Professor John Domingue, Director of The Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University, discusses the future of Edtech and decentralised autonomous universities. He explores the roles of data anylitics, AI technology, AR/VR and blockchain within education. The Open University is the biggest university in the UK and the largest provider of STEM education in Europe.
What is your role at the Knowledge Media Institute?
I am the Director at the KMI, and I’m a professor of computer science. The KMI is a technology, research and innovation lab for the Open University. We look at new technologies that may impact on higher education which are then deployed to our 175,000 students.
What do you predict for the future of edtech?
I think that there are going to be four technologies which impact education.
We’ll be collecting more and more data from students, with their permission. We’ve deployed a tool from my lab called OU Analyse a few years ago. This tool collects data on student interactions with the virtual learning environment. Using that, it is able to predict with 95% accuracy if the student is going to pass the next assignment or the course. This is going to grow. We’re going to collect data from students from before they join; from looking at advertising material on free learning platforms, right through their studies to their careers. That will help produce tools such as automated career coaches.
For more information about OU Analyse see: https://analyse.kmi.open.ac.uk/
AI will have the biggest impact. I predict in the future every single student will have their own personal AI tutor, which will serve several roles. It will understand the course content and be able to answer simple questions about courses, such as the main players, concepts, and how they are related. It will act as a personal assistant, organising meetings with tutors and student colleagues.
The third technology will be augmented reality and virtual reality. We will be able to create in a student’s living room or garden, an educational overlay so they can look at any artefact or living thing and understand it. We will be able to set up virtual experiments and virtual classrooms.
The last technology is blockchain, which underpins the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. With blockchain, we’ll be able to implement decentralised education. This is prevalent at the moment as all classrooms have moved online with the COVID-19 crisis. A blockchain is a public ledger which promotes trust in a decentralised fashion. One will be able to create frameworks a bit like Airbnb and Uber, where you have decentralised use but with no central control. You will able to collect faculty for universities from geographically distant places. The blockchain will also account for certification, giving certificates for students for different forms of learnings. Blockchain will also manage the decentralised group.
What is a Decentralised Autonomous University, and how does it work?
Decentralised universities use the blockchain technology and what are called smart contracts. Smart contracts are financial and legal contracts which one can put on the blockchain and remain there forever. Imagine having a smart contract which implements elements of the administration of the university. The university would run on the ledger with no central control. For me, it’s going beyond the initial decentralisation that the OU carried out 50 years ago.
Students would make micropayments for access to certain materials and teaching. If they pass online exams, there would be certification – either signed off by a teacher or automatic. The non-private part of the certificates would sit on the blockchain. The student can access their certificates through a mobile app, regardless of who the provider is. It may be different universities or MOOC platforms such as Futurelearn of Coursera or work training. They can link their certificates onto their learning record and blockchain is used to verify them. They can then show this to potential employers.
Could this learning form increase the number of people in education globally?
Yes. I think with the tools we have now we could create what I call pop-up universities. So despite challenging conditions, even in refugees camps, one could offer learning. You could use blockchains to certify, who is allowed to teach each subject and the quality of learning materials, bringing openly available materials together. You could have teachers on the ground, along with using other online tools and AI. I really see that you can open a university up anywhere and with any level of contact. So long as the students have an internet connection, they will be able to learn. There are also self-sovereign identity technologies to make sure that the students don’t cheat and that they are who they say they are.
To what extent is this already a reality?
I would say we have some bits and pieces. One component is the word ‘open’ in the Open University, which means that you do not need any qualifications to study with us. That means you can offer very high-quality education to anyone, as long as they are motivated to learn. We have online education that’s happening now during COVID-19, but also happens regularly with the MOOC companies. The OU has run teacher training in some poorer parts of Asia and Africa, so we can support that.
What is the next stage in expanding decentralised education?
I think what’s required technologically would be a global record of all learning, which respects privacy issues but is still trustworthy. So I imagine having a global blockchain for education, where everyone’s studies get encrypted and recorded, so it is always verified. The credentials of any teachers are also recorded and verified. And then you have AI systems to automate some aspects of teaching, including low-level assessment. What needs to be done is to have a global ledger of learning and to have the ability to give every student their own personal AI.