Edu-Blocks Arrive in New Hampshire

Roughly two months ago I discovered Southern New Hampshire University had become the first academic institution in North America to issue a diploma credential / education transcript on the Blockchain. It surprised me. I knew Learning Machine (MIT) was working on this in Malta, but I had no clue there was a domestic trial underway. I dove in, did a lot of research, and created the map below. To view an interactive version that is actually readable click here.

Then, after I was done I found myself mentally exhausted. I let it sit, but with summer winding down, it’s time to get back to it. There are many, many stories that can be told with this map, too many. I have a friend who tells me I tend to bury the lead and go in too many directions all at once. Honestly, I can’t disagree with her. I struggle with holding too much in my head and trying to put in down on paper in a way that makes sense. So, with that in mind, I’ll start with a short version and then, if you want to dive deeper into the map with me, keep reading.

The Short Version:

Blockchain, a ledger/permanent record of transactions that document our lives, is a concept we’re going to have to grapple with in the coming years.

There is now a proof of concept for a digital Blockchain wallet that will hold and allow instantaneous permissioned access to a person’s education credentials.

The test case for this technology involved an institution that is among the largest providers of online higher education in the United States.

SNHU’s test case focused on their “College for America” program, a competency-based model that eliminates seat time and face-to-face instruction. Gates and Lumina funded this model. It is one that maximizes profit for companies at the expense of the people providing the instruction.

“College for America” delivers a workforce-aligned curriculum. It favors “stackable credentials” and certificates over formal degree programs. It is closely linked to human capital development.

While Blockchain digital credentialing is starting in higher education, the Ed Reform 2.0 plan is to break down the walls between all levels of schooling. Sooner or later this credentialing will seep into K12 education. Remember micro-credentials and badges? Blockchain is perfect for them. Are you paying attention to developments like the Mastery Transcript Consortium? Blockchain is designed to hold that data, too. Badges are already being issued in K12 for after school, summer and Out of School Time programs. It won’t be long.

The people developing alternative credentialing come from the global fin-tech, social impact investment, and national security sectors.

Block-certs will pave the way for online learning lockers and digital portfolios. They will combine credentialing and digital payment platforms. They will usher in machine searchable credentials to facilitate the expansion of automated hiring (or non-hiring). They will also permit access to aggregated data to assess “impact” on pay for success outcomes-based contracts, while supposedly preserving individual “privacy.”

We have crossed a threshold, but as the new school year starts only a handful of people (other than the investors and those coding this new world) realize it.

We are not prepared, not by a long shot.

The Long Version:

Southern New Hampshire University is a private college in the southeastern corner of the state about an hour’s drive north of Boston, a nexus of digital technology, Third-Way public policy, and innovative finance development. The 3,000 people who attend classes on SNHU’s campus represent a fraction of the total enrollment. Under the leadership of Paul Leblanc, Senior Education Advisor to the merchant-banking firm Ridge-Lane, SNHU vastly expanded its virtual reach. Over the past fifteen years the school’s online enrollment grew to nearly 100,000 people. 2,700 faculty members spread across the country, most working part-time, deliver SNHU’s instruction.

In June 2018, SNHU became the first institution in North America to issue education transcripts on Blockchain. This was done in partnership with Learning Machine, an initiative spun out of the MIT Media Lab. An innovation hub at SNHU, the Sandbox Collaborative, has functioned as a space to facilitate discussions about the future of higher education at SNHU since 2015. Michele Weise left the Clayton Christensen’s Institute to run the space, moving on to Strada Education in 2017. She was replaced by Brian Fleming formerly of Tyton Partners, an investment banking and education strategy firm based in Boston. Below is a lecture given by Learning Machine’s CEO Chris Jagers on Blockchain delivered at the Sandbox Collaborative in February 2017.

Learning Machine worked in partnership with the MIT Media Lab to design an open standard to issue digital credentials called Block-certs.

