Schools in an Era of Decentralized Learning Networks
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December 18th, 2022

“If learning becomes decentralized, are schools going to disappear?”

A couple of months back I was leading a workshop on the potential impacts of web3 on education for school leaders and this question stuck out like a sore thumb. Public education in the United States (perhaps more broadly) seems to be breaking under the immense pressure of rapid shifts in technology, society, and competing priorities. Even for those working in public ed, the idea that schools might altogether cease to exist is not outrageous.

I think broadly the idea that schools serve as central hubs of learning, with teachers imparting knowledge to students through direct instruction, homework, and tests/quizzes have largely gone unchallenged. However, the rise of the internet and online learning has led to a shift in where how, and when we learn. No longer are schools the only place where knowledge is aggregated and disseminated. Learning how to replace a leaky faucet, or causes of globalization, or… is a click away. Learning is already being decentralized.

Public education has been surprisingly resilient over the last 100 years, but if we are to survive the next 100 we need to rethink the idea that schools are the ONLY place of learning for young people.

What is a Decentralized Learning Network?

For the purposes of this discussion, I define decentralized learning networks as educational systems that operate both inside and outside of the traditional school structure, using a variety of methods, sources, and technologies to facilitate teaching and learning. This can include in-class learning, online courses, project-based learning, collaborative learning platforms, internships, community service, etc. An important part of a more open and free architecture for learning is that the learner is able to exercise choice in their learning journey. Providing a range of options is great, but to actually decentralize, learner agency is a must.

Decentralizing the architecture of learning can come with some key benefits for learners:

Probably the most obvious benefit is that the learner is better able to customize the learning experience by leveraging the network. Customization at a mass scale is nearly impossible in the traditional classroom or school setting, and while differentiation can provide some autonomy there are limitations to meeting the needs of all learners. This can be frustrating for both educators and learners who have different preferences for learning or who need extra support to grasp certain concepts.

In an ideal world a decentralized learning network, students can choose the subject matter, experts, and, learning methods that work best for them and can work at their own pace. This would allow for a more personalized and effective learning experience, as students are able to focus on the areas they have the most interest in and need the most help in working at a pace that is comfortable for them.

Another benefit of decentralized learning networks is the ability to connect with a global community of learners. In a traditional classroom or school, learners are limited to the knowledge and experiences of their classmates, and educators. In a decentralized learning network, students can connect with peers and experts from around the world, giving them access to broader perspectives and a larger pool of skills and expertise to learn from.

Decentralized learning networks also offer more flexibility in terms of the place where instruction occurs. Typically, learners in traditional schools are required to be physically present at a specific location at a specific time. As was mentioned before, the internet has broken the hold that schools and other learning institutions used to have on knowledge acquisition. In a decentralized learning network, learners can leverage the power of the web through the use of digital content and course materials to participate in learning anywhere and anytime so long as they have an internet connection, allowing for greater flexibility in where learning occurs.

So where does this leave schools if we allow learning to move out of the school?

Again, in an ideal world, decentralized learning networks would provide greater access and opportunity to a wider range of learning opportunities. That however comes with challenges which are where I think schools can fill a critical void in a world where decentralized learning networks become the norm. The challenges will be particularly prevalent as we transition from the centralized systems of today to the decentralized systems of tomorrow. Here identify three key problems that leave PLENTY of space for schools in this world.

🧭 In a decentralized model, responsibility for learning shifts from the school system or the teacher of record to the learner. In this model, learners must have self-motivation and self-discipline to navigate their learning journey. In this same thread, who will provide learners guidance on that journey? In this respect, schools and educators can be the support systems for learners navigating a world of increasing complexity serving as a learning compass.

🌱 Though often criticized, schools have grown in their abilities to support learners with exceptional needs. In the early stages of decentralized learning networks, there will be a shortage of professionals capable of providing specialized instruction in various disciplines ie (intensive reading support, occupational therapy, etc.). Ideally, this shift could benefit both educators and learners. With greater access to expertise outside of schools, educators can focus on those areas of learning that interest them the most, and learners benefit from access to educators’ specialization.

📲 How we acknowledge and give credit to learning has been an open discussion for some time. Shifts in higher ed and the workforce point to a world where there is going to be less emphasis on standardized testing and a greater focus on individual skills and experience. With this shift already underway, it is imperative that schools begin to consider broadening both our definition of success and how we credit learning. In this new world, schools could serve as learning hubs verifying learning experiences and helping build a growing catalog of potential learning experiences for learners. The use of blockchain technology and verifiable credentials could be a critical technology that enables decentralized learning networks.

For schools to remain relevant in a world where learning is becoming increasingly accessible and decentralized it is essential that schools lean into and embrace those shifts. By relinquishing some of that control and defusing the responsibility of learning, both schools and learners stand to benefit from the increased ability to offer more personalized and flexible approaches to learning.

In the next post, I look forward to taking a closer look at what educator and learner experiences might look like.

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