*I will flag that as I’m living and working in Australia, many of the examples I use will be Australian-based.
Where is online education situated as we transition towards a more decentralised economy?
Education has historically been a tricky space to properly align incentives of educators, education providers (or platforms), learners and opportunity alike. As an educator, it’s important to be compensated for the work you’ve done in creating learning resources. As an education provider you’re required to create a sustainable business model that allows you to reinvest into making more engaging learning experiences. As a learner, you’re looking to align your passions or interests with what you learn, be recognised for the learning you’ve completed and ideally at a price that doesn’t break the bank (It did used to be a public good in Australia!).
Ed-tech hasn’t necessarily kept pace with innovations seen in other industries, and as a consequence there has been an abundance of different online educational solutions pop-up with offerings ranging from free to highly expensive - all claiming to offer a unique experience. As an educator, it can be overwhelming to know where to go to create an education ecosystem whilst also being compensated for your development work. As an education provider/platform, it’s difficult to distinguish yourself and your unique value offering from the pack. As a learner, it’s difficult to know where the best place is to go to complete your learning and at times; identify what’s a legitimate source to learn from.
Virtual classrooms through zoom have helped us normalise meeting up online to learn and LMS’s have done a great job of allowing us to package asynchronous content. It’s easier than ever for us to offer fairly sophisticated online learning experiences. But aligning proper incentives between educators, education providers/platforms and learners, still seems to be somewhat amiss in an age where anyone can now create an online learning experience.
In this article, I will firstly outline how the education value-chain has become decentralised from higher education providers. Secondly, I will argue that we need to do more to recognise educators as creators of learning experiences before outlining the limits to a Web 2.0 approach to education. Lastly, I will begin to image how Web 3.0 represents an opportune moment in time to better align incentives of the key stakeholders in education - educational institutions, educators and learners.
Web 2.0 and education - Educators have disaggregated the higher education experience
Private providers and start-ups in collaboration with educators have decentralised the higher education value-chain.
Focusing strictly on higher education, it’s clear to see the landscape has become almost completely decentralised from University providers. A process accelerated by the pandemic. Both learners and educators alike have now realised the potential online education and relevant platforms hold. Namely through proliferating knowledge, accelerating the development of careers and greatly reducing costs for learners whilst ensuring educators are able to retain the majority of profits for courses they make. The tools we now have at our disposal and the normalisation of online education has put us in a situation where Universities are now having to keep pace with individual educators able to craft highly tailored and functional learning experiences. A good pressure point to have on higher education providers.
The learning experience value chain has become disaggregated across a number of key functions. Namely,
- Providing engaging educational experiences - both synchronously and asynchronously,
- Conducting ground-breaking research designed to both educate and have a positive impact on society,
- Providing a pathway towards getting jobs,
- Providing a community to become a part of and learn from,
- Accrediting learners for completing relevant educational experiences so they can take their experience forward.
Platforms such as Coursera, EdX and Open Learning did some fundamental work in beginning to disaggregate the higher education learning experience through the creation of MOOC models. But the ‘bootcamp boom’ as dubbed by Holon IQ began to create more personalised and collegiate learning environments that straddled the real online worlds. Providers such as General Assembly , Academy XI and more recently, HEX are just a few examples of organisations that have created highly engaging learning experiences utilising this model. We now also beginning to see the normalisation of project-based learning within educational experiences across the entirety of the educational sphere. Harness projects is a great example of an educational organisation that offers real-world experience within their educational model helping students begin to build a portfolio of work whilst they are learning.
To their credit, higher education institutions remain a bastion of research labs, projects and retaining research talent. PHD studies and research departments are an ever valuable resource for students and society alike in furthering our knowledge and understanding on emerging societal issues. There is however often lengthy procedures and time-frames associated with getting access to funding for academics. Moreover, academics are required to find the right institution that focuses on their specific interest area, play politics the right way and work with various, often siloed departments to illustrate the value their interest area may have to the institution and drive more enrolments. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process, but it can be a tiring one to go down.
LinkedIn remains the go to location for finding new jobs and anyone who is serious about finding a new role is required to be proficient in properly leveraging it to do so. More recently, education providers EntryLevel and Forage have emerged with the goals of providing learners the skill-sets they require in order to land the job-role they’re interested in. Jobs boards are also now easier to create than ever and are often used by individual creators who create education ecosystems in their niche area.
