Pandemic Proof: An Optimist's Guide & 2021 LEF Postmortem

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Pandemic Proof: An Optimist's Guide & 2021 LEF Postmortem

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Pandemic Proof: An Optimist's Guide & 2021 LEF Postmortem

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Written by
Taylor Kendal

Having assumed the worst was behind us after an unprecedented 2020, I think we can all agree that 2021 came with its own challenges and was far from a proverbial walk in the park. Somehow, this past year felt both familiar and foreign to all of us. Fortunately, at Learning Economy Foundation (LEF), we’ve found ourselves surrounded by a pandemic-proof network of visionaries and optimists who collectively chose to push forward, even when the easier path would surely have been to slow down or surrender.

Since being announced at  Davos in January 2019, the Internet of Education (IoE) — a global network and vision to connect all humans to education and economic opportunity — has been further codified into a global meme and movement; one grounded in optimism and hope that tomorrow can (and will) be better than today.

In reflecting on all that has come to pass, and perhaps more importantly the work still to come, I wanted to once again close the year by offering a summary and reflection of our work, and the progress towards realizing the IoE vision. And while 2022 is sure to involve more deliberation, experimentation, and unsettled jargon, our goal at LEF will be to inspire and bring clarity to the dreamers and doers willing to pledge their commitment to new possibilities. I hope this review and reflection will not only help to memorialize 2021, but also provoke dialogue and make the work yet to come more approachable and inspiring for the current and future stewards of the IoE.

Blockchain for Education: A Global Community of Practice

In 2021, LEF had the privilege of partnering with the World Bank to co-convene the Blockchain for Education Community of Practice (CoP). Our goal was to bring together individuals and organizations working on the use of blockchain technologies to create value in education systems. Members discussed the practical realities of effectively utilizing related technologies and shared lessons from their work and research related to:

  • Blockchain & FinTech for Education
  • Education ecosystems & crypto-networks
  • Learner-centered credentials
  • The skills economy
  • Assessment & measurement
  • Token Economics

A total of 6 workshops were held throughout 2021, with well over 200 unique CoP participants engaging globally. In 2022, LEF and the World Bank’s EdTech Team, along with a growing network of organizations and Ministries of Education, will continue to collaborate on the implementation of pilots and contribute to a growing global body of open source public goods. While nascent, we believe this CoP and partner network will continue to evolve into a sustainable mechanism for furthering the IoE, both in theory and practice. Those interested in getting involved, please contact us so we can include you in our correspondence for 2022.

A special thanks to Chris Purifoy, Duncan Cox, Colin Reynolds, Bob Hawkins, Dean Kline, Inaki Sanchez, Prema Shrikrishna, Ekua Nuama Bentil, Santiago Garcia, Lluís Alfons Ariño, John Goodwin, Emiliana Vegas, Carissa Carter, Thomas Hay, Märt Aro, Phil Long, Marito Garcia, Kim Hamilton-Duffy, Simone Ravaioli, Kerri Lemoie, Iwan Fathony, Joanne Duklas, Roger Quirama García, Wesley Teter, Sharon Leu, Alex Grech, Chris Richmond Nzi, Tomicah Tillemann, Dante Disparte, Shermin Voshmgir, Mustafa Hakan Bücük, and all those who participated and contributed to the success of this community in 2021.

Open Standards: Equitable Access in Practice & Product

Supporting the advancement of open standards has always been core to the mission of LEF, but in 2021, we doubled down on our support and advocacy. Colin Reynolds, VP of Learning, (along with partners Simone Ravaioli and Greg Nedaeu) played a pivotal role in advancing the IEEE ILR Recommended Practice (1484.2). This work will continue in 2022, acting as a foundational framework upon which the IoE can emerge with standards-based support and stability. LEF also continued to invest in the W3C Credentials Community Group (CCG), and more specifically, the Verifiable Credentials for Education Taskforce (VC-Edu), along with identity-focused organizations such as the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF) and ID2020. In our view, the support of these open communities and associated standards are not optional if we’re to realize a truly global, interoperable education network.

Funded by a grant from The Walmart Foundation, LEF also embarked on a new stream of open standards research and resource creation. In 2021, we initiated work on a data standards landscape analysis, graphic comic, and implementation playbook to be shared across a growing community of key leaders and decision-makers. The goal with these outputs is not to highlight any singular platform, product, or standard, but instead, offer accessible resources to help align priorities, and create a shared framework that enables all stakeholders to make educated and informed decisions. These resources will be made publicly available in early 2022 at:

Thank you to Sean Murphy, Danielle Saunders, Duncan Cox, Sharon Leu, Phil Long, Jim Goodell, and Simone Ravaioli for your trust, expertise, and leadership. We hope 2022 will mark a new era in ecosystem-scale interoperability powered by global, human-centered open standards.

Super Skills: A Foundational Use Case for DIDs + VCs

As many are aware, a highlight for LEF in 2021 was our partnership with The LEGO Foundation to build a gamified mobile app, Super Skills, leveraging DIDs, VCs, and digital wallets. This app, currently in beta, invites users to help restore an ancient superhero city. To do so, learners choose their own adventure on quests to earn “skill resources” from three play-to-learn activities, each with three levels and three superhero buildings they can create. It also allows users to create their own hero, and explore their treasure chest of skill resources and creations.

