A Decentralized Digital Future for Higher Education

Universities across the country and the world are still medieval institutions. Their roots in Universitas, a Latin term meaning the universe or the whole, was first used to refer to the student body at the University of Bologna in the 11th century. The oldest known academic institution, the University of Al Quaraouiyine, was founded in Fes, Morocco in 859 CE by a Muslim woman named Fatima Al-Fihri. Many of the earliest organizations of higher education had different ways of structuring their leadership, many of which were informed by current payment structures at the time. At University of Bologna, the students hired and paid the teachers, making the job very demanding and high stress. At other institutions such as the University of Paris (founded 1150) however, teachers ran the school and thus it became a hub for some of the brightest and most talented faculty around the world. Other models such as Oxford and Cambridge were state or crown run, so they met more middle ground but also had to deal with the slow hierarchy of government control.

In this day and age, institutions like Virginia Tech are also state-funded, but their governance structure has started to look more and more like a corporation. President Sands reports to a Board of Visitors appointed by the state of Virginia, similar to how CEOs report to a Board of Directors elected to represent shareholder interest in the corporate context. The hierarchy of management with vice presidents and provosts, deans and department heads looks a lot like a company with half of its operations geared toward education and the other half geared to running a successful business. Though students are included in governance structures like the Graduate Student Assembly and there are two student representatives on the Board of Visitors, the major power and decision making are more or less controlled by top executives and politicians in Richmond.

I foresee a future where technology can be leveraged to decentralize the governance structure of higher education, and make it possible for any engaged learner or educator to have an equal vote in dictating the direction of their institution. This future is based on blockchain. It is inspired by the emergence of Decentralized Autonomous Organization or DAOs, where companies can be run by digital participants from around the world through a series of smart contracts. This structure first necessitates a relatively radical departure from physical to digital educational spaces. Assuming zoom chatrooms begin to outnumber brick and mortar classrooms and the main assets of the university becomes cyber-physical rather than real estate based, this model would work quite well. Here is how it would work: Teachers and students all participate in the educational system as nodes in the network. There are pre-agreed upon rules that dictate compensation for teachers and grades for the students. The more students who take and do well in a class, the more a teacher gets compensated. All payments are still made through the state (at least at public universities like Virginia Tech), but the payment itself is automated and based on performance.

I am not saying there are no kinds to work out. Nor am I saying this is the only way for education to evolve. But I do believe that the confluence of educational digitization and digital decentralization, this future could be a reality for higher ed. It is us up to us as future academic leaders to make sure that the rules we automate in our smart contracts are fair for all people from all backgrounds and that they properly and realistically incentivize the type of learning outcomes that universities have now striven towards for millennia.