Have you ever experienced the pain of stepping on scattered LEGO blocks in the middle of the night? In my case, the pain (or expletives) that followed were often muffled by the desire to ensure that my boys gave me a full night of sleep.
My boys don’t play with LEGOs much anymore, but I still wince thinking about those late night injuries. I also think about the ways in which scattered bricks may be the perfect representation of how learner data is dispersed across systems, platforms and even filing cabinets. That data has vast potential when assembled, but it’s currently in a state of disarray that obscures its promise.
This summer, I had the chance to speak with John Goodwin, the former CEO of the LEGO Foundation, who is now serving as executive chairman of the Learning Economy Foundation, a non-profit organization leveraging global standards and Web3 protocols to help bridge the gap between education and employment. John shared with me a big vision for the Internet of Education (IoE), a term that describes the need for interoperable data across our system of education and employment. He also shared how his career at LEGO informs his work today.
Alison Griffin: What is the “Internet of Education” and how will it change the way we learn, connect and work?
John Goodwin: The Internet of Education (IoE) is a global vision and movement working to ensure every learner has equitable access to a quality education and a job. The IoE is built around 10 guiding principles that bring together a range of experts and stakeholders in education and employment. These stakeholders and experts collaborate on solutions that address existing inequities using emerging Web3 technologies such as decentralization, blockchains and token-based economics.
While there are many Web3 technologies, the IoE is focused on digital wallets. A digital wallet holds and secures a learner’s skills and learning records, in much the same way as a physical wallet holds our money and credit cards. Using their digital wallet, a learner can capture and validate the skills they have, but they can also identify the gaps they have in order to achieve their desired goals. They can then establish a pathway to achieve these goals through learning or connecting to greater career opportunities.
Alison: Of the 10 governing principles, is there one that is more critical than the others for the digital wallet?
John: Yes! I believe that the principle of “self sovereignty” is most important in the case of the digital wallet. Self sovereignty means that the learner owns and controls their data. This is a big break from Web2 technologies, where oftentimes, platforms own the majority of data and that data is then used to serve the interests of the platform.
Pivoting to learner-owned data over platform-owned data has the potential to fundamentally change how we think about learning. Imagine a future where children can capture their learning experiences in different environments such as school, community centers, social volunteering, online gaming and caregiving and then these experiences are aggregated in a single place. The learner can then explore which learning approaches work best for them and, equally important, validate their skill attainment to others through different applications that suit the circumstances and context. This means greater learner confidence and learning efficiency.
Similarly, imagine a future where educators are able to trace the impact they have had on learners’ journeys. Educators can identify which teaching methods worked best for which learners and which approaches were most effective at enabling the learners to translate that learning into practice. This has the potential to support professional development and educator accountability.
And imagine a future where employers can link directly with learners and guide their development toward future employment opportunities. The employer may also be able to financially incentivize learners to develop the skills that will be most relevant in the emerging economy. This means greater learner-employer connections on skills attainment and potentially smaller socioeconomic gaps in our society.
Alison: What is the Learning Economy Foundation doing to contribute to the IoE — and what is your role in advancing that connection?
John: Until now, the IoE has been mostly a philosophy, but it has been embraced by hundreds of innovators, organizations, governments, and institutions as a way to think about the future. However, in 2022, the IoE is being built in earnest, as pilots and standards groups that started over a decade ago are finally making tangible and radically accessible tools. Both large-scale “open-source” projects and “proprietary” projects are actively working to develop infrastructure to make this future a reality.
At the Learning Economy Foundation, we believe in open-source projects, which means we believe there should be open access and standards-based technologies that enable every human to access quality education, jobs and opportunities. The only way not to repeat the problems of the past — access to these things limited to the privileged and value extracted by a platform owner — is to ensure the systems that sit beneath this future approach remain open, learner-centered and safe from the diminishing value of profit-over-public-good philosophies.
Alison: How has the Learning Economy Foundation’s focus shifted over the years, primarily with respect to digital wallets?
John: In 2019, Learning Economy Foundation’s primary focus was to bring open, accessible and universal digital wallets to the world. We knew that digital wallets had the potential to connect learners, employees, academics and employers in a decentralized and learner-centered network.
Then, in 2020, we started developing SuperSkills, the first proof of concept of digital wallets for children between the ages of 7 and 12 with the LEGO Foundation. That work was focused on solving the hardest data privacy challenges first. SuperSkills also allowed us to prototype learning pathways, gamification and learner profiles. The work with SuperSkills then allowed us to further develop the foundations for the application, which then grew into LearnCard, an open-source and universal wallet for education and employment.
Now, in 2022, we are expanding beyond the K-12 system and into postsecondary education, workforce development and employment and in support of emergency communities such as refugees. We are developing a series of connected applications that build on the principles of the IoE ecosystem to create learning and employment pathways, groups and messaging, voting and governance, and micro-scholarships and earn-to-learn tools.
