Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ledger: Lab Rat America

Oh my God. Oh my effing God.

If you want to see where Competency Based Education, data mining, the cradle to career pipeline, the gig economy, and the transformation into a master and servant class society all intersect-- boy, have I got a video for you. Spoiler alert: this is also one way that public education dies.

I'm going to walk you through the video, embed it for your own viewing, and tell you about the people behind this. Hang on. This is stunning. And I'll warn you right up front-- this is not some hack job that looks like amateur hour video production (like, say, an in house USED video). This is slick and well-produced. Which somehow makes it more horrifying.

The Video

The video is a little SF film taking us ten years into the future. Imagine you are one of the one billion people using a new technology called The Ledger. And our slogan...?

Learning is earning.

Your Ledger account tracks everything you've ever learned in units called edublocks.

An edublock represents, supposedly, one hour of learning in any subject-- which brings us to our first mystery, which is exactly how one breaks down learning into hours.

But you can get edublocks from anyone-- from a formal institution like a school (though as we'll see, there will be precious few schools in the Ledger's world) or from, well, anyone. Literally anyone. But especially also your workplace. That connection matters, because edublocks are tied straight to your employment and your income. But they can also come from informal groups, community gatherings, even apps. Even when you are jamming with your garage band or training puppies, you can be earning edublocks.

Your profile displays all the blocks you've earned. Employers can use this information to offer you a job or a gig that matches your skills. 

The Ledger will track the money you make from those gigs and use it to evaluate the edublock sources; ultimately every edublock source will carry a rating that shows which sources led to people earning the most money. Because in the world of the Ledger, money is the ultimate yardstick by which all value is measured. You can even market yourself as a commodity, bartering for free edublocks by offering a share of your future earnings in return. The video does not say anything about what happens if you do not provide a sufficient return on the investment, and I'd rather not imagine how that particular "collection" goes.

All of this managed by blockchain, best known for managing the world of bitcoins, which are totally going to change how the world economy works, somehow, someday (but we've encountered them in similar schemes before). But one of the critical features of such a system is that all of these edublocks are part of a public record. This is your cradle to career data backpack, but it's not remotely private. It can't be-- not for the system to work as imagined. When your elementary principal warned you that your misbehavior with the erasers at recess could become a blot on your permanent record that would follow you around forever, she had no idea that she was understating the case.

Now we're going to meet some real imaginary people from 2026 to illustrate how all this plays out.

Here's freelance delivery driver Michael, who opens with "Always learning, always earning, that's my motto." He tries to learn something every month, which is a challenge ("It ain't easy"). However, his advantage is-- well, I'll just quote him because this is a special moment-- "One thing that helps, I love to read. So I listen to a lot of audio books..." which mostly just calls to mind Ray Stanz saying, "Listen. Do you smell something?" Anyway, the audio app awards Michael some edublocks whenever he gets to the end of an audio book. No word on what happens if he just reads a paper one. Michael also belongs to a book group with other drivers, and they take turns teaching and earning blocks, but the big insight he offers is this--

It's more like, Ledger has opened everyone's eyes to the fact that there are teachers everywhere.

With that, we cut to Yolanda, a young woman in the government's Pay It Forward program, in which you pay off your college loans by teaching other people what you've learned. Because when she took her college course, those credits went into the Ledger and she is pre-approved "to teach any subject I passed." Which would seem to suggest that the moment her college professor finished teaching the first class, that professor's job could be eliminated.

Then-- and this is not apropos of anything-- there's a bizarre guitar interlude that sounds like a vinyl disk being played with an off-center hole.

Next we meet Carl, who in 2026 is a "Learning and earning counselor." The video does not suggest if this 54-year-old man took this job after his college professor-ship was eliminated. Carl notes that people have to decide whether they want to go the traditional college route or just build their own program.

That brings us to Alejandra, who is sixteen years old and, by virtue of playing science games on her tablet, has Ledgered her way into becoming a leading scientist in the field of biochemistry. I am not kidding. She got a trophy, and the program now gives her "super-hard" puzzles to solve. But the really awesome thing is that she gets paid for accumulating these edublocks. Because earn while you learn. So the game is like her first biochemistry class, but it is also her job.

Now, Aileen, a human resources director, is here to explain how edublocks empower the gig economy. No more entry level jobs. In fact (though she doesn't say it in so many words) no more jobs. Employers have projects. They whip up a list of skills needed for the project and then they go search the edublock database for people with those edublocks and bring them on for the project. "Of course, relationships are still important. And we still help people grow," she says. "But we don't have to pay them jack and there are no benefits or pension costs, so it's hella cheap for us." Okay, I made up the last part. But in addition to whatever money they get, the workers also earn edublocks, which these folks anticipate will be kind of like part of your pay. So, a way to formalize what folks like web designers and writers have always loved abouyt some gigs-- no real money, but a chance to get "exposure" and "experience."