Educational communities exist around just about every single niche area you can think of - with Youtube channels, Discord servers or Slack channels - I’m sure you’re aware of one in your area of interest. One that I’ve recently become interested in and somewhat active is the Earlywork community which aims to develop and accelerate the careers of young people with a focus on tech and social impact. They utilise a slack channel as the core method of keeping in contact with their members. There are also ed-tech solutions that have emerged to help tackle the administrative burden of managing communities of learners and ensure they are able to achieve their goals - applications such as Vygo which specialises in driving student engagement or Mentorloop which specialises in matching learners with mentors to drive their development.
Credly and Badgr are platforms that exist that allow an educator to build a recognition system into their learning experience and allow participants to share their credentials online through social media networks. This helps bring a level of visibility and legitimacy to a learning experience for both provider and learner. These accreditations do however, rely on the reputation and legitimacy of the provider for them to carry any weight. Partnership networks become instrumental in achieving legitimacy. A Cloud Guru for example became apart of the Google, Amazon and Microsoft partner networks to offer accreditation from these heavy hitters in their cloud-based online courses.
*Holon IQ has done some significant work in further categorising the value-chain of education and recognises the key categories of ‘knowledge creation’, ‘education management’, ‘traditional models’, ‘new delivery models’, ‘experiencing learning’, ‘international education’, ‘learning support’, ‘assessment & verification’, ‘workforce and talent’ and ‘skills jobs’. A full list of the start-ups working in these spaces can be found in the below chart (https://www.globallearninglandscape.org/)
There are a lot of players in the ed-tech landscape.
Educators are creators and creators need to be recognised
The unbundling of the University value chain and emergence of ed-tech solutions able to play a role in helping learners complete learning experiences that are more accessible, engaged and tailored to their individual needs is well underway. But we are struggling to divorce the concept of a learning experience from being hosted by individual platforms or providers. We have not made significant ground in allowing learners to ‘stack’ their own credentials and build their own learning profile cross-institutionally. For example, a learner can not readily complete a sustainability experience on Forage to get industry experience, a micro-credential on land-management at Swinburne University who specialise in the academic side of the practice and then finish off with a semester at Box Hill Institute to get practical on-the-ground experience (this is a purely illustrative and not necessarily accurate example).
The development of micro-credentials have promised some development in this space but they have not been as readily adopted by higher education providers as needed to enable cross-institutional recognition. Part of this reason is that education platforms and providers are incentivised to keep learners attached to their value offering. That value offering being able to offer educational content created by educators who only offer it at that institution. As a consequence, educators often run into the problem of having to be wedded to an individual education provider unless they go completely independent. Creating a course or learning experience is a very complex beast with many moving parts. While it has become easier to do this independently, having recognised frameworks, distribution models and learners to tap into - all offered by educational platforms and institutions - is still incredibly important. Today, to develop new and cutting edge learning experiences, an educator has to find an institution willing to invest the money and time required to help them develop it.
Platforms and institutions are thus able to dictate to educators how revenue shares work, the tech-stacks on offer to them to package a learning experience and educational delivery modes. Unfortunately, this stifles innovation in online education and results in many different educational providers and platforms creating very similar courses and delivery modalities so they can focus on pushing content to develop audiences across multiple interest areas and ultimately scale their operations. This approach comes at the expense of providing optionality and flexibility for educators to become more experimental. In educational technology circles, seldom do we pay tribute to the role individual educators play in piloting and developing educational experiences that refine our understanding of what’s possible in online education. It’s important we begin to recognise this work educators do and equip them with the tools to advocate for new ways of learning. Creators, influencers and educators all play a very similar role in our online ecosystems. They build awareness for new practices and ways of living that improves our lives, the communities we live and work in and the systems we aim to create.
Kajabi, Thinkific and Teachable have made the process easier for individual educators to disseminate and manage knowledge, whereas Skillshare, Maven and Udemy allow creators to not only develop independent courses but also tap into existing networks. But despite the availability of these platforms, there is no doubt an educator in 2022 has to become largely self-sufficient if they wish to explore the various technologies, platforms and providers they have at their disposal to package a learning experience. And what happens if they a package a course for a specific platform or provider and it doesn’t test well with its audience? Or if they develop a course independently with one platform and later decide they want to migrate to a new platform at a later date?