The big difference between what we started in 2019 and what we are building in 2022 is that the digital wallet can now give the learner access to verifiable data about their skills and create trust — all built through the power of blockchain technology.
Alison: What is your hope for the future as it relates to the work the Learning Economy Foundation is leading? And what will your role be?
John: We hope that, in the next two years, all of these tools will be widely accessible and connected to a global IoE network, governed democratically by everyone involved, including and favoring the learners and employees. We are nearing the end of the first phase of governance research and will publish our findings and a proposed initial governance framework this fall. This will be the beginning of standing up a global Web3 IoE network.
My role in this next phase is to bring ecosystem thinking to the Learning Economy Foundation as it works to deliver systemic change as part of the technologies. Both education and employment systems are notoriously difficult to disrupt, as they have many entrenched processes that are often defended by existing incumbents. Through my time with the LEGO Foundation, I learned the responsibility that innovators have to listen to those who will ultimately use the innovation. We must engage users in the design of the tool or solution. All system stakeholders should be given a voice and, if possible, engaged in a new approach to secure wider adoption.
Alison: Where does privacy fit in with Web3 technologies? How will the future protect individuals’ privacy, but also use individual experiences to tailor the way in which we understand the learning continuum?
John: Privacy and consent mechanisms are the cornerstone of Verifiable Credentials and Decentralized Identifiers, key underlying standards and technologies of the IoE.
Traditional models for storing learner, parent, teacher and employee data — such as course completions, skill attainment, degrees, badges and certificates — rely on centralized infrastructure such as databases or paper filing cabinets. In the context of learner records, centralized infrastructures have two shortcomings.
First, learner data is typically stored in one location, and if the security is breached through human or system error, that data is vulnerable to wholesale privacy leaks.
Second, centralized infrastructures limit the options for an individual to leverage their own credentials. The most common options for learners to access their credentials are a publicly determined “endpoint” for the credential, an expensive, time-consuming operation such as requesting an official transcript from a registrar or no access to credentials at all because of issues with the centralized system.
How often is an employee’s former work experience record no longer available for validation because the former employer changed their HR system? Either a learner must sacrifice privacy for verifiability of their credential with a public link, or a learner gains privacy at the cost of making their credentials virtually inaccessible on a daily basis.
Even if an institution does provide access to credentials, the credentials are often in a proprietary format from a proprietary access portal — meaning a learner must open up the Learning Management System of their postsecondary education provider to see the skills gained and achievements accomplished from a particular class, then open up a proprietary portal to gain access to their online education program credentials, then open up another proprietary website or application to see their continuing education credits. Today, an individual learner’s understanding of their own skills and credentials is fragmented, complicated and beyond their control. What if a learner or employee could see and share a complete history of all of their credentials in one, unified space?
Web3 will not replace traditional infrastructures, but Web3 technologies will augment and enhance traditional infrastructures with mechanisms for balancing privacy with rich functionality when it comes to learner and employee data: consent-and-control; interoperability; machine verifiability; and selective, progressive disclosure.
Alison: How can the work of the Learning Economy Foundation remedy any concerns you have about the future due to the lack of connection between education and employment?
John: What makes me so excited about the work of the Learning Economy Foundation is that we can use technology to help break this cycle of inequities. Using digital wallets, verifiable credentials and skills libraries, we can provide much tighter linkages between future employment and education.
For example, LEF is currently working with the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and Motlow State Community College in Tennessee. This is a college that works with diverse socio-economic populations with disparate educational and cultural backgrounds who have historically had difficulties in obtaining employment reflective of their potential. The college is working with local employers to better understand the specific roles they will need to fill in the future and then break those roles down into bite-sized skills blocks that can be directly translated into college courses and credits.
The students can then populate the digital wallets developed by LEF with the courses they need and directly map them to future employment opportunities. In addition, employers will be able to look across a community of learners at the aggregated level and identify any major skills gaps in cohorts of students. This will give the employer the opportunity to work with the college to identify why students are not developing the needed skills and remedy the situation by, for example, incentivizing students to take modules that better develop those skills.
This way, our education systems can better serve the majority of students and also adapt more quickly to the needs of the emerging workplace and better equip students for lifelong re-skilling.
Alison: I have to ask: What was your most favorite LEGO build? Did you follow the instructions or did you create something no one had seen before?
John: This is your toughest question because I have literally built hundreds of LEGO models during my decade of working in the LEGO ecosystem and so many of them have blown me away with their ingenuity and awesomeness. But if you’re forcing me to pick one, I’ll probably choose the LEGO Creator 3451 Sopworth Camel. It was the first model I built, and I built it with my youngest son, who was 15 years old at the time. We really struggled with it — even following the instructions (kind of!) — but persevered, and we had so many laughs and great memories of the trials and errors as LEGO novices. I’m excited that the LEGO Group now sells sets for communal building, as it is such a great way for families to sit together at a table to talk, co-create and bond.
I believe in a similar philosophy with what the Learning Economy Foundation is building for a global community — co-creating and bonding over a shared commitment to a solution for all learners.