Phillip Schmidt pushed the project forward at the MIT Media Lab. Schmidt helped launch Peer-to-Peer University, an online open education program with a deep list of funders that included Hewlett Packard, IMLS, the Knight Foundation, Dollar General, and the Siegel Family Foundation. P2P University grew out of a 2007 meeting hosted by Open Society and the Shuttleworth Foundation based in South Africa. The meeting resulted in the Cape Town Open Education Declaration that promoted the adoption of Open Education Resources and Internet based instruction across the globe.

Interactive version of above map here.

David Siegel founder of the Siegel Family Foundation, one of P2Ps funders, is a co-founder of Two Sigma Investments and former Managing Director and Technology Advisor for Tudor Investments, Paul Tudor Jones’s (Robin Hood Foundation) company. John Overdeck, David’s partner at Two Sigma, has poured money into ed-tech, blended learning, SEL, and pay for success initiatives through his Overdeck Family Foundation.

Interactive version of above map click here.

Prior to his involvement with P2P University and the MIT Media Lab, Phillip Schmidt worked with United Nations University, Mozilla, and Accenture (involved in the ID2020 program).

It is notable that the Chicago Public Library, Creative Commons, MIT, and Mozilla were all collaborators on P2P University, since the MacArthur Foundations’s pilot LRNG badging initiative was launched in Chicago’s library system via the YouMedia and Chicago City of Learning programs. Mozilla worked closely with MacArthur to develop  digital badges. Badges laid the groundwork for the digital credentialing on Blockchain we now see emerging.

Interactive version of above map here.

The first issuance of credentials on Blockchain took place at MIT in October 2015 in conjunction with the Lab’s 30th anniversary. All celebration attendees were awarded a digital certificate (badge). In 2016, certificates were issued on Blockchain for those who completed a boot camp and a workshop run by MIT. A challenge of the technology is that it requires people to use a combination of public and private keys to secure and verify certificate information. The average person doesn’t have that level of technical expertise, so Learning Machine devised a smart-phone app / e-wallet to make the process user-friendly.

Kim Hamilton Duffy, CTO at Learning Machine, was the architect for Block-certs. Duffy started out as a software engineer for Northrup Grumman, moved on to Microsoft, and then did stints in software engineering for Usermind and Visible Technologies, a company that provides real time analysis of social media content to the US intelligence community. In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA was an investor in that software. Chris Jagers, CEO, and Natalie Smoleski, business development, are Learning Machine’s other two staff members. Neither has extensive experience beyond running a company called Slideroom, which uses online portfolio software to inform education applications, proposals and hiring decisions.

Learning Machine entered into blockchain education credential pilots with the nation of Malta (fall 2017), the University of Melbourne in Australia (fall 2017), and the Bahamas (summer 2018) where funding support came from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Interactive version of above map here.

The company has obtained financing from Learn Capital, Omidyar Network, and PTB Ventures. Learn Capital (Tom Vander Ark was a partner from 2008-2016 and now serves as an advisor) has extensive holdings in education technology, as does Omidyar. Omidyar Network also has considerable investments in social impact sectors involving digital identity and fin-tech. PTB stands for Project Trillion Billion and focuses on early stage investment at the intersection of digital identity and Internet of Things. David Fields, founder of PTB, went to school at the Booth School of Business University of Chicago (Richard Thaler), worked in venture capital and as an analyst with Citigroup, and serves on several boards of digital identity and encryption companies including Element and Callsign. Element is a biometric digital identity authentication company launched by Yann Lecun, former chief AI scientist for Facebook and founding director of the NYU Center for Data Science. Callsign is a digital authentication system that relies on analysis of biometric data, keystroke and swiping techniques, online habits and location data to provide secure acess.

SNHU piloted its Blockchain transcript program with 1,200 students who graduated this summer from their competency-based, alternative education program “College for America.” College for America was launched in 2012 with money from the Gates Foundation channeled through an Educause Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant. The following year it became the first higher education competency-based education program approved to receive Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) funding. The program is one of 30 colleges and universities that are members of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), an initiative begun in 2014 and funded by Lumina to promote and scale competency-based diplomas nationwide.

