Digital Native Academic Credits by@nzeimer

Digital Native Academic Credits

March 29th 2018 1,213 reads
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Nadav Zeimer

The How and Why of Establishing Trust in High Schools


How would your work in high school have been different if you knew that in order to earn a credit for it, it would be reviewed by an anonymous teacher outside your school and, if approved, would be posted online alongside the work of your peers across the planet? What if a college admissions officer or scholarship award committee needed little more than a student transcript to evaluate eligibility: no SAT, no entrance essay required. Imagine if students in classrooms across the nation could respond to a common assignment posted by FOX, CNN, NPR, AL JAZEERA or any media outlet seeking youth voices? What if teachers were incentivized to develop media projects? These thoughts are a subset of the implications of launching digital native high school credits.

Here’s the short version of what sixteen years in public education taught me: federal budgets, union contracts, mayoral election cycles, and even the Supreme Court impose their authority on school communities to the detriment of students. Lawyers and politicians who rarely set foot in a school, let alone learn what it takes to mentor a young person who has experienced crippling poverty, make decisions about how things should be run. Even when these policies are well thought out, the next election cycle hits and the new administration always seeks to distinguish themselves from their predecessor. Within a school building, change fatigue is unavoidable: the average tenure of a principal in a New York City public school is less than four years. That is, the kids outlast their administration in high schools. I was myself an enthusiastic new teacher, but soon even I began folding my arms and waiting for each new initiative to pass me by. I had invested time to implement promising programs which had each since been discarded and replaced. And I worked for one of the best principals in the city — he was my role model.

The remarkable thing is that despite the immense challenges, nearly every school community has a majority of teachers who work hard, and demand students do the same, maintaining stability in their classrooms despite the hurricane-like destruction of political seasons. Too often, these professionals have to isolate themselves to survive a career in this system, limiting their contribution to a single classroom or program within an otherwise dysfunctional community. I was trained as a principal within a network of alternative high school principals who taught me that I needed to dedicate my career to a single building if I hoped to build anything meaningful. These New York City Transfer Schools are, in my experience, among the most admirable leaders of the education reform movement.

Alternative school students represent “limit conditions” in the sense that a physicist uses values like zero and infinity to test a new idea. In education reform, limit conditions include students who have been kicked out of every other school or faced the brutality of poverty or immigration status or racial injustice or gender discrimination or family tragedy or administrative runaround. Such “safety net” schools have a lot to teach us about what education reform is meaningful and what is just electioneering or (worse) profiteering in the name of public education. I get the same sense of limit conditions when I find myself at the family court building where foster care is litigated in downtown Manhattan. It’s where I get to see the impact of how we treat our poorest (in the financial sense) members of society.

The solution of introducing digital native credits is surprisingly simple. Not that it will be easily implemented — that will require a miracle. But if you indulge me, the simplicity of just creating digital native ledger to record hard earned academic credits has implications which are quite exciting. In fintech, a digital native ledger, implemented using blockchain technology, is just like a modern checking account with the record of how much money is in each account being maintained by a global network of machines instead of by machines at a centralized headquarters like that of Bank of America. Similarly, high school credits are a centralized government ledger of certified student learning. What would happen if that ledger were to be decentralized?

With a top-down system of record-keeping, substantial educational malpractice is unavoidable as union, legal, district, state, and federal government representatives lobby for adult interests in how credits are defined, losing sight of what is best for the students. Credits for learning devolve into flimsy proxies like seat time or test results. This systemic malfunction leads to regulations put in place to increase “accountability,” laying a foundation of mistrust. Dealing with mistrust becomes the core work of school and district leaders, hassling teachers for more “data” than they would otherwise need while being tied down by ordinances which act as bandages to lawsuits that had exposed the systemic malpractice.

Consider the implications for colleges and universities of these watered-down public-school credits. They have been forced to create a separate system to evaluate student learning beyond the high school transcript which is a step away from being totally useless in any standardized way across the nation, let alone across the planet. The SAT/ACT and college essays are needed because public high school credits are not trusted by universities to represent any reliable learning across all schools. High school credits are “soft” in the same way that the US Dollar is a “soft” asset — it can be easily inflated, and that is exactly what happens.

Just as bitcoin stores hard earned money, blockchain credits store hard earned academic credit. Permanently. More specifically, every credit is linked to a digital file (QR codes when printed on paper). Click or scan the credit to find content such as a PDF monograph, MP3 podcast, or MP4 video. A student uploads original content in exchange for a credit on their transcript. A transcript that is known for representing a higher standard of learning 100% of the time, verified by following the link to see the quality of student work produced.

In such a system, student work is the only currency we need to focus on if we are hoping to improve the quality of public high school education. Schools producing high quality student-produced content are good schools. The surprising byproduct of the simple act of creating digital-native high school credits is that an online network of curated student media is born. Each time a student uploads their work for credit, the network owns another asset. Poor quality work is not allowed into the network by those evaluating the work for credit. The incentives are designed to ensure alignment to a new “gold standard” credit.

