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Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3
You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.The proposal
As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).
I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:
- Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
- Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
- the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
- the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
- the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
- on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
- once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
- a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
- annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
- instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
- colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
- the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
- Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
- Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
- Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.
There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.What’s to like?
This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).
I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.
Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.
Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.What’s not to like?
Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.
Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.
Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with. The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.Will it succeed?
Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf.
I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.
Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.
The actual tl;dr for this post is probably something like: "Purveyors of ed tech are jumping whole hog on the socio-emotional learning bandwagon, but what if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids?" It's a good point. And Will Richardson suggests some ways of measuring socio-emotional feedback from a student's perspective, where they track us, "every time our 'narrow path' narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them?"Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
Jun 19, 2018
It's hard to believe this is only happening now - the first reference to xAPI in OLDaily was more than five years ago - but we now have a learning record store (LRS) plugin for Moodle. The slow pace is reflective of the industry as a whole - as Moodle News writes, "a few announcements by commercial LMS and learning platforms have turned LRS into fine add-ons, but they have remained academic fever dreams, far from the world-changing expectations."Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic,
Jun 19, 2018
In Canada, " Tech Reset Canada, the Digital Justice Lab, and the Centre for Digital Rights have launched a petition calling for a national conversation about digital rights and human rights." According to the petition, "Such a strategy must include a public education campaign and a consultation process on digital rights, technology ethics, equitable access to the Internet, and the ways these issues impact our quality of life, the governance of our economy, and the safety of our democracy." This is a good time to have this national conversation, while we can. Image: Media Matters for Democracy.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
I’ve read some really interesting books this year. As new ideas are supposed to do, several of these have significantly impacted my thinking. The books that are affecting me the most professionally are those that are giving me language and frameworks for making progress on ideas that have been stagnating in the back of my mind for a while. Some of the “slow hunches” I’ve been pursuing run contrary to popular belief, including questions like:
- Isn’t there a research design better than a randomized controlled trial (RCT) for going beyond correlation and allowing us to talk with confidence and rigor about causation?
- Isn’t there a better metaphor for the work we’re doing in OER than “the commons”?
- Isn’t there a better way to think about OER than as static content like a PDF?
Just a word or two about each of these for now.
Getting to causation. Several titles on causal inference have completely rocked my world and are significantly impacting my thinking about and approach to research. If this literature is new to you (as it was to me), I would recommend (in this order) The Book of Why, Causal Inference in Statistics: A Primer, and
Counterfactuals and Causal Inference: Methods and Principles for Social Research (Analytical Methods for Social Research). And, of course, there is plenty of open source software for those interested in doing this kind of work, including the causaleffect package for R and the DAGitty package for R (also available in-browser).
A better metaphor. The commons is a powerful metaphor for the work that we do with OER, but it also comes with historical baggage that frequently leads people to make the wrong generalizations and draw the wrong conclusions. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is a delightful book about the power of remix. I also found it to be a compelling argument that we consider the coral reef as a new metaphor for our work with OER.
My deep-seated discomfort with PDF. Tim O’Reilly’s book What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us includes this little vignette that caught my attention:
One of my favorite popular definitions of Moore’s Law came in a conversation I had with Reid Hoffman, the founder and chairman of LinkedIn, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) over dinner in San Francisco seven or eight years ago. “We need to start seeing Moore’s Law apply to healthcare,” I said. “What’s Moore’s Law?” the senator asked. “You have to understand, Senator,” Reid interjected, “that in Washington, you assume that every year things cost more and do less. In Silicon Valley, everyone expects our products to cost less every year but do more.”
O’Reilly goes on to name this insight – that technology products should constantly cost less but do more – Hoffman’s Law, and it brings my discomfort with PDFs and other static open content into sharp relief. It’s not just that PDF isn’t a readily remixable format, though that is certainly true. The deeper problem is that while a PDF of an open textbook costs less than the traditionally copyrighted digital learning materials it replaces, it also does less. What would “do more” mean in the context of learning materials? Things like (1) providing lots of opportunities to do combined with immediate, epistemic feedback and (2) supporting students as they create and publicly share openly licensed learning artifacts that have value in the real world.
More words to come as my thinking on these questions develops further. Or, no more words to come if these lines of inquiry don’t pan out.
Jun 19, 2018
Here's the press release, with pointless adjectives and grandiose claimes edited out by me: "SkyHive appl(ies) a skills-based, as opposed to job-based, match of work opportunities.(It uses) machine learning to extrapolate the technical and soft skills possessed by job seekers, as well as the hiring needs of employers.” This is something I've been talking about for some time. If you're matched directly from competencies to jobs, why would you need badges or credentials? That said, a colleague reports that there's a lot of time-consuming profile-filling that leads only to bad results. So, maybe, not quite ready. Related: videos SkyHive for Job Seekers and SkyHive for Employers; white paper SkyHive Overview.pdf (I keep wanting to call it SkyDive, as it reminds me of the What Color is your Parachute series).Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
There's quite a bit of coverage online of this report that basicvally says that Americans are not good at distinguishing between news coverage and opinion. Here's Poynter, here's API, here's Knight. Not surprisingly, "Americans’ level of education makes a difference. Indeed, those with more education are more likely to classify factual and opinion statements correctly." Respondants who trust the press are also more likely to distinguish properly between fact and opinion. This suggests some of the more interesting coverage of the report: learning from what makes people trust news media, and in particular, learning from how weather reports present complex, scientific and often uncertain news.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
Are we ready for an AI that can replace politicians? This is Project Debater', an AI that " listened to four minutes of its human opponent's opening remarks, then parsed that data and created an argument that highlighted and attempted to debunk information shared by the opposing side." The ways this could be misused are legion, but IBM intends it as a force for good: " the real power of Project Debater will be its ability to present unbiased arguments, according to IBM researchers." The real test, however, will be when opponents berate it and call it a special snowflake.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
I do like stuff like this. "In this article, I'm going to explain how I put it together and also what's wrong with it. I knew getting into this that I was going to make some compromises, so the plan is to follow up this version with a nicer one in a follow-up post."Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
I like this idea."The goal of the project is for students to gain fluency in the process of invention and to understand related science concepts embodied in the inventions." They do this by having students make not just one but a sequence of progressively more advanced electric motors. "Kits have been developed for three types of motors in the electric motor sequence: (a) the Davenport Rotary motor, (b) the Charles Page Solenoid motor, and (c) a contemporary linear motor based on a 20th-century design." I never got to do anything like this when I was in school. I wish I had. 13 page PDF. From the just released current edition of International Journal of Designs for Learning.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
Nicely described in O'Reilly thusly: "a really nice demo of the "what if we didn't publish static text and images, but instead you could interact with the explanation?" You can continue on and look at other examples of Explorables, though note that they get complex quickly. De Casteljau’s Algorithm, for example, is a mind-bender. But the benefit of something like Explorables is that you can see what the equations are describing. And you can see how practical some algorithms are, as in for example this bit of centerline labeling on a map of California. Here's the Observable platform, where you can make stuff like this.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]
Jun 19, 2018
I'd rather have a jmysql - a one line JSON api. But still, this is a pretty cool concept. "Generating REST APIs for a MySql database which does not follow conventions of frameworks such as rails, django, laravel etc is a small adventure that one like to avoid .. Hence this." Use with caution, though. Related: AWS SAM CLI -- a CLI tool for local development and testing of serverless applications.Web: [Direct Link] [This Post]