Before we begin.
I don't use buzzwords for buzzword's sake. Let me give you a run down of the argument in this essay.
I identify two purposes that an undergraduate-level computer science degree must at least satisfy: (1) ensure the completeness of the education and (2)to foster critical thinking.
I identify three constraints that when considered together lead to a broadly unsatisfied real need for education. It must be (1) freely accessible, (2) from anywhere at any time (3) and officially recognized.
I propose that Blockchain technology. Particularly, by using smart contracts and NFTs. Make for an ideal venue for an accredited degree that satisfies those constrains and purposes. On a large scale. The only existing option I know of that satisfies the constrains suffers from scalability and other issues that can be solved for the most part by Blockchain technology.
I "open source" the idea and briefly lament the difficulty of materializing it.
That's literally it. Let's entertain the idea for a little while, please.
Preliminaries: Open Source CS curriculum
In case you don't already know about it. Check the OSSU CS curriculum on github. It is a learning path. Made up of mostly free resources. Covering about as much as you would learn by attending college.
What if we could take that approach to learning and make if official? Asynchronous, freely accessible and as decentralized as possible?
First. Let's go back and ask why do universities even exist? I know it is a weird question. And I am not being confrontational or dismissive of formal education. I myself have a ton of formal education. And I value my education incredibly high (even though I was unable to finish formalizing it... that's a story for another time :D)
I just think it is worth analyzing.
In as much as students are concerned, the best and most generous answer I can think of is "to make sure that the student's learning is complete enough". That's why you have a curriculum. That's why you have evaluations.
But make no mistake. There are other legitimate and not-easily-replaceable purposes universities fulfill. Like scientific research. And involving future scientists in the scientific community. And (at least in my country) supervising and regulating other educational institutions. As well as providing public services to the community and industry.
But here we are just concerned with the "getting a (undergraduate) degree" role that universities fulfill. Please keep that in mind.
I could come up with a bunch of less generous and more perverse answers... have you read french philosopher Michel Foucault's "discipline and punish"?
Here's another perspective: Universities and educational institutions exists as a way in which societies as a whole make sure the individuals that make it up are productive. Kinda like a self-regulation mechanism. Like how your body has a bunch of mechanisms in place to make sure your neurons can function as they need to.
But you can do all of that on the internet. We have automatic grading systems (for software-based assignments) and we have peer-grading systems. We may even be able to incentivize "open source" assignment reviews. We already do something like that with academic journals.
The last defense for body-present education is that you get to share ideas with your peers. To foster critical thinking. Something indispensable, they would add. And yeah. It is indispensable. But, believe it or not, reddit, twitter, and so, have legitimately benign uses.
And there's another route for teaching critical thinking. Without the risk of group-think and the echo-chamber effect. Philosophy, math, logic and the Humanities. Let's incorporate those in the curriculum!
The "completeness and critical thinking" view of formal education
With all I discussed so far, let me enunciate what I think is the point of formal education. In the reduced context of "getting an undergraduate degree":
- To ensure that the student's learning is complete enough
- To foster critical thinking
Again, in as much as getting an undergraduate degree is concerned.
I will shamelessly call this the "completeness and critical thinking" view of formal education. And the rest of this writing concerns only this reduced view.
Be mindful, I am claiming this. But it is definitely is open for discussion. In fact, I encourage it. But I have a purpose for "reducing" the view like this. Read on!
But why even?
If you are lucky enough to be american or from a western country you may not see much point on this. For example, public college-level education is free (or almost free) in my country (Mexico). Why would I want this work around?
Let me consider three objections:
- You can already get certifications, bootcamps, etc.
- In many countries, college is free.
- And we already have online degrees.
The first one has two problems. First, it is not official. And while it is true that you don't need a degree. It certainly does help. Particularly outside the US. Also, there is a cultural shift towards technical training. Which invalidates somewhat the second purpose of our stated "completeness and critical thinking" view. So bootcamps won't quite fulfill those goals.
And a particularly US-flavored issue: while bootcamps are marketed as cheaper than college, most of them are still eye-wateringly expensive for most people. They certainly are for me. And I am your down south neighbor!
Let's now consider the second objection. While in many countries college is free, it is not the case that you can get free college from every country. Please read that again. And some free-college countries struggle to provide for everyone. Case in point, my own country's biggest public university cannot accept but only 1 out of 10 aspirants (the linked article is in Spanish).
Finally, the "available from everywhere" issue is somewhat solved by already-existent online official degrees. But it definitely does not solve the “accessible for everyone” issue. Why would I pay 20k usd to get an online degree when I can learn the same, with the same format, but without a paper that said I did so? Yet, the mere existence of these degrees shows that people do in fact value the officialness of the bloody diploma. Case in point, check out Georgia tech’s report on the demand for, and incredible success, of its Online Masters in Science in Computer Science (OMSCS)
Would I like the damn prestigious-university diploma? Of course! I would love to have that masters in computer science from Georgia tech. Does that make me somewhat of a hypocrite? Kinda... What do you want from me? I’m only human. Leave me alone! it’s Georgia-frickin-tech!
