Online, low-residency, and hybrid learning options are commonplace in today's higher education landscape. Students have more flexibility than ever before in crafting their academic schedules. It's no longer necessary to attend a brick-and-mortar institution to receive a quality education.
However, one group of academics, mostly from the University of Oxford, still sees room for improvement. These scholars are creating a blockchain-based alternative called Woolf.
Among the issues they see in the existing university system is the fact that even online-learning options are still predominantly facilitated by centralized, profit-driven entities and are often only accessible to certain regions. Additionally, the academic job market is highly saturated; many university-level professors and instructors are struggling to find and keep well-paying work. When they do find work, students and instructors are often short-changed by enormous class sizes, making teacher-student relationships all but impossible.
The team behind Woolf hopes blockchain technology can circumvent these issues and utilize academic resources in a better, more productive way.
Specifically, EDCCs (aka smart contracts) will play an important role in Woolf's educational structure. "The larger picture is that we are designing smart contracts to reduce the middle layer of bureaucracy between classrooms, university administration, and regulators," founder Dr. Joshua David Broggi told ETHNews. "At Woolf, we're doing this in order to personalize education – to make it affordable for students to study directly with teachers in small, accredited, Oxford-style tutorials."
Woolf runs on the Ethereum network and is being developed by technology director Johann Lilly. "Johann wrote the code for the smart contracts used in our core university processes which are currently under external review," said Broggi. The Woolf team has been testing its Dapp processes since March.
Like other alternative higher ed options, Woolf will employ various pedagogical methods, such as tutorials, lectures, and one-on-one interactions between students and teachers. Broggi elaborated on the tutorial style of teaching: "Tutorial teaching consists of small classes of one or two students studying directly with a professor; classes are rigorous and the learning outcomes include skills of independent thinking, good writing, polished rhetoric, intellectual creativity, and logical analysis."
Although the Woolf platform is not yet complete, Broggi stated that the Dapp will be "used at every step of this process … to enforce regulatory compliance, eliminate or automate bureaucratic processes, and manage the custodianship of sensitive financial and personal data."
Woolf also affirmed the Dapp will focus on accessibility across geographic locations. Individuals from all over the world will be able to participate on the platform through a combination of online and onsite learning. "Our initial priority is to develop courses that are geographically agnostic in their teaching methods – meaning that they can be taught either in person or over a video platform," said Broggi. Moreover, academic experts will be able to create their own colleges under the Woolf umbrella, further facilitating individualized, geographically diverse learning experiences.
What material could a student expect to study through Woolf? Although course offerings have not been solidified, Woolf's "academic team has a focus in the humanities with a particular strength in Mediterranean material and visual culture, literature, and history." Accordingly, the first courses on the platform will focus on these areas. In the future, the Woolf team hopes to develop courses in science and technology. "We have received many strong expressions of interest from colleagues in STEM subjects," Broggi continued.
Broggi maintains that Woolf is "in the process of gaining full accreditation up to the doctoral level in Europe."
Higher ed institutions have demonstrated a growing interest in blockchain. The University of California, Berkeley, will offer an online professional certificate program focused on blockchain technology starting next month. The Luxembourg House of Financial Technology has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Luxembourg to collaborate on projects relating to blockchain's role in FinTech. And Stanford University is starting a research and educational center with the goal of furthering blockchain development.
The Woolf team plans to roll out its platform within the next two years.