A couple of Oxford faculty imagine a different kind of university, one that is distributed and democratic. Joshua Broggi, Faculty of Philosophy, is the founder of Woolf Development, a platform startup that aims to leverage distributed ledger technology to remove higher education intermediaries, support decentralized governance structures and ensure the security of data.
Blockchain, and other distributed ledger technologies (DLT) can address several other problems. First, a distributed ledger eliminates the risk that individuals claim a degree from an institution they did not graduate from. DLT also addresses the risk that an individual earned a credential from an institution that goes out of business. A third benefit of a DLT could be the efficiency of accumulating credits from multiple providers over time. A final benefit is cost savings from automating a number of administrative procedures and reducing overhead.
“We use a blockchain to create efficiencies by managing custodianship of student tuition, enforcing regulatory compliance for accreditation, and automating a number of processes,” said Broggi.
Ambrose, the first college on the platform, will be formed by Oxford academics in the fall of 2018. The plan is for a digital version of Oxford tutorial system at $400 per session. If that sounds expensive, it’s less than half of a traditional degree. Future programs could feature larger groups and lower costs.
Professors could earn $50,000 to $100,000 teaching a comfortable online load. Think “Uber for students, Airbnb for academics”.
“Our blockchain-enforced accreditation processes are such that teachers and students from outside the EU can join our platform and earn a full EU degree – a non-EU student with a non-EU teacher in a non-EU language,” added Broggi.
A series of student and teacher “check-ins” are key to executing a series of smart contracts that validate attendance and assignment completion. A check-in could be a simple as clicking a button on a phone app but it executes a smart contract that pays the teacher and provides micro credits to the student.
“Our ultimate aim is for this to be a driver of job opportunities and security for academics, as well as a low-cost alternative for students,” said Broggi.
Assuming the new university pursues an initial coin offering, faculty could receive compensation in a Woof token. More risk averse faculty could choose to be paid in a stabilised Woolf equivalent of their own fiat currency.
The seed stage venture is raising. And they aren’t the only university piloting blockchain. The Open University and the University of Nicosia have been experimenting with blockchain certificates. Since 2015, the MIT Media Lab has been using Blockcerts for issuing digital certificates.
Add assessments for prior learning (like WGU has been doing for 20 years), some machine scoring of portfolios and good credit transfer policy, and you’d have a really attractive, affordable, anywhere anytime higher education option.