By the way. If you are feeling super generous… :D
And even then. Those online degrees are not so much available to everyone. For example, check Coursera's terms. From 2014, if you wanted to get a certificate or degree through Coursera from Iran, Cuba, Sudan or Syria you would be out of luck, thanks to US sanctions. Not to talk about the political and economic consequences of the current world affairs in Ukraine.
So none of the two objections quite hold. But I recognize that they are valid alternatives for some situations. Perhaps all you need is a bootcamp. Or you are self-taught like me. And that’s fine.
But we still have people that cannot take advantage of those. Either because they cannot afford to, or they cannot access due to political circumstances. Or because they would really benefit from an accredited degree. Thus the need for an officially-recognized, as-free-as-possible and everywhere-accessible degree.
Therefore this is not a “bootcamps are crap” argument. I just think there is a genuine and, for the most part, unsatisfied need for what I am proposing. Read on!
So in addition to fulfilling the purposes I stated above. It must also satisfy some constrains:
- It must be freely accessible
- From anywhere
- It must be officially-recognized
The last objection
You may now flail your arms in the air, and say what you must reasonably be thinking.
"Jorch, you naive-but-well-intentioned moron! There is no way in hell a university can offer an officially-recognized, tuition free, everywhere accessible degree."
And you would be wrong.
Here, check the University of the People's website. An accredited degree-granting non-profit.
I just want to automatize and decentralize the affair as much as possible. In order to make it as accessible as possible to the people that really need it.
Right now, you have to apply like a traditional university. And while it is tuition-free. There are processing fees for things like exams. I mean, its a non-profit. It still has to maintain a ton of infrastructure. They make the best they can to waive the fees to those that need it. But still.
Or Polygon, or Solana. If am allowed to vent about the ridiculous gas fees!
A non-investor friendly use case for NFTs
How about this. You work through a set of open-source freely-available coursera-style self-paced peer-graded courses. Through a minimally-costly infrastructure-light platform.
Then you get a non-sellable, non-transferable NFT that records your success studying the materials. And have it automagically be linked to your Twitter/LinkedIn/GitHub accounts.
Have educational institutions build and assess the curriculum. And have publicly available smart contracts to handle all the verifications needed in an automatic, decentralized and transparent fashion. And have an US department of education-listed accrediting agency to accredit the program. The Distance Education Accrediting commision already accredits the University of the People
You can already leverage Youtube, social media and blogging platforms. And of course public blockchains like Ethereum.
Does this sound preposterous to you? NFTs can (and should in my opinion) be much more than "expensive jpgs". As some of my non-blockchain-friendly friends call them.
An NFT is just a token with information attached, and stored permanently in a decentralized blockchain. There is nothing intrinsic to them that makes them investment assets. Its perfect for the purpose!
If you think otherwise, read what Vitalik himself has to say about non-transferable "soulbound" NFTs. You may also want to check out the ERC1238
In that same "soulbound" article's last section Vitalik laments how "money-centered" web3 is. Here, let me quote.
"A common criticism of the "web3" space as it exists today is how money-oriented everything is. People celebrate the ownership, and outright waste, of large amounts of wealth, and this limits the appeal and the long-term sustainability of the culture that emerges around these items. There are of course important benefits that even financialized NFTs can provide, such as funding artists and charities that would otherwise go unrecognized. However, there are limits to that approach, and a lot of underexplored opportunity in trying to go beyond financialization. Making more items in the crypto space "soulbound" can be one path toward an alternative, where NFTs can represent much more of who you are and not just what you can afford. "
I mean. The humanitarian rationale for crypto and blockchain's DeFi is giving equal and unrestricted access to banking to people that still lack access to financial services. Check section 4 of the report on decentralized finance by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Lets do the same with education.
For what is worth I do like the idea of investing in crypto and defi. If I had more money to invest, that is...
(pro tip: ape-ing on Pancakeswap is NOT a good idea. Ask me how I know!)
Do you like the idea? But how even?
I recognize that this kind of initiative requires a strong economic drive. And a lot of good will. Something we sorely lack right now. The world is currently a very sad place.
But I can hope, right?
Are you a tech-savy entrepeneur and want to steal the shit out of this idea?
Please... Go ahead... For whatever it may be worth, I am now officially open-sourcing this idea. MIT license, put me in the credits, whatever. I don't care.
Even though you can’t even copyright an idea. But hey, It sounds noble!
Heck. Perhaps somebody else already came up with this idea. In that case, kudos!
I would just love for this to come to fruition! And see a world with more equal opportunities. With better, free, asynchronous access to official education (and get a cs degree myself, why not!).
Because I truly believe that would lead to a more creative world.
And you know me, that's what I, in my own selfishness, want.
That being said. If you want to use the idea and need someone that may know a thing or two about creativity... I like money.
Here's a lesson on creativity. On how it can be used for good. And to save ourselves.
- Creativity requires being willing and able to entertain the wildest of ideas.
- But being intelligent enough to avoid being enamored with them.
I am 100% OK with this idea being complete and utter crap.
Whatever. I came up with it in like, 10 or 15 minutes?
That's only "10%" of what creativity is, anyways.
The other "10%" is hard work. Wait, what?
What's with that, I hear you ask?
Oh I wonder, what do
you, and others
Hopefully you found this essay thought provoking at least. Please consider supporting my writing with a donation.