Producing high quality content is really hard. While teachers can be trained in video production, audio editing, and research/writing, and teacher training programs should do this, students must be incentivized by the culture to invest their sweat equity. This is where the title of this book comes from. A BIG Deal for Education hangs a Basic Income Guarantee (“BIG”) as an incentive “carrot” driving this network of high-quality student media. Every year a small number of students will earn a Basic Income Guarantee as a result of their high school media productions. The idea is to offer a financial incentive based on work product in the same way that the digital network economy that students are graduating into will award payment. Just punching in and logging time in school will not earn this reward — hard work that leads to a quality product that has social impact will be required.

The BIG Deal is a way to:

1. Incentivize citizens to accelerate the digital economy

2. Invest in diversity

3. Invest in our young citizens who are ready to work hard and produce high quality digital products

4. Phase in a Basic Income Guarantee

At first very few BIG Awards would be given. Each award would be a big deal. As the network grows, more awards become available. The BIG Award is an incentive, but the crucial element of such a system would be the value of the credits themselves. That is, it will be critical that earning these BIG Credits will be demanded by universities first, then parents, pressuring schools to increase their support for students to earn these “gold standard” digital-native, globally recognized credits. The relatively few students who actually earn a BIG will incentivize competition and diversity which I address in a separate chapter. The number of BIG credits will be linked to the amount of money that is invested for this purpose in each local community. Perhaps a city invests to award one student per school with the BIG, perhaps a philanthropist invests in more for a specific school, a specific district, or nationally. The BIG Deal will offer a high leverage means for governments and philanthropists alike to invest in the incentives that drive high school learning.

Such a credit system would demand that if politicians wanted “BIG Certification” rates in these credits to increase, they would be forced to focus on the quality of students’ work, as evaluated by anonymous and independent master teachers outside of the student’s school. No longer could they doctor the cutoff score of exams or change standards or otherwise manufacture statistics needed for their next election bid. No longer can students sweet talk their teachers into getting a better grade than they deserve. Decentralized credits would be entirely validated based on quality of work as determined by anonymous master teachers.

The next obvious questions are: who gets to be a master teacher? And how do master teachers normalize their practice? Remember the only currency that matters in this system is student work. It is important to keep our focus on that atomic source of value. A teacher could only, then, earn the master teacher credential after their students consistently and over a period of ten years, upload work which is approved for credit by the existing master teacher community. It is hard to game such a system when a student video is the artifact being evaluated for credits relating to academic research or digital production standards. Teachers would invest for a decade as unpaid adjuncts before being paid generously to evaluate incoming work based on clearly defined credit standards.

With the administrative act of decentralizing high school record-keeping, we would effectively transfer the authority to award digital high school credits from state governments to a network of veteran educators. A college admissions officer at your alma mater who clicks on any credit shown on such a digital transcript would see the culminating task that resulted from that learning. And they would be impressed by the production values, the research, the writing, the creativity, the mastery of the medium used.

Note that the credit blockchain only captures the polished student voice, not the content or application sweat equity layers that go into publishing that digital file. More specifically:

· Layer I (off chain): students study relevant content (flash cards, quizzes, practice problems, academic habits);

· Layer II (off chain): students integrate content into their own worldview through application assignments such as forming their own questions about the content, reflecting on learning in journals, planning their extension project by writing scripts;

· “BIG Layer:” students extended their learning to the real world with multiple revisions to produce a final product that is local, academic, nuanced, and self-aware.

After a while, that college admissions officer would learn that they can trust these golden digital native credits to represent meaningful learning experiences for those few students who were able to achieve them. They would not need to take time to click on every single link to verify what the transcript represented, although by doing so, they would learn much more about the student’s unique voice and skills than any essay or standardized exam can show in the college admissions process.

These golden measures of academic value would not replace local centralized credit systems which would remain in place to capture students work in layer I and layer II activities. The intention is that the global BIG Standards would drive local school districts to adjust their content and application activities to help students achieve subsequent BIG Credits because of the demand for these opportunities by parents and the students themselves. BIG Credits would exist on top of these systems the way college applications and the SAT do today, and universities would be encouraged to evaluate students with BIG Credits without asking them to write essays or take standardized tests, thus freeing students to seek BIG credits with dreams of achieving the ultimate prize of the income guarantee, the Basic Income Guarantee.

Even more than money, high school students care about how they look in front of peers. By creating a public ledger of their podcasts, PDF monographs, and videos showing them applying digital habits to local issues we learn about our own society through fresh eyes while grounding our young people’s academic learning in the complex, messy, and ambiguous world they live in. By defining a set of digital-native standards and awarding students who meet those standards on a public blockchain, we can force local education districts to rearrange their efforts, refocusing on the quality of student work products as evaluated by objective colleagues who use the standards to determine which pieces are approved for a BIG Credit.


This essay appears as a Chapter in my upcoming book “The BIG Deal: the end of jobs, the e-birth of work, and a role for education

You can hear me discussing the book here.

Follow @NZeimer. A more technically complete version of this blog post is here: CryptoCredit whitepaper.

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Progress on book publication and advance orders available at

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