You’ve heard of bitcoin. It’s a form of digital cash you can send to anyone, even a complete stranger. You may not have heard about bitcoin’s digital ledger, called the blockchain, tracks and validates bitcoin transactions. Blockchain technology has enormous potential beyond bitcoin to automate every type of online transaction that requires a degree of trust. In this short video, produced by Institute for the Future, Olivia Olson (the voice of Marceline the Vampire Queen in Adventure Time) explains how blockchain technology can be used to launch companies that are entirely run by algorithms, make self-driving cars safer, help people manage and protect their online identities, and track the billions of devices on the Internet of Things.
Last week, more than 2000 people played IFTF’s most recent Foresight Engine game, Learning Is Earning 2026, following a keynote by game designer Jane McGonigal at SXSWedu. The starting point for the game was a scenario about a blockchain-based educational system called The Ledger, which uses edublocks to certify learning from all kinds of activities:
Players contributed nearly 9,000 ideas about how to deploy The Ledger. But how real is this scenario?
Blockchain technology is, indeed, setting foundations for transformational opportunities in education. At its core, blockchains are a way to organize and copy records, using software run on personal computers. Open systems like those behind the online currency Bitcoin allow anyone to post records or issue certifications. The result? Educational institutions or any learning group can issue certifications like edublocks, tying them to the organization and allowing the receiver to use them, alongside other certifications, in a personal learning portfolio.
Here are some recent advances in blockchain technology that are setting the stage for this future:
- Projects like Tierion allow users to store all kinds of documents and data through blockchain networks for the long-term. These documents can be referenced later and cannot be changed after the fact, increasing our ability to use them for employment or new educational opportunities.
- Colored Coins are digital tokens that are tied to the Bitcoin currency. They can be used to represent anything, from physical assets to badges of lesson completion. Restrictions on how these can be issued and used may form the basis for a “wallet” of educational tokens, where anyone can prove their achievements simply by using tokens. This approach has the additional benefit of allowing someone to prove their worthiness for a project or group without necessarily using a government-issued identity.
- Smart contracts, managed by the Ethereum blockchain platform, enable complex financial or organizational functions without a single person involved. In the world of education, such a system allows developers to create a system where a portion of one’s income could be automatically passed on to an educational investor, without a payment company in the middle, on terms that the two parties define.
These educational affordances of the blockchain are just early hints of what’s possible, but we’re seeing the beginnings of a future where trusted records and data allow us to take control of our achievements, treat them as assets, and share in our success with those who wish to support us.
Let’s follow Crowley the Crocodile as he goes about his day in the year 2030, from the moment his bitcoin-powered bioalarm clock wakes him, until he eats his late night pizza ordered using a rating service that runs without human owners.
When computer scientist Andreas Antonopoulos first heard about bitcoin in 2011 he dismissed it as “nerd money.” Six months later he happened on bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto’s now-legendary white paper from November 2008. This nine-page, innocent-looking document was a blueprint for replacing large swaths of the financial services industry with a globally-distributed encryption-based transaction network that wasn’t owned by anyone.
Nakamoto’s white paper blew Antonopoulos’ mind. “This isn’t money,” he realized, “it’s a decentralized trust network,” with applications extending far beyond digital currency.