Blockchain: designing the future of value and credit

This session was delivered by Chris Speed and Kate Symons from the Centre for Design Informatics. Chris and Kate have made a fine art of the blockchain workshop they’ve developed to get people thinking creatively, and critically, about the implications of distributed ledger technology.

Opening up the prospect of significant changes to the ways in which we record, share and exchange value, Blockchain has some potentially profound implications for the ways in which universities might organise and assign credit, and their function as trusted gatekeepers of academic value. For a quick overview of what these might look like, see this piece on the Times Higher Education blog:

Chris started us off with some bitcoin and blockchain background, foregrounding its significant, scary, energising and generative implications for the ways in which we conceive of value. We were a mixed group with colleagues and students attending from Geosciences, Engineering, the Usher Institute, Biology, Education, Psychology, and Science, Technology and Innovation Studies

We then conducted as a group three rounds of peer-to-peer trading using lego to build and materialise our ledger of exchange: each transaction made between peers was given provenance (hence the initials on the stickers in the images below) and added to the ledger (the blockchain). Each stage involved different events: simple peer to peer trade, resource scarcity, and value-driven and openly negotiated transactions. Each stage produced a blockchain, which was then closed, only to build the next chain in the subsequent stages.

Which eventually culminated in this, the Near Future Teaching blockchain:

We then split into groups to discuss and ideate around how blockchain could be used in (higher) education. Themes emerged ranging from the dull to the radical, the full-of-possibility to the deeply troubling:

peer to peer or decentralised accreditation

the dissolution of the university as gatekeeper of academic value

boring blockchains to rethink student records management

the need to maintain the ability to lie, or to amend error

the risk of reducing every aspect of learning to a form of (economic) capital

the possibility that students might assign each other social and academic credit, that assignment of credit might move away from the university, and away from individual lecturers

the possibility that students might craft their own learning pathways, accredited by peers and bypassing the university entirely

The emphasis of the Near Future Teaching project on how values should drive future planning for digital education was brought into very stark focus here: distributed ledger technology has potential to allow us to radically open up the university (a promise we’ve heard frequently in the digital education space) or to radically to lock it down. How should we respond?

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