A version of this article first appeared at the Medium site of the Stanford GSE Office of Innovation and Technology.
Blockchain has gotten plenty of attention lately as a new mode of exchange, allowing experimental cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and the sale of NFTs in ways that leave an unalterable, fully transparent public record that tracks the transfer and ownership of digital things.
And the technology may help address an age-old challenge in any classroom: motivation.
A group of blockchain projects called “learn-to-earn” (also sometimes called “earn-to-learn”) aims to incentivize learners to engage with educational content and, just as importantly, stick with it. Several startups are experimenting with encouraging users to watch tutorials or take quizzes in exchange for earning cryptocurrency. CoinMarketCap’s “learn crypto, earn crypto” program, for instance, has refined its program one step further, so that once a learner demonstrates they’ve mastered some material, rewards are directly deposited into the learner’s digital wallet.
Other emerging programs in the K12 space focus on the unique needs of hard-to-reach students. Consider Learning Coin, a project led by the World Bank that incentivizes students in rural communities to stay in school and improve academic performance. The program evaluates completion and consistency of student work, then releases digital funds accordingly.
While conventional cash transfer programs can be vulnerable to corruption and fail to scale due to inefficiencies, blockchain supports the World Bank’s program by ensuring transactions are recorded publicly on a transparent digital ledger. As a governance tool, these automated transfers also reduce administrative overhead and record-keeping, which can be challenging for education programs in remote locales.
Another platform, Mygrants, allows learners to access skills training and build new competencies while developing credit through digital cash transfers performed at a low cost by blockchain technologies. The training content is broken up into short, personalized learning “pills” based on personal goals. As students answer questions, they collect points and receive formative feedback to develop critical-thinking skills. Learners benchmark their progress against peers with similar goals, and they receive badges, points, and a digital payout at the end of the month if they reach their goals.
In the area of lifelong learning, the Learning Economy Foundation (LEF) aims to create a decentralized, blockchain-based network where skills and credentials are stored within a digital identity that follows the learner. Recently, LEF partnered with LEGO Foundation to create a gamified learning experience, called SuperSkills!, where elementary school students can select adventures and collect gifts as a result of learning core skills. Under the hood, the app uses the W3C’s Universal Wallet, a framework developed by MIT and LEF to store credentials within a blockchain-based identity. This identity is not locked down to one app or company, allowing learners to own their data and use it as they wish across their academic and professional lifetimes.
Ramping Up Is Hard to Do
As with any emerging technology, equity must be at the core. Early research indicates that blockchain adoption skews towards students with technical backgrounds and entrepreneurial mindsets.
However, there is encouraging data around access and utility for under-priveleged communities. “Play-to-earn” projects with well-designed user interfaces such as Axie Infinity have seen significant adoption among low-income groups, and currently supplement household incomes in the Philippines. Burgeoning projects with national governments may broaden opportunities for student credentials in Ethiopia, skill validation in the country of Georgia, and more distributed and inclusive communities via decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
At the same time, these new learning pathways will likely face technical drawbacks. Accessibility with older systems and devices, like those commonly used in developing economies, will be problematic (although browser-based applications may offer a short-term solution). While blockchain’s interconnected and open nature is key to data ownership and exchange, individuals must be vigilant with data security to prevent hacking incidents.
Finally, as learn-to-earn projects and digital wallets mature, learner-centered design will become more crucial. As any teacher or parent knows, extrinsic rewards can only go so far; balancing extrinsic motivation with intrinsic motivation is crucial throughout a learning trajectory.
And while extrinsic motivation may get students in the door, teaching strategies like sense-making and project-based curricula have been shown to keep students authentically engaged in a task. A new community of technologists and educators will need to rise to the challenge to design a layered and adaptive system of rewards and strategies — a concept referred to by blockchain enthusiasts as “tokenomics.” To find success with learners, blockchain projects that reach into the classroom will be looking more to educators to co-architect incentives and journeys that meet the student where they are at personally, academically, and financially.