Next up-- David, an edublock verification designer. See, we'll all be logging into edublock verification sites where we will be given "a task, a chance to demonstrate your proficiency in a real world context." Because nothing is more real world than an artificial task on a computer program. Wonder what the software for welding or setting broken bones will look like. Very real world, I'm sure. David offers a sample list of skills that you could demonstrate, including designing a logo and grading an essay. David says you're even paid for your time, though probably something minimum wagey.

Now we're winding down with big slogans like "Employers are teachers. Jobs are courses. Every gig is a chance to learn something new. Schools and teachers are obsolete for the lower class." Okay, I just added the last one. But I did not make up this next one--

And with one billion people on the Ledger, there are more teachers than ever before.

We're back to Michael, who says that when he's a teacher, he takes it seriously (he does  not repeat that it ain't easy) because learning connects everything in his life.

Who the hell are these people?

The video is courtesy of ACT Foundation and the Institute for the Future.

ACT Foundation is an offshoot of the testing folks; their goal is to reach "across organizational boundaries, sectors, and the nation, to develop strategic approaches to support working learners in their journeys toward successful careers and lives." ACT's CEO Marten Roorda is on the board of directors along with Jim Larimore, ACT's Chief Officer for the Advancement of Underserved Learners, Thomas J. Goedken, Treasurer and CFO, ACT, and Ms. Sara R. Netolicky, Secretary and General Counsel, ACT. The Foundation's founding and current executive director is Parminder J. Kassal.

Kassal used to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the area of postsecondary success for poor kids. Before thatshe was a director of workforce solutions in Louisville, a senior associate at Futureworks, and a head of the consulting wing of Lucent. So, no actual background in education. Which, hey, doesn't matter, because everyone in the world is a teacher.

Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, is "an independent, non-profit research organization with a more than 45-year track record of helping all kinds of organizations make the futures they want." Their staff includes people from fields in the range of "the social sciences, public policy, technology, and the creative arts."

My Reaction? 

Let me repeat. Oh my God. Oh my effing God.

First let's talk about that number-- one billion. US population is currently a tad over 300 million. Primarily-English-speaking people hovers around 400 milllion or more. World population is couple of tads over 7 billion. So who are the one billion? Which multiple nations has ACT targeted for this Brave New World (and how are they jumping across language barriers). Is there a real plan behind One Billion, or did it just sound like a cool number for marketing?

And speaking of that, what is the marketing plan? Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have all worked hard to get the masses of humanity behind their own multifaceted platform for interaction with the digital ocean, and yet people still insist on fishing in that ocean out of different boats. How well will the Ledger work if only some employers and some trainers and some apps and some meat widgets use it? What will happen if a market battle breaks out-- there are other companies out there working on some version of this idea.

Does ACT have a plan for getting not one, but several governments to sign off and join up on the Ledger, so that the program can have access to everything, every last bit of data? Because this whole plan would seem to require that a corporation and governments join together to provide a more user-friendly computer-based surveillance state.

And by user, of course, I mean corporations, because it's future employers who would find this most helpful. Just check the database, select the meat widget that fits your specs, and slap that widget in place.

If enough companies pick up on the Ledger, that might make it useful to future meat widgets, but this is a system with all of the terrible weaknesses and general crapitude of competency based education writ large. I mean, mountain-sized huge.

Who, for instance, is going to write all the lists of all the edublocks that comprise all of the possible sorts of education one can get? I suspect the answer is "employers," because implicit in the ledger is that the only "education" or "skills" that matter are the ones that someone will pay you for. The Ledger gives employers total control over what "education" means in this (and apparently several other) countries.

Who is going to create all the tasks that will measure and certify certain skills? It doesn't actually matter that much, because the bottom line is that all jobs and skill sets will be broken down to the simplest possible set of tasks, a simplification that guarantees that all nuance, complexity, and higher-order thinking will be kicked right out of the system.

Exactly what task will certify that you have acquired one hour's worth of critical thinking?

And how do we even begin to discuss the notion that it doesn't really matter whether you learn quantum physics from a PhD in the field or from a person who once sat in one class taught by that PhD?

And does anybody think that this is how the children of the wealthy will be educated? Will they accept this sort of "education"? Will they accept this total violation of data privacy?

