David Smooke

@DavidSmooke

Can an Education Token Unlock Higher Learning?

Founder Interview

Disclosure: ODEM.IO, the On-Demand Education Marketplace, has previously sponsored Hacker Noon.

CEO Richard Maaghul is a seasoned Silicon Valley entrepreneur with more than two decades of direct experience in emerging-and-disruptive technologies. As CEO of ODEM.IO, Rich is committed to using blockchain technology to expand student access to higher-quality education. Today we’re going to discuss the rising cost of education, the ODEM platform and what the world would look like if everyone had access to higher-quality education.

David Smooke: Let’s start simple. What will ODEM do? And how will it work?

Richard Maaghul: The ODEM platform will connect students and other buyers of education (corporate training departments) to educators to collaborate on, and ultimately, deliver short-term, on-site educational courses and learning experiences. At its core, the platform enables students to develop customized, affordable courses that are relevant to where they want to be in their careers. Students are empowered to own their education by challenging the system of four-year degrees. ODEM is an alternative that works in the best interests of students rather than the big schools and their administrators.

Could you share a bit your smart contracts — What does the technology look like under the hood?

The ODEM Platform and its ODEM Token are built on the popular Ethereum blockchain. Under the hood, the platform is a complex web of software services, from traditional backend databases, to mathematical micro-services to the smart contracts that you asked about. At a basic level, the architecture is micro-service oriented where the blockchain serves as the source of truth regarding validity of user data, including the requirements they have specified and the commitments they have made. Collectively, the system is designed to remove inefficient middlemen to create as much value for value-adding stakeholders as is possible. The blockchain allows the system to operate on trustless basis. Payments are only distributed after all commitments have been met.

How is ODEM like other online education companies, like Coursera or Kaplan, and how does it differentiate itself from them?

We actually don’t consider ODEM.IO to be an online education provider, even though the platform will be accessible on the Internet. ODEM emphasizes the importance of in-person, face-to-face learning and positive interaction between students and professors. Sure, ODEM will occasionally use some online within specific courses, but we are really believers in the benefits of lectures conducted by in-person instructors. We also feel it’s an exciting time to return to face-to-face learning because of a growing body of research showing that mass-online courses aren’t always a good fit. That’s especially true for students who would benefit from the greater sense of accountability and engagement that stems from live classrooms.

Your homepage says, “The ODEM team was inspired by the success of U.S.-based Excelorators Inc., a premier provider of education services to overseas students, executives and managers seeking exposure to America’s elite learning institutions and corporate campuses.” What is the nature of that success and what convinced you of a bigger opportunity presenting itself for ODEM?

Excelorators has positioned itself as a highly trusted provider of education experiences in America for students, corporate managers and executives primarily from East Asia. In the process of establishing Excelorators as a leader, two things became apparent. Firstly, the existing competitive system of matching students with the most-appropriate professor in the best location wasn’t working in the best interests of students. Secondly, the system was attracting a number of players uncommitted to quality who increased the overall cost of education.

In the content of our previous exposure to blockchain technology, Excelorators began to think about a better system that would put the student first and weed out some of the intermediaries that bogged down operations. But it also prompted us to examine how improvements to Excelorators could lead to solutions to some of higher education’s biggest problems, including accessibility and affordability. The ODEM platform puts the student in the driver’s seat.

How will the ODEM Token function?

Let’s look at what the ODEM Token will do in the context of the platform. We’re selling ODEM Tokens to fund development of the ODEM platform and to expand the community of users. Drilling down, we’re using what is called the discount token model to align incentives on the platform. The token enables coordination among service providers, helps to simplify cross-border payments and functions as a reward currency to encourage professors to develop popular course offerings.

The discount model (developed by Sweetbridge Inc., BlockScience and Coinfund) allows platform users to gain discounts against user fees. Holders of ODEM Tokens have the opportunity to sponsor individual use of the ODEM Platform. Since the utility token isn’t spent, but is actually locked up for a period of time, it serves as a renewable license or membership. As more and more students and educators use the platform., the underlying value of the token is enhanced.

If your readers would like to know more about blockchain’s importance to the platform, I would direct them to a recent blog by BlockScience founder, Dr. Michael Zargham on our website.

What is the significance of the ODEM program generator?

