, a word everybody can understand.
A general ledger account is an account or record used to sort and store balance sheet and income statement transactions. Examples of general ledger accounts include the asset accounts such as Cash, Accounts Receivable, Inventory, Investments, Land, and Equipment.
A Personal Ledger is a means to account for one’s assets, credits and debts. In the context of open credentials, the credentials received can be considered as debts (one is indebted to someone for the trust received) and the credentials given as credits (the recipient of our trust is indebted to us). A ledger can be further subdivided into multiple accounts, so each entry could store the information contained today in various Open Badges.
When I started exploring Open Badges a few years ago, I rapidly realised that not only were they a solution to several of the problems we had with ePortfolios, but they also had the potential to help us reinvent them — the Open Badge Passport initiative is our contribution to this. And now that I have started exploring the possible application of blockchains to Open Badges, I realise that not only were blockchains the perfect solution to a number of Open Badge problems, but they could also be a means to review our ideas on Open Badges altogether.
What is a blockchain?
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 — previous blocks are the faithful representation of the ledger’s previous states.
Moreover, the blockchain technology makes ledgers unfalsifiable. How is this possible? 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.
One vital point about blockchain technology is privacy: while transactions are public, they can be verified without having to know the real identities of the participants. Identities remain masked.
What could the representation of an Open Badge in a blockchain be?
The first time a badge is issued, a block is created to record a set of metadata. In a sense, one could describe the first block as a badge: instead of being “baked” into a picture, the metadata is “baked” into a ledger. If the same badge was issued to 300 people, the first block of the ledger would record that piece of information — a block usually records several transactions. Continue reading
One aspect of the question regarding a possible relationship between blockchains and Open Badges is to wonder whether the blockchain should be treated as some kind of add-on to the existing Open Badge structure/standard, or should Open Badges be integrated within a blockchain?
A starting point for an informed answer to this question is to do a simple test: take an Open Badge generated by one issuing platform and try to import it into another issuing/hosting platform. I have done this experiment recently, taking only a very small sample, and the results were rather… (un)conclusive — BTW, one suggestion for the Standards Working group would be to run a real life interoperability test (not just through a formal proof) across all platforms and publish the results.
Interoperability is a classical problem to which the ePortfolio community was confronted some years ago and to which no convincing answer was ever provided — the IMS-Global ePortfolio and Leap2A specifications (2 specifications for interoperability is already one too many!!!) are only used by a handful of ePortfolio platforms — notwithstanding that there are many ePortfolios that do not use any ePortfolio platform at all! Moreover, when we organised plugfests during previous ePIC conferences, we had to admit that 3 platforms using the same technical specification (IMS ePortfolio at the time) had problems understanding each other: exporting one ePortfolio from one platform then importing it to another did not always work properly…
One could have imagined that with a structure much simpler than ePortfolios, the problem of interoperability would have disappeared. It has not. And now that we have allowed extensions to the specification, the order of magnitude for potential interoperability problems has increased geometrically, not just arithmetically. Yet, the possibility to extend the specification, even by one single issuing platform, willing to gain a competitive advantage, with a better or innovative service, should probably be allowed. We certainly do not want a “one-size-fits-all” issuing platform. Innovation must go on!
Are blockchains the solution to Open Badges interoperability?
Last Thursday, as I attended a meeting at the old Paris stock exchange (palais Brogniard) with people working on blockchains to discuss the Open Badge Passport, what did I discover? A number of the ideas we wanted to develop with the Open Badge Passport (as services exploiting the content of badges metadata) were already in full development using… blockchains, not Open Badges. That was some reality check! The following morning I read Certificates, Reputation, and the Blockchain (link) where Philipp Schmidt, from the MIT Media Lab, explains how they are moving from paper certificates to blockchains after a short encounter with digital badges…
Issuing a certificate is relatively simple: we create a digital file that contains some basic information such as the name of the recipient, the name of the issuer (MIT Media Lab), an issue date, etc. We then sign the contents of the certificate using a private key to which only the Media Lab has access, and append that signature to the certificate itself. Next we create a hash, which is a short string that can be used to verify that nobody has tampered with the content of the certificate. And finally we use our private key again to create a record on the Bitcoin blockchain that states we issued a certain certificate to a certain person on a certain date. Our system makes it possible to verify who a certificate was issued to, by whom, and validate the content of the certificate itself.
Suddenly Open Badges seemed to have regressed from a technology that could conquer the world to a parochial technology solely at the service of the great priests of education spraying badges like papal indulgences so their parishioners could join the heaven of employment… one day… if their prayed with enough fervour. Continue reading