This is not education. This is training. This is operant conditioning for the servant class that also provides the upper class with tools that let them trickle even fewer benefits down to the working class.

In fact, I would say that this is just training rats to run a maze, but it's even worse than that, because ultimately even if we were to accept the premise that simply giving some job-ish training for the underclass is good enough, and even if I were to accept the racist, classist bullshit that somehow ignores the immoral and unethical foundations of such a system, the fact remains that this would be a lousy training system. To reduce any job of any level of complexity to this kind of checklist-of-tasks training provides the worst possible type of training.

So, no, this isn't even sending rats into a maze to earn a pellet of food. This is carrying the pellet dispenser with you as an app. This is saying, "Well, the maze just involves twelve left turns and seven right turns." Then I hand the rat a tiny phone with an app that measures his ability to turn corners, and once the rat has turned twelve left corners and seven right ones, the app spits out a food pellet.

This is also, not incidentally, the death of public education for any but the wealthy. In the world of the Ledger, there are no teachers, no schools, and no education for any purpose other than to satisfy the requirements of the people with power and money. In the world of the Ledger, education training exists only to help workers better react to the demands of employers. There is no benefit to education training except to trade for money. The Ledger is the wet dream of every corporate boss who said, "Why are they wasting time teaching these kids all this extra stuff. I'm not gonna pay them for that."

Do I think folks like ACT Foundation or Pearson (who also like a version of this model) can actually pull this off? It doesn't matter-- what matters is that this is their North Star, and even though you never get to the North Star, it still shapes the course you set. Worse, while I hope we never arrive in the world of the Ledger, these folks can do a huge amount of damage trying to navigate in that direction.


  1. While this is a commercial video from a for-profit comapny there are many people looking into the use of blockchain technology as a form of credentialing. MIT and the Badgechain groups are both working toard this effort. Most of the people I know ( I am more a lurker than contributor) are into FOSS or atleast open source solutions to the ledger. It is about capturing every opportunity for learning and not just formal compelled public school education. Now I am a badge skeptic through and through but I do not think the efforts around blockchain and school are as nefarious as you believe. Here is some background info if you want further reading (audio version not available w/o a reader installed):

  2. This reminds me of LinkedIn, where you get people who know you to endorse you for skills.


  3. Should make an interesting LEO workforce. Hope I never need to call 911.

  4. I've always thought everyone should be both a teacher and a learner their whole lives, but the idea was for it to be intrinsically motivated.

    Block badges sound like girl scout badges, which always seemed like sort of a joke to me. Or PD credits, which also seem sort of like a joke.

    I'm an actual trained teacher, and I couldn't do what I would consider a very decent job of teaching something I only had one course on. I passed geology somehow but I only remember understanding one small concept.

    As a teacher, I'm quite confident of my ability to teach anybody anything I understand, but I only understand well things I've had lots of courses on or experience with, going into depth and breadth.

  5. People should check out their whole website:

    Also this 1 minute follow up video that goes into direct talent investment, which is something that is part of the Global Education Futures timeline and similar to a program that Pence created in Indiana called "Back a (Purdue) Boiler."

    In which Olive weighs whether or not to do an online Mandarin program (that she can pay for on her own) or to do a much more expensive Virtual Reality Programming program that would require her to contract with an outside investor who would pay a portion of her program cost in exchange for garnishing her wages for 10 years.

  6. Dear Mr. Greene and Commentorati:

    Thank you for that link, ( Alison!

    I also have a lot of misgivings about this edublock concept. I think they are relying on a lot of things to work well and also be done honestly. Just for starters, they are depending on employers to actually be interested in using this system, and not just call up the last boss you had. Ha,Ha.

    They obviously plan to keep on line records. One of the things you pay for in an actual brick and mortar college is that the Records Office is run by skilled professionals, and there IS that room with actual records. Some 28 or so years after graduation, I wanted to transfer my teaching credits to another state. The evaluator at the new state had never seen my particular degree cover K-12. To her, it was either K-8 or 9-12. This information was not on my transcripts. I wrote to my college. The lady in the Records Office there went to the rows of filing cabinets (I think she said it was in the Library basement!) and was able to send the evaluator the course description for my Practicum / Student Teaching from the Course Catalog the year I took those courses, and I was given K-12 credentials.

    I would be very surprised if the proponents of this idea have given any thought to how they will keep records for a long time, and securely. so I see this as being hacked, maybe regularly. Pow! ...and the record of all your Blocks, Bit Coins, Hotels on Boardwalk, etc., is gone, along with your credit card information, of course.