As you can imagine, an on-site course involving students from many countries can involve a lot of coordination between professors, travel agents, translators, caterers, classroom providers, etc. To get it right and keep the students happy, all parties must remain committed to make sure everyone gets paid and the cost is not allowed to get out of hand.

As our advisor, Mike Zargham has described, distributed ledger technology, or blockchain, enables participants to make conditional pre-commitments. The program generator, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning, is at the heart of the program. For example, a service provider can list services for sale, price expectations, and available class times. Such pre-commitments allow the ODEM program generator to discover matchings of other stakeholders who collectively meet an event’s requirements. The program generator combines a ledger of signed pre-commitments with discovery and recommendation tools. It provides community level service that is not possible at scale without the assistant of pre-programmed coordination. In short, the program generator dynamically creates courses by responding to the needs of students on the ODEM Platform.

Why is the blockchain a better technical solution to your product/platform than other technologies?

It’s all about exploiting the benefits of distributed-ledger technology as a coordination tool and to ensure the security of collaborative efforts by students, educators and players in the value chain. Also included are the smart contracts and the ability to mediate financial relationships between members of the value chain. No other technology provides these benefits in such an elegant package.

I’ve long believed that the rise in tuition can’t continue to dwarf the rise in inflation. The product of higher education is not offering more, and yet it costs more…. According to Gordon Wadsworth (via Forbes), author of The College Trap, “if the cost of college tuition was $10,000 in 1986, it would now cost the same student over $21,500 if education had increased as much as the average inflation rate, but instead education is almost $60,000 or more than two-and-a-half times the inflation rate.” In the broadest scope, what trends do you see fighting against this trend? And do you anticipate universities — dare I say — lower tuition fees to remain competitive?

I believe the pace of tuition inflation will continue to be a hot issue for students and the top colleges. As a result, I don’t think legacy educational institutions are likely to reduce tuition costs anytime soon. If anything, the financial pressure on colleges to expand their offing of online education will increase, a development which helps to highlight the benefits of ODEM’s approach to in-person, live lectures.

You raised 2.2 Million Euros in Pre-Sale from accredited investors. Could you share a bit about what type of investors these are and why they believe in ODEM?

They’re a diverse group. Overall, our investors are aligned in the belief that blockchain technology can be used to increase affordability and accessibility of education and ultimately improve learning outcomes. They also remained impressed with the structure of our project and the fact that we work closely with Excelorators, an established leader in the organization of on-site learning experiences at top colleges and universities.

If your model is successful I imagine four-year institutions will not be kind to you because they perceive that ODEM is a threat to their bottom line. Have you seen any pushback to date from the establishment in higher education?

Well, we have a complicated relationship with the traditional schools. On the one hand we seek to disrupt the industry by providing solutions to some of education’s most pressing problems: rising costs and a lack of accessibility. On the other hand, we have a constructive working relationship with many schools and their faculty. For examples, among ODEM’s advisors are Steven Jarding, a Harvard lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government since 2004, who actively teaches Excelorators’ courses on global leadership, and Robert E. Siegel, a lecturer in Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business since 2011. We’ve actually been approached by a number of established colleges that want to list their courses on ODEM.

Why an ICO instead of raising traditional venture capital?

As a young company, we wanted to access capital from people who are informed and excited about the potential of blockchain technology. Although we engaged KPMG Switzerland and SICOS (Lux) to provide us with advice, we felt it was important to preserve as much of the proceeds as possible for development of the ODEM Platform. Traditional venture capital wasn’t an option that met our requirements. We felt it was better to remain loyal to the platform than catering to the needs of venture-capital investors.

What is the pricing model for the ODEM Token and how much do you hope to raise?

We’re selling 180 million ODEM Tokens for euros 0.05 to achieve a hard cap of euro 9 million. That figure would be combined with the euro 2.2 million we raised in the pre-sale.

What does the world look like when everyone has access to higher-quality education?

It’s a world in which everyone has a solid chance of living up to their potential; a world where student proactively educate themselves in meaningful ways throughout their lifetime. And it is definitely a world in which blockchain technology is used to engender trust among providers and consumers of education resources. For the future, our students will be armed with the knowledge and expertise they need to make the world a better place.

Thank you.

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