Open Thinkering


Month: January 2022

Weeknote 04/2022

Whereas others, including my daughter, managed to get out of self-isolation early by having two negative lateral flow tests in a row, Dr Covid Features here had to stay inside for the full 10 days. It was not as fun as you’d think.

As someone who’s spent a decade working from home, and who has a, shall we say, limited IRL social life, I didn’t think it would be that difficult. I basically only go out to the gym, shops, and to take my kids to activities. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t travelled for work for a couple of years now.

But it’s psychological. When you can’t go out, you want to go out. Even just for a walk ‘up and round’ as we call it. I haven’t tested myself today because I don’t need to, but I bet I’m still testing postive. Thankfully the government guidelines are unequivocal: I can go out because I’m no longer infectious.

Of course, the day I’m allowed out Storm Malik hits the north of England. Our bedroom is in the loft conversion and I thought we’d wake up to there being no tiles left on our roof. It is not a day to just ‘go for a walk’ so I’ve literally only walked to the gym and back. Apparently I can still do pull-ups as my muscles haven’t completely atrophied over the last couple of weeks.

WAO started the year with four projects: one from Participate, two from Greenpeace, and one (with a couple of strands) from Julie’s Bicycle. To that I can now add one that I’m working on outside of the auspices of the co-op: user research leading to user stories for the Zappa project by the Bonfire team. The Zappa project is “custom bonfire extension to empower communities with a dedicated tool to deal with the coronavirus “infodemic” and online misinformation in general.”

The two main members of the Bonfire team are Ivan Minutillo and Mayel de Borniol who I worked with on MoodleNet. In fact, Bonfire is a fork of the original MoodleNet code called ‘CommonsPub’. It’s great to be working with them, and in fact wonderful to be doing cross-border collaboration (Ivan is in Italy, and Mayel is now in New Zealand!)

My only real Covid symptom this week was tiredness. I woke up later and finished work earlier than usual. Having a migraine on Wednesday night that lasted into Thursday morning didn’t help matters, especially as I had to run a client workshop. I took two of the three migraine meds I’m allowed to take within a one-month period.

I think it was at the point when I took my second migraine tablet that I realised that it would be fair to say that I have two chronic medical conditions: asthma (well-controlled) and migraines (reasonably well-controlled). The latter, as I’ve discussed before, are inextricably linked with who I am. There is no option for me but to live my life in such a way to minimise them, which constrains the levels of stress I can put myself under at any given time.

Team Belshaw booked a holiday this week. Last September, I announced that I wasn’t flying anymore in response to humanity living at a time of climate emergency. I did not consult my family before this announcement and it’s fair to say that it’s caused some pushback. In addition, I’ve realised that getting anywhere warm by other forms of transport would mean having to travel through multiple countries which will all have slightly different Covid protocols.

To cut a long story short, I’ve agreed to fly to Croatia in April. Just as I didn’t become vegetarian overnight, but was pescetarian for a couple of years first, so I might have to scale back my flying rather than go ‘cold turkey’ on it. We’ll see.

Next week, I’m looking forward to attending Outlandish’s new workshop entitled Reframing Conflict. Bryan’s going dormant for three months (as I and John have done before) to focus on non-coop activities. So Laura, John, and I will be attending as members. We’re not doing it because we’re in confict, but because co-owning a business means that being good at resolving/reframing it is always a good idea.

Other than that, I need to get my fitness levels back up after 10 days of self-isolation, and keep the plates spinning for all five projects I’m involved with. The nice thing about having already decided to take three weeks of April off is that I have a horizon to work to: a couple more months and then I’m off to walk Hadrian’s Wall and then go on holiday!

Boring crypto definitions

We do tech a disservice when we over-hype it. After all, as Clay Shirky said, things get socially interesting when they become technologically boring.

My aim in defining some terms used in crypto in ‘boring’ ways, therefore, isn’t to dismiss them but to help people consider how they may be used practically in their sector. Magical thinking helps precisely no-one.

Blockchain — an append-only database stored on multiple computers.

Cryptography — using technology to try and stop third parties reading and/or modifying data.

DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) — an organisation (but not an ‘organisation’) without a currently well-defined legal status using blockchain and smart contracts to automatically process votes made by people who hold the right tokens.

Dapps (Decentralised Applications) — apps built on a blockchain using smart contracts to perform actions.

DIDs (Decentralised Identifers) — ways of identifying things in a verifiable way using cryptography, usually using a blockchain.

NFT (Non Fungible Token) — a token that can be verified using cryptography to prove that it is unique and therefore scarce and subject to property rights.

Self-sovereign identity — a method of identifying people using DIDs that they themselves control.

Smart contract — rules defined by code that are run on a blockchain.

Token — a digital asset which can be used for money, voting rights, or pretty much anything else.

Wallet — a place to store tokens.

Web3 — a way for people to refer to all of the above in a less-confusing way. Basically putting everything on some form of blockchain.

There are obviously a lot more terms, but these are the ones I think most people would benefit from learning and being able to discuss dispassionately. For more terminology, the Learn Crypto glossary is a good place to start, followed by Alexandria from CoinMarketCap.

If web3 is the financialisation of the web, then ed3 is merely the (further) financialisation of education

I’ve spent most of my career in and around decentralisation of one form or another. Eighteen years ago I was part of an EU-funded project where I talked excitedly about the potential of Bittorrent in education. I’ve spent over a decade evangelising decentralised credentialing and recognition through Open Badges. I put together a team to build MoodleNet, the world’s first federated resource-sharing social network for educators.

So I want decentralisation to happen everywhere. Especially in education.

A few years ago, someone told me quite proudly that their organisation was putting the credentials they award “on the blockchain”. I asked which one. They looked confused. I don’t think they understood what it is they were doing.

There are, of course, many blockchains. Taking away the crypto-hype and the get-rich-quick schemes, a blockchain can be thought of as quite a boring technology. A back office solution where an append-only database (i.e. one can be written to, but then is read-only) is stored on multiple machines instead of centrally.

Boosters of blockchain and crypto in general call this technology ‘decentralised’. In one way it is, because it decentralises data. But decentralisation of data is something that any large organisation with a datacentre already does. And, in fact, something that smaller organisations also do by putting their data into “the cloud”. So decentralising data isn’t really very exciting.

What’s exciting is decentralising power and decision-making. One of the reasons I was so attracted to Open Badges while working within formal education was that it was a real challenge to it. The means of credentialing was, all of a sudden, disaggregated and available to, well, anyone. It’s just a paucity of imagination that has meant that most badges continue to be issued by large organisations. There’s no reason it has to be that way.

Crypto-boosters, such as those who write articles like this about the potential of “ed3” point to DAOs, or “Decentralised Autonomous Organisations” as being disruptive, egalitarian, and a step-change in how society operates.

As the founder of a co-op, an organisation that distributes power amongst its members, I beg to differ. DAOs might be able to do simple things like make a purchase based on member votes, but the hard yards when distributing power involve emotions and, well, being human. There’s a useful article on the difference between DAOs and co-ops for anyone who wants to read more here.

As Audrey Watters says, the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. The ed3 article linked above was followed hastily by social media account, appearances on podcasts, etc. The authors are almost trying to will their conception of ed3 and the future of education into existence. While they’ve obviously done their research around the root causes of inequality around the world (access, affordability, and education) the “solutions” they point to seem to be a random mix of NFT grifts, people in developing countries playing “play-as-you-earn” games to earn minimum wage, and people who aren’t universities… setting up organisations?

I’ve tried not to let this post turn into the equivalent of Grandpa Simpson shouting at the clouds. I really, truly, want education and society in general to be decentralised. I want the means of human flourishing to be put into the hands of people. But this conceptualisation of ed3 isn’t it. It’s not even close.

If you have some time to spare (2h 18m to be precise) and are interested in this area, I highly (highly!) recommend you watch this video by Dan Olsen called Line Goes Up. It’s a really clear-headed look at what’s going on in this space, starting off with the financial crash of 2008. Very much well worth your time.