    But let's assume the people doing this are able to provide absolute security. I see one of the “shadow imagination” (critical) comments on the Learning Is Earning website is that there would be “not enough proof you learned something or even payed (sic) attention to a lesson.”

    How can we prove what someone claims to have learned? Maybe, um....Oh! (Light bulb appears above my head!) Maybe someone could come up with some tests! Oh no wait they have thought about that! Apparently to get your Blocks for teaching, the people you have taught will need to be tested. That's the ticket! There could be a testing company and people could pay to be tested! Oh, wait...apparently YOU would pay for all your students to be tested before you got one dime, Block, Bit Coin, Pog, etc. So I think the only people assured of getting anything would be the testing company. Hmmm...isn't there some sort of testing company involved in this somehow?


  7. we are turning schools into producing robots. Not on my watch...

  8. This is some sick stuff. A couple of paragraphs from a blog posting by Jane McGonigal on June 24:
    When so many people hear such a radical idea and think — “That sounds plausible.” “That sounds real.” — it’s valuable information about where people are today. It points to how broken the current system is, of paying for higher education, and of trying to complete your entire education before starting a career. Only something that is deeply felt by so many people as broken could make such a dramatic alternative seem so plausible, could make it so easy to believe that something else so radically different would come along and replace it.

    It’s also a signal of how accustomed people have become in recent years to the sudden and massive disruption of industries by new technologies. Multiple generations have now seen legacy systems — first the music industry, then the book and later the entire retail industry, and now the transportation and hospitality industries. The youngest generations in particular, thanks to companies like AirBnB and Uber, seem to have a very easy time believing that things could be radically different. That’s interesting.
    It refers to people becoming "accustomed" to the Uber-ization and AirBnB-ization of the economy. Some are accustomed, some think it's awful. Communities all over the world are struggling with how to bring these destroyers of the relationship between work, "gigs," making a living, community versus every home a hotel, and so on, to heel. The forced gig bitcoining of the world is not yet assured. Perhaps I will be dead before this bullshit takes over.

  9. I've been freaking out about this for months since SxSW Edu 2016 -- most of the presenters talked about "personalized learning." Oregon has already signed contracts with the Institute for Personalized Learning. It's happening here. Jane McGonigal is all over the place in this video, but it includes the Ledger. It's over an hour, but watch it when you get a chance because what you glean is huge.

    More personalized learning in the closing keynotes from three Harvard guys. From Harvard, y'all. Wouldn't this system put Harvard et al out of business?

  10. Peter and readers of this site, you might find it helpful to see the context for this video, which was presented as a future provocation and not an ideal image of the future. If you visit the site, you will see that thousands of educators and young students were engaged in responding critically to this video, answering questions like, "What worries you about this possible future? What could go wrong is this future?" You may also be interested in the keynote that launched the online conversation about this possible future, in which it is expressly stated: "This is not an ideal image of the future. We think about possible futures to imagine what COULD happen, and to decide which futures we want to make real, and which we want to change or to avoid." I think you've done a bit of a disservice to the nature of the project to ignore the context and I'm sure you and your readers would be interested in the vibrant discussion of this future, which is a possibility but certainly not an inevitability and certainly not a hoped for future by many. However, that said, many people expressed a great deal of hope about optimism about certain aspects of the scenario, and that is worth paying attention to as well. You can see more than 11,000 responses to this fictional future scenario here: And the keynote launching the conversation is here:

    1. Thanks very much for this. As you are no doubt aware, the video has long since come completely unmoored form the context. I came across it with no connections to the materials you provided links for, and I appreciate your providing them here.

  11. This is SUCH important information. I would like to include it in an email newsletter, but I don't feel I can as is. Would you consider changing or deleting the first line? Thanks.

  12. I appreciate this article and the explanations and would agree with it. I would share it widely on our Facebook page, but I am hesitating because I seriously do not appreciate the "effing God" comments. Is that really necessary for an educated person to get your points across?

  13. Folks who want to share this (or any other) piece are welcome to excerpt what they find most pertinent or least objectionable. All I ever ask is a credit and a link.

  14. I did watch the video Ms. McGonigal provided and while she says these are just conversations, it reminds me of the argument from the Coreites: 'but they are JUST standards'. And we know how that all turned out. I would suggest your readers do watch her video. I was appalled at what I heard. Whether or not they are conversations or policies to be adopted in the future, just who are these choice architects and why are they allowed to set the direction of education?

    I don't know about you but I don't believe that these are just ideas. These align pretty closely to the GEF 2035 map.