• Mike Vachow

Bit Learning

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Theorists who track the potential uses for block chain technology, the digital underpinning of Bitcoin, contend that it could play an enormously disruptive role in education. Block chain technology generates trust through a kind of super-transparency by creating an editable, distributed, secure online ledger for any set of transactions. A majority of the nodes containing a copy of the ledger must concur with each new piece of data as it arrives, and by this means eliminates the expensive and slow role that certifying, credentialing middle agents play in any realm where value is at stake.

One could argue that the millennia-old definition of "school" is just such a verifying (or branding, more about that later) entity. With our mission statements, philosophical, sometimes indoctrinal, approaches, our curricular scopes and sequences and graduation requirements, we all contend that a (insert name of school here) education is of a piece and has value. Cynics would argue that the value to be found in American education, particularly college education, more closely follows the dynamics of branding, as opposed to utilitarian value. That is, many white collar employers in the market for newly minted workers are more likely to select an Ivy League graduate over a state college graduate not because the former's educational experience has prepared him any better for the work, but because the Ivy Leaguer has been theoretically pre-sorted for cognition, ambition, motivation, etc. These are by no means trivial traits and indeed the race in China to infuse their test-cramming educational culture with the elements of American schooling that seem to build confidence, cleverness, social fluency is testament to the role of school as a place of social learning.

Nevertheless, what if the ledger of one's education was a comprehensive account--assembled at a tiny fraction of the current cost of elite American schooling--that went far beyond the hours and experiences of formal schooling to include work, travel, human endeavors of all sorts, as well as the proliferating opportunities for free learning available online? And what if potential employers could identify the specific "blocks" of learning ideal for any given job and then search the open ledgers of any applicant's education to identify ideal employees? And, most important, what if this more utilitarian means of evaluation proved more accurate than the brand-sorting hat of American education? Such is the breathless speculation of the most sanguine futurists, an endemic quality of the technology community focused on "hacking" and "disrupting" existing institutions of thought.

But what if a sizeable portion of human understanding in its broadest terms is ineffable and any attempt to package it into blocks and verify it a fool's errand? In his 2010 article in the New York Times magazine, virtual reality pioneer and philosopher, Jarron Lanier writes, “To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.” In this light, perhaps we've had it right along--that people learn best in an intentionally built community with a common purpose guided by other human beings who believe they have something to share and expect to grow as learners themselves.

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