The limits of a Web 2.0 approach to education
The online education solutions for educators we have developed to date have largely been grounded in a Web 2.0 approach to education. A Web 2.0 approach meaning that many of the platforms we are creating for educators still make it difficult for them to own their educational content and administer their own recognition systems independent of one platform.
In an age where those that create educational content are largely driving our ability to deliver cutting edge learning experiences, we need to pay more kudos to these creators and provide them the means to share their educational content across platforms and build their own recognition systems. This way, more learners and learning communities are able to benefit from their expertise and we can focus on addressing other aspects of the educational value chain in online education. Most notably, enabling research capabilities, community building and getting access to jobs. Specialised educational content is then able to be leveraged as a lynchpin to ground discussion on topics that need to be further explored, driving engagement amongst peers and forging connection with industry to open up job pathways. This would help create space to better listen to our learners and understand what it is they are wanting to learn about and prioritise the development or sourcing of learning materials that align with their ambitions. That’s not to say educational institutions shouldn’t be able to offer learning experiences they feel are important or necessary, it’s to highlight that in developing additional or new learning materials we need to take more time to appreciate the direction learners want to move in their careers or ambitions. Only then should we design learning experiences that help accommodate their desired manoeuvrability in the job-market and personal lives.
Web 3.0 and education - Aligning incentives
Web 3.0 and the opportunities afforded to us by blockchain technology represent an exciting inflection point to better align incentives amongst educators, education platforms/communities and learners alike. There is an important shift that needs to happen in our thinking about the delivery of education to properly harness to benefits of Web 3.0 however. That shift, I believe will originate in changing our understanding of educational delivery as being more community-driven and relational and less platform-based and transactional.
Let’s start with thinking about how we can better take care of educators in the web 3.0 landscape. Imagine an independent service provider (or education platform) that works with educators to create educational content or experiences with no proviso of having sole ownership or distribution rights over the content. The educator would be able to distribute that educational content so it’s able to be built into a learning experience within any educational eco-system. Swinburne University, General Assembly or Academy Xi could purchase access. They pay a small fee to be able to distribute the learning experience and obtain the benefit of being able to offer quality learning experiences to their communities affording them more time to focus on what component of the educational value chain they do best. This would work in a similar fashion to how a software product is able to be integrated into any business tech-stack today. This would allow the educator to gain greater distribution and other platforms or communities to benefit from being able to offer high-level expertise. Win-win.
But wouldn’t this detract from that educators ability to sell to more people if they're just licensing their content? Not necessarily.
How could NFT’s and social tokens benefit education?
What if built into that educational experience - at the educator’s choice - was the ability for a learner to mint an NFT to prove they have completed this educational content/learning journey and developed the required skills associated with it. They may have to pay - if the educator decides so - to access that NFT and carry forward that recognition of learning onto their digital identity. The payment for achieving this recognition would go to the original educator who created the course. No matter where that educational experience ends up, there will be an opportunity for the educator to generate an income from those who have deemed it valuable enough they wish to become accredited by it.
Now let’s look deeper into how an educator could benefit from providing educational content to given communities in a deeper way. Say a community, Climate Hackers (for example) - a community platform that is focused on learning about taking action on climate change - bought some course materials from a climate educator so they could distribute it to their members. Fast-forward a month or two and the course seemed to go down well with community members. Some minted NFTs, but many expressed a desire to go deeper. Climate Hackers reaches out to that educator to see if they’re able to collaborate and create a more nuanced learning experience, specific to their community. The educational experience they wish to develop is far more nuanced and action-oriented - specifically, they wish for it to be designed to equip individuals with the expertise to remodel a business’ supply chain to become a net-zero emitter in the dairy industry with scope to expand into other industries. A potentially lucrative course offering. It’s certainly going to be in demand.
Depending on the community and what they’re able to offer the educator for their labour, this may or may not be an attractive offer.