Rather than obtaining a specific number of credit hours, SNHU students are expected to demonstrate competencies in 120 different areas. The program offers Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Arts degrees and certificates. The competency-based education courses are all online and aligned to the following industries: healthcare, insurance and financial services. SNHU has built partnerships for human resource development with companies including Aetna, SEIU, McDonald’s, YMCA, Scholastic, the Gap, Sodexho, ConAgra, K12, Comcast, and an array of state and municipal governments.

They’ve also partnered with Davinci Schools, a California-based charter organization funded by Gates and HP that promotes an online home-based and school based blended learning model. In 2016, Davinci and SNHU teamed up to craft a proposal for the Emerson Collective’s XQ Superschool competition. Their project, Rise High, was one of ten new school models awarded funding from Laurene Powell Jobs’s $100 million contest. The model targets foster youth in the Los Angeles area, offering “flexible access points” for wrap around services, a structure that is well suited to generating profit for the social impact investment sector and their non-profit partners.

The image below is from one of Leblanc’s 2014 slideshares introducing the self-paced CBE concept, viewable here.

A blog post from College for America posted this week aims to inform HR professionals about the potential of Blockchain credentials. The benefits SNHU touts are portability; trust in the credential without verification (fraud prevention); and perhaps most notable, the potential for HR staff to utilize online searches of credentials to screen candidates. According to the post “Rather than reading each resume, HR will be able to find the most relevant candidates as easily as if they were typing a search into Google.”

In a previous post from April 2017 I describe a future where a person’s “resume” becomes a never-ending collection of skill codes, not unlike healthcare codes. To even qualify to apply for a job a person would have to have a minimum of ALL the required skills logged on Blockchain. If they didn’t, a program like College for America would offer them the opportunity to pay for an online class to earn the skills they lack. Of course there is no guarantee that after signing up for an online course, that person would complete it. Or that if they successfully completed it, they would end up getting the job. Meanwhile whatever debt the person took on to pay for the tuition continues to mount.

Google recently issued a $1 million grant to SNHU to develop “soft skills” assessments for “opportunity youth,” young people ages 16-24 who are not enrolled in school and are unemployed or underemployed. According to Google’s website, “SNHU will develop the Authentic Assessment Platform (AAP), a competency-based assessment mapped to in-demand soft skills. Results from this platform will feed into a facilitated job placement process to help inform a just-in-time training model for young jobseekers. SNHU will also address the lack of credentialing by providing those who complete this assessment with an SNHU badge.” According to this post on SNHU’s website funders are looking to develop an assessment that can identify such traits as grit, teamwork, and trustworthiness. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll remember these are exactly the traits labor economists like Jim Heckman intend to document and manipulate in order to generate profits for social impact investors like JB Pritzker.

The school launched a massive advertising campaign and is vying with Western Governor’s University in Utah to unseat the University of Phoenix as the country’s largest online education provider. When I was in Boston earlier this spring, the entire interior surface of Boston’s North Station was branded with SNHU advertisements. Targeted growth areas include non-traditional students and DACA recipients. Leblanc has also initiated partnerships with community colleges and high schools in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Utah, co-signing dual enrollment classes delivered by high school teachers when parents pay an associated $100 fee.

Sadly, another growth market is global refugees. In the fall of 2017 SNHU received an anonymous $10 million grant to scale their competency-based education program for the UN High Commission on Refugees, Connected Learning in Crisis, SOLVE at MIT and the American University of Beirut. Connected Learning in Crisis is comprised largely of Catholic-affiliated institutions. The program delivers instruction using a blended online model through their partner Kepler. Former DOE Secretary Arne Duncan is an advisor to the program. They are currently working with two sites in Rwanda and with the New Hampshire YMCA to deliver education services to refugees in the state.


Interactive version of the above map here.

Ed Reform 2.0 is veering away from traditional two-year and four-year degrees, replacing them with stackable credentials and badges that students (aka human capital) will be forced to acquire to compete for jobs in a shrinking labor market. To sustain this model SNHU needs to have a “trusted” system capable of logging “competencies” students acquire, since retention, always an issue in higher education, is especially challenging in the online education market. The ephemeral nature of gig economy employment will require continued re-skilling, what the reform/venture capitalist crowd attempts to euphemistically frame as “lifelong learning,” so the ledger or permanent record is key.

