Increasing Student Engagement Online with Blockchain Technologies

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Blackboard.

Dr. Szymon Machajewski is a teacher focused on student engagement. With his research on peer-instruction and gamification he promotes the adoption of technology in teaching and learning.

Student engagement is important.  Some evidence suggests that retention and persistence in online programs can be linked to student engagement.  The need to focus on student engagement in online courses may be especially significant as attrition rates seem higher in online settings versus face-to-face. To foster student engagement various approaches have been adopted in online courses including exemplary course designholistic usage of the LMS, timely feedbackactive learninggamification, and more.  Measuring engagement can be done with existing learning system reportsdata analytics, or formative student feedback.  However, a new wave of technologies using the blockchain may add another method of increasing student engagement. 

What if students were paid to be more active in their online courses? While the concept had been explored in the past in the US and abroadscaling the idea or any wider adoption is developing slowly. The emersion of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, may be a disruptor and the necessary catalyst in this area.  Online activity and attention have always been a commodity that can be turned into a profit.  We see this on YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms, where viewing content generates income.  However, the business model traditionally favored the content creator and, perhaps even more so, the facilitating commercial system.  The Brave browser and Basic Attention Token (BAT) cryptocurrency innovate this business model by including the consumer in the benefit sharing. 

Perhaps being paid to learn is too simplistic of an explanation and calls into question intrinsic motivation necessary in knowledge projects.  The rewards could be a simple trigger or memorable reason, a glue, to keep students coming back to their work.  But the Brave browser does more than just the rewards for activity. 

The Brave browser goes beyond activity rewards by adding these features: 

  1. Blocking online ads and providing high levels of privacy
  2. Creating a feedback loop about content by content consumers tipping content creators with BAT currency 
  3. Establishing a progress indicator, similar to XP in games, for online activity and attention – the BAT unit
  4. Opportunity for students to learn about cryptocurrency 
  5. Savings in mobile data charges and improvements in battery life by being faster than Chrome and Firefox largely due to improvements of Rust over C++ 

The Brave browser is ready for anyone to use, right now.  Students can adopt the Brave browser independently of any optimizations made in courses or learning management systems.  The Brave browser is a version of the Google Chrome browser, or more specifically its core, the Google Chromium browser.  Chromium is an open source project maintained by Google.  Therefore, functional compatibility with Blackboard Learn will continue to follow the development of the Chrome browser.  The two browsers are different in the additional features included.  A Google developer reported that in contrast to Chrome, Chromium was to “feel lightweight (cognitively and physically) and fast”.  Brendan Eich, the creator of the JavaScript programming language and former Mozilla CEO, leads the startup behind the Brave browser.  Chromium is also now the core of the new Microsoft Edge

In order to re-focus user online activity on academic tasks, learning systems and courses can be further optimized for collaboration with Brave.  If instructors become verified creators and organizations develop an online ad system, the rewards will favor academic activity.  In the future, a student could collect pennies for completing a learning module in an online class.  Next, they could tip specific content in a course, and perhaps discussion posts of other students.  Student activity in video systems such as Youtube, Echo 360, or Panopto, could be recognized and marked in BAT units.   

Attention, or our ability to process information consciously, is in limited supply.  As Nobel laureate Herbert Simon suggests, attention is the scarcest of economic resources. 

In full adoption of the Brave browser strategy, the academic orgnaiztion would design online ads about student services, sport events, and academic skills that integrate with Brave.  Perhaps teaching is similar to advertising in some ways.  A teacher strives to capture attention, present, explain, persuade, and transfer knowledge.  Marketing campaigns do the same.  A channel in Brave can be any web site, or any user account on Twitter, Reddit, Github, and YouTube.  This is why verified creators can be both instructors and students. 

What can be your next step in exploring this technology? 

  1. Download the Brave browser and install it on your desktop or mobile device 
  2. Make your decision about enabling the BAT rewards and the Uphold digital wallet
  3. With the help of the Brave browser check the verification status of various online resources  
  4. Learn more about Brave, privacy in online environments, and cryptocurrencies 

There is a number of innovations emerging currently from the blockchain technology specifically for Education.  Most of them take advantage of the blockchain as a distributed database and smart contract facility.  This is often used to track academic accomplishments and credentials.  Well-known companies such as Sony and IBM participate in these innovations.  Blockchain also powers cryptocurrencies, which continue to disrupt industries.  Earning and keeping BAT over time may be useful to students in the future. Cryptocurrency was named best investment of 2019 by WSJ and #1 investment of the decade turning $1 into $90,000.  Some cryptocurrencies were up 100% just in January of 2020.  Certainly, there is a lot of learning that is taking place around the blockchain technologies.