As well as perhaps a development fee, they could pay that educator in social tokens, specific to their internal community. For illustrative purposes lets call it the CHX (Climate Hackers) token. This is similar to offering equity or stock options in a company in order to help fund its development. In this example, the CHX token is listed on numerous crypto exchanges, has been growing steadily in value for the past 6 months and is worth roughly $4 AUD per token. They’ve got a road-map developed that looks like they plan to get up to some pretty interesting things. Climate Hackers offer the expert 2,500 tokens worth roughly $10,000. Risky, but ultimately could be a significant pay-off. They could cash in the tokens straight away if they saw it as too risky. But the beautiful thing is, if they don’t cash them in, the educators incentives become aligned with the development of the community. The more people that take the course, the better the CHX token does and the better the payoff for the educator. Now the educator is able to compound the value of the educational experiences they create, all while the original educational content they created is steadily trickling over into other communities as more awareness for their learning experience grows.
Learners are doing really well out of this deal as well. More often than not, they are getting free access to this educational content after they may have paid to gain access to a community that hosts it. They only have to pay if they want to mint an NFT to illustrate on their digital identity that they’ve developed the relevant skills within that course. Now it sounds like wins all round.
Obviously there are some things to nut out - most notably the tokenomics of a given community (you can learn more about tokenomics here). They would need to ensure there are enough tokens in circulation to properly incentivise both educators to develop educational content for their community and learners to complete the educational content that may be available.
Where do DAOs fit in?
DAO stands for decentralised autonomous organisation and in crypto circles they are quickly becoming the organisational structure of choice. A DAO operates through rules that are created and voted on by a community and actioned through smart contracts. All financial transactions and organisational rules exist on the blockchain. A number of learning DAOs have begun to emerge online that are beginning to harness the potential web 3.0 is able to offer educational communities and platforms. Crypto, Culture and Society exists to bring liberal arts education to the crypto space. Those that purchase tokens are able to participate in their seminar-style learning experiences and vote on which curriculum they would like to see taught into the future. Invisible College is another learning DAO that exists to educate people about Web 3.0 and aims to empower community members to build their own crypto projects. Participants purchase an NFT and are then allowed to participate in all the online courses they plan to offer into the future. Funds obtained from purchasing NFTs are then used to reinvest back into developing student projects that show promise and are voted on as worthy of investment by the community a great example of how we could begin to fund interesting research projects in education. These learning DAOs are just scratching the surface of what’s possible with education in Web 3.0 but they represent an exciting moment in time for online education as they are directly empowering learners to have a far greater say in how and what they wish to learn.
Incentivising learners and bringing industry to the table
A number of web 3.0 organisations are also already utilising NFTs as a means of incentivising learners to complete educationational content and partnering with industry to help them source talent. Rabbithole allows you to earn credentials as you complete ‘quests’ that are designed to upskill you in navigating your way through Web 3.0 infrastructure. Rabbithole partners with Web 3.0 organisations to co-design quests that educate participants on how to get the most out of Web 3.0. For example, you can use rabbithole to learn how to conduct staking, stake with your first cryptocurrency, earn a credential for doing so and identify yourself to that community as someone who could play a role in helping set their governance structures. Buildspace has adopted a similar approach to education. On their platform you’re able to learn how to create a smart contract, your own NFT’s, a web 3 app or even DAO. Again, you receive an NFT for completing your work and share your project on the platform which is able to be reviewed by prospective employers - a handy way to get you participating.
Just the tip of the iceberg
These projects represent exciting innovations for what’s possible in online education, but the Web 3.0 space has not yet fully embraced partnering with educators to develop high quality, immersive learning experiences. Furthermore, learning architecture of Web 3.0 has so much more possibility to create truly personalised learning experiences. Imagine a scenario where an individual learner is able to unlock or ‘mint’ learning blocks (or modules) on their own individual journey, tailored to their individual ambitions. Each time they complete a block, they mint an NFT that sits on their digital identity and flags to potential employers what their capabilities are as well as potentially earning a number of social tokens from the community they have completed that learning block within.
As they complete more learning blocks within individual learning communities they are able to have more of a say in how learning experiences are designed and which areas need to be focused on into the future. They may even propose the development of their own learning experience block which if agreed to and voted on by a community as an identified need can be funded and developed to be disseminated not just within that community, but any one that pays for access to it.
Such learning ecosystems would go a long way to addressing the issues identified in this article. No doubt, problems will pop-up, but the opportunity that exists in the intersection of online learning and Web 3.0 is immensely exciting.