Hungry like the Woolf? – the first blockchain university

Woolf.university might come on like another technology-driven disruptor but really it’s a restatement of the oldest idea in higher education: scholars banding together to support each other.

The mechanisms may be new, the underpinning may be modish, but there is a straight line between our romanticised vision of 11th century Bologna and a fortuitous conversation between blockchain researchers and humanities lecturers at Wolfson College, Oxford in 2017.

The self-described “first blockchain university” is an attempt to leverage the (perhaps questionable) administrative savings of blockchain technology to rethink the way universities global are run. The aim is to strip academia back to a set of relationships between scholars. Students would pay directly for close contact with academics offering short courses made up of tutorials. These academics group together into a college, with multiple colleges sitting under Woolf’s light-touch federal oversight. Sounds familiar?

Woolf would be global, largely decentralised, and driven by the intellectual desires of staff and students. It would teach entirely via the Oxbridge tutorial model – an essay and a linked discussion, one-on-one (or two-on-one) each week. These tutorials could happen remotely, via any number of common tools like Skype or Google Hangouts, or face-to-face.

What’s missing from this picture? Well, administration. Startlingly, one stated end goal is to employ zero administrators, with processes managed by “smart contracts” – self-actualising units of code that interlink to record student progression and release payment to academics. And, although an individual Woolf college may choose to subject itself to the rigour of joining the regulated higher education sector in any given jurisdiction, this is by no means required in all cases.

What administrators actually do

You’ll be way ahead of me by this point. As you’ve been reading through OfS’s terms and conditions you’ll know that even our new “light touch” regulatory system places certain administrative requirements on gaining degree awarding powers, accessing public funds, and gaining university title. There are data returns to make, links to national systems of quality assurance to be made, even entry into TEF.

A Woolf college may choose to do this – and if the first (Ambrose, made up of academics who have links to the University of Oxford) wants truly to appeal to UK students I’d suggest that they would need to. But such steps require significant work and are already automated to the extent that an exception-laden genuinely personalised system can be.

Away from OA

Betraying perhaps the common room discussion origins of the concept, there are suggestions on how to deal with peer review – casting publishers this time as the folk devils. A peer review pool would support the publication of various Woolf college journals – one revolutionary feature of which would be article access fees paid in part to the authors of articles. However, the idea of an institution without a library (and thus reliant on open educational materials to a greater than usual extent) locking their own research contributions behind a paywall is problematic, to say the least.

Josh Broggi, one of the originators of the Woolf concept, suggested that its processes and structures will just have to be better than the current system – one that leaves students with significant debt, and academics with precarious employment.

Enter the blockchain

However, I’m not convinced that the way blockchain technologies have been deployed thus far do much to address either issue. It feels like every startup (and investor) needs an immutable decentralised ledger these days, and though Broggi takes pains to express a genuine need for both a blockchain and a private token, I’m not convinced.

The blockchain end of the project primarily handles attendance monitoring – tutor and tutee click on a button to indicate that a booked tutorial has started, and this causes the former to be charged and the latter to be paid. Though transactions for both parties would appear to happen at a standard rate in the fiat currency of their choice, the plumbing goes via a proprietary Woolf token built (currently) on the Ethereum platform. This supports, among other things, the deduction at source of a small percentage of the fee to enable things like endowments for scholarships, research funding, the use of Ethereum, and paying for any administration that still mysteriously needs to be done.

All of this could be done equally well using more traditional ecommerce platforms – you could imagine that an app linked to PayPal or Stripe could cover most of this. Blockchain does add a certain level of privacy and security, but it’s not clear where the benefit is, or to whom. Broggi trots out the usual justifications around qualification verification as a use case, but this doesn’t feel to me (much like attendance registers) to be one of the current “wicked” problems that bedevil HE.

The decision to use blockchain technology means that the technical and legal sides of the start-up phase need a lot more effort – the team is already mired in the emerging world of cryptocurrency regulation, with a decision to base themselves in Gibraltar prompted by the world-leading efforts the tiny city state is making to built appropriate financial regulation. It does feel to me like a lot of hassle that could be quite easily avoided with a less fashionable back end.

Ignore the shiny, spot the trend

The best moments in conversation with Broggi (and Martin Gallagher, another team member I spoke to) happened when they let go of the technology and talked about the pedagogy. Both were passionate about the benefits of the tutorial model, and vehement about the critical and analytical skills that could be taught by sustained interaction with philosophy, theology, and the classics.

Both suggested that such skills are not at threat from automation, and I would agree. It made me reflect how long it had been since I’d heard such a powerful case for high-level humanities teaching put as well within the mainstream sector. And it all ties in neatly to their wider concerns around how little control academic staff have over their own working lives. I was reminded of the work of the co-operative university project – another radical restatement of the primacy of a scholarly relationship between student and academic.

Woolf.university will secure funding, either via their planned initial coin offering (ICO) or from venture capital. The idea of an Oxbridge of the blockchain is simply too damn sexy right now for any other result to be possible. But I’ll be watching what they do afterwards very closely. Enough academic labour across global HE is calling out the kinds of issues Woolf raises for it to be the start of something important. I hope they can move beyond the techno-fetishism of their white paper to take ownership of a moment that would separate them from a million other over-hyped blockchain ideas.

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