The cyber education model is suited to this period of extreme austerity and dehumanizing financialization. SNHU developed a product line that can be delivered 24/7 “anywhere,” “anytime.” The online classes, after a modest initial investment, can be repackaged and sold over and over to a wide range of clients yielding a significant rate of return.

Arizona State University has developed a similar initiative, EdPlus. ASU president Michael Crow, also an advisor to Ridge Lane, is advancing this program leveraging partnerships similar to those pursued by Leblanc. EdPlus has teamed up with corporations that rely on precarious employment like Starbucks, and is eyeing the refugee education market as well as dual-enrollment online courses for high schools. ASU was touted as a great model at the August 2018 “Imagine: A Better World, A Better Education Global Conference” hosted by Amazon Web Services in Seattle. Online education creates data, and data is the new oil. Data creates value for companies; data profiles people; and data is used to refine the AI many see eventually replacing human instruction.

Matthew Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment, is on the faculty of ASU. He moderated a panel on Blockchain credentialing at the May 2017 ASU+GSV conference that is viewable below.

Parchment, founded in 2003, is a digital credentialing company financed in part with venture capital from Raine Group. Jeff Sine, Partner and Co-Founder of Raine Group with Joe Ravitch (son of Diane Ravitch) serves on Parchment’s board. Sine formerly worked for UBS, a Swiss bank that has been doing considerable R&D on blockchain identity and development impact bonds (like global SIBs). Raine Group led two rounds of funding for Parchment in 2012 and 2014. Details here and here. Pittinsky and ASU have not yet jumped into a Blockchain certification pilot, but with SNHU moving forward, I’m sure they have something waiting in the wings.

So, the days of “Learning Is Earning” have now arrived, perhaps earlier than anticipated. I see the NPE Conference is coming up in October, their fifth gathering. When the event came through my social feed, at first glance the line-up looked not much different than what it had been back in 2014. I’m not going to make it to Indianapolis, but for those of you who go, maybe ask Diane when Blockchain credentialing and impact investing are going to be put on the front burner. The clock is ticking and we need to strategize what our options are in this post-Janus moment.




2 thoughts on “Edu-Blocks Arrive in New Hampshire

  1. Laura H. Chapman says:

    Bad Credentials!
    You’re not allowed to do whatever you’re trying to do. Please contact us if you think we’re mistaken.
    This message came up with all of your interactive links to LilSis.

    Apart from that, you have made wonderful use of LilSis to show the interlocking and complicated webs of influence and flows of money. I do not know of a single person or institution with the clout and money to stop this now international undoing of the architecture of public education, including public institutions of higher education. The whole blockchain enterprise is built on distrust and a desire to substitute highly reductive data-friendly thinking for “skill sets” believed to be marketable even if a hodgepodge of this and that. The marketing of pay-for-success, social impact bonds is also international in scope, with the performances of children monitized and independent judgment of teachers subordinate to the financial interests of investors. The rationales for all of this are on behalf of “more bang for the buck” from corporate-style management of all public assets. Shrinking the “public sphere” and ridiculing the common good are part of the demolition derby. Thank you for this work, and for recent efforts to shape and reduce the key points to out soundbite “instagram” and twitter-feed world ( also a huge part of the problem in communicating ideas).

    • wrenchinthegears
      wrenchinthegears says:

      Bless you for being one of the few who actually click on my maps. I find them so helpful to process all of this information, but it seems very few look at them.

      It turns out I accidentally clicked “private” on these maps. I went back and changed the setting, so I think they all work now.

      I am devastated. Honestly have hit a wall after my Blockchain video. I don’t know how to stop it or even effectively talk about it. No one knows what is happening, and yet it has progressed so far I can’t imagine how it can be turned around.

      I feel like a live split between two worlds-those who know about the dystopia and those who remain oblivious. It is very hard.

      Your summation is spot-on.

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