Systems of Trust and web3 in Education

Published: 2022-03-08

Category: Technology |

This post has been percolating in my mind for several months. It started as an opus that sat stale in my drafts because I didn't want to wrestle the mess it was into something readable. Then I pretty much forgot about it because, in the end, .

In that time between writing a fiery essay and not really caring to write at all, I finally settled on why web3 doesn't sit well with me. And it comes down to systems of trust.

Set the stage

For the sake of clarity, let's get on the same page. web3 is a buzzword right now which posits that the "next" version of the Internet will run on the blockchain. This is manifested from the rise in popularity of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the NFT weirdness happening, and techno-futurists hedging on being a part of the "next big thing."

The platform dictates the conversation, and since education and technology are intimately woven together (for better or worse), there are articles and accounts popping up, prompting teachers to start thinking about how to make sure they're ready for the blockchain.

How did we get here?

Understanding how this all works is important to forming an informed opinion. Again, this is a very brief description, but here's a rundown of some of the history.

"Blockchain" is a technology which is essentially a history of something done that cannot be changed. Once something is on the blockchain, it's there forever. The history is public and everyone contributing to that chain can verify the record. The idea was developed in the late 1980's and early 1990's, but didn't really come into play until the release of Bitcoin in 2008. Since then, blockchain technology has been seen as the next big thing in everything from currency to supply chain routing to vegetable freshness. If you're interested in a technical rundown of blockchain, this article was immensely helpful to me.

Bitcoin's big selling point is that you can have secure financial transactions if everyone can see the entire record. In simple terms, a blockchain is a database that you can only add records and only if everyone else watching the chain agrees. Instead of relying on a bank to tell you who paid what to whom, a network of computers manage the consensus model for any update made.

Imagine you're at a soccer game. Instead of there being one scoreboard which displays the current state of the game, every person in the stadium has a scorecard where they keep the game score. Normally, when a goal is scored, the authority (referees) update the scoreboard and the game continues. In our imaginary blockchain soccer game, any time there was a goal, every person in the stadium would have to agree on the new score based on that goal.

The idea is the same in the digital space. When a change is made to the blockchain, every computer involved in that network adds to the consensus of that change.

Systems of trust

Every structure in society is based on trust. I trust my employer will give me a check every two weeks. I trust other drivers on the road will stay on their side of the road. Blockchain technology moves trust away from people and into technology. There are certain benefits to trusting in systems (traffic lights being consistent, for example), but there are also drawbacks, especially when it comes to web3 and education.

At its core, our time with students is based on trust. Parents trust us to make wise decisions for their children. School systems trust teachers to implement the curriculum with depth and rigor. Students trust us to watch out for their best interests. Trust is built into every interaction in the school day and relationships are the backbone for why most of us are teachers.

web3, on the other hand, asks us to trust in the distributed blockchain network. Trust is in the system rather than the person. For a blockchain to work, you need a lot of people (computers, really) to trust one another. In simple examples, it sounds like a great idea. That student actually turned in that assignment.

But when we get into the nuance of some of the proposed benefits of web3, you lose the relationship aspect of teaching and learning completely. Is this their best work? Is this actually their work? We see this already with surveillance tech making it's way into classrooms across the country - systems which assume the student is an adversary before the first day of class.

With relational trust systems, there are avenues for disagreement. Dialogue and relational history come into play when we're judging student work. With web3, we're relying on a distributed network of computers to make a judgement call. If that is the wrong judgement (or a false judgement - theft and fraud still happen with Bitcoin), there is no avenue for recourse.

Permanent scars

Trusting in a system which cannot be revised may have some fringe benefits, but at the end of the day, we want our students to grow. We want students to be better citizens today than they were yesterday. With an educational web3/blockchain, any past mistakes are there forever as signposts of bad judgement. Rather than giving students an opportunity to describe lessons and what came of those situations, they're now an open record for anyone to interpret however they want. Systems of trust are better when people are involved, not when they're distributed.

Technology trends sweep through education just like they do through hedge fund and venture capital circles, albeit somewhat slower. This is an important enough topic to read and think through what implications could come as a result of being a part of the "next big thing." Because if we get this wrong, it's going to be pretty hard to go back.

Other reading

I spent a lot of time reading and chewing through resources to learn more about the underlying technology and some of the other problems that make blockchain a questionable solution to many of the problems it claims to solve. Here is a selection you may find helpful.

The featured image is Iterated Function System by Quasimondo found on Flickr. It is licensed under CC BY-NC.

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