While information transfer has gone exponential, education infrastructure and value transfer have not kept up… but primitives are emerging to change that, with DIDs, VCs, and digital wallets coming into focus to enable open networks of learning.

In 2022, we hope Super Skills grows to become a community catalyst and shared beacon of possibility. Grounded in the principles of the IoE, our goal is to offer an open source public good that others can reference, learn/earn from, and build upon.

The partnership is intended to help champion the importance of these primitives, prepare the next generation of learners, and demonstrate that we can start these practices now, not tomorrow.

With interest continuing to surge around ideas such as web3 and the Metaverse, we believe Super Skills, along with a burgeoning ecosystem of related (d)apps, can act as a practical forcing function; one that shows (not tells) us the democratizing power of technology. For a more detailed deep-dive and technical overview, I encourage you to check out the epic Twitter thread and accompanying blog post by LEF VP of Engineering, Nathan Tonani.

Metaversity: A New Era in Lifelong, Pandemic-proof Pathways

With Super Skills acting as an IoE use case for youth, we extended the design to an architecturally-aligned platform for institutions of higher education called Metaversity (built on the same open, interoperable technology). This initiative, also involving a digital wallet, learning pathways, and skills libraries, adds a social layer for inviting local employers to post job openings. The intention is to create a localized skill economy where employers would accept verifiable badges and skill assertions like currency for new jobs.

Arguably, the key innovation with Super Skills and Metaversity is the ability to interoperate with existing, often proprietary systems. For example, using DXtera Institute’s Campus API along with aligned open standards, the Metaversity app can communicate with existing badging or credentialing systems and protocols (e.g. Open Badges, Credential Engine, etc.). As an open, turnkey software package, our goal is to enable fluid interoperation with any school, university, or existing employer system(s). The Metaversity platform, while tailored initially for community colleges, can be white-labeled by any K-12 school district, college, or organization.

This universal integrated system gives students:

  • portable credentials (labor market currency)
  • employment pathways (a career GPS linked to local employers/job opportunities)
  • pride and belonging (a transparent, ad-free social network where learners can share, socialilize, and take pride in their skills and achievements)

An all-in-one system, the Metaversity:

  • is based on leading open data standards to allow interoperability and prevent predatory vendor lock-in
  • is founded on research & practice such as the IoE, CoPs, and LEF Co-Labs
  • preserves learner privacy and security through distributed technology

Ironically, Facebook (the Metaversity antithesis in many respects) initiated a major rebrand in 2021 to Meta. And while this clearly introduces the potential for confusion, we think it’s important that LEF (and for that matter anyone interested in creating a more open and equitable future) stay involved in shaping the memes and narratives of our time. We hope you’ll join us in elevating the rational optimists who see a path toward a brighter future.

A growing network of organizations and institutions have already expressed interest in launching/supporting a Metaversity node. Interested in exploring this opportunity or engaging in the IoE community? Please let us know!

DAOs & Decentralization: A New Learning Economy R&D Division

While much of 2021 was about accelerating existing work streams, another opportunity surfaced which allowed us to create an entirely new division at LEF focused on Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and innovative new governance mechanisms. Seed funding and thought leadership for this new team and division was provided by DEVxDAO— a place where protocols, projects, and engineers work together to push forward the frontiers of emerging technology. A special thanks to Wulf Kaal and Timothy Lewis for their guidance, vision, and conviction.

While we foresee this new division taking on a range of projects, our initial focus is on a definitive study of DAOs; one that builds on LEF’s and Harvard’s research on Economy Corporations (E-Corps), the principles and technologies of the IoE, and DEVxDAO’s core white paper and research. By investigating the governance protocols, legal structures, and standard taxonomies of DAOs, this paper will lay the foundation for any number of global DAO data marketplaces. The study will benefit from expert reviewers from some of the world’s top organizations and authorities, including many of LEF’s key collaborators.

Open Skills Network: Seedlings to Sprouts

Of the many trends we saw emerge in 2021, one movement continued to gain steady momentum across the calendar year. The Open Skills Network (OSN) furthered its mission to promote a more equitable, skills-driven labor market that matches learners and workers with skills-based education and career opportunities to the benefit of the individual, employer, and economy at large. LEF was selected to help facilitate a collection of 14 pilot teams in the spring, helping to develop a framework for selecting another round of Collaborative Teams that are set to kick off cohort-based skill development in January 2022. With the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding digital badges, micro-credentials, and skills taxonomies, the work with OSN has never felt more important.

This partnership with OSN has been a tremendous opportunity to grow the notion of “skills as currency” in a global learning economy. OSN as a collaborative IoE node is one of many that saw real movement across the globe as teams were developing and implementing skills-based initiatives at local, regional, national and international levels.

Potential to Impact: An Event Series & Open Forum

In partnership with the American Council on Education, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and the Presidents Forum, LEF supported the event series, Potential to Impact: Harnessing Blockchain to Empower Learners, that will conclude in early 2022.

The goal of the series, which built upon existing work from initiatives such as the T3 Innovation Network and the ACE Education Blockchain Initiative, was to explore how distributed ledger technologies and Learning and Employment Records (LERs) can advance economic opportunity for learners. A mandate leading into the work was to ensure that participants needn’t have a deep technical understanding of blockchain—in fact, we encouraged those with limited experience and knowledge to join and share their ideas and perspectives.

Throughout the year, curated workgroups, each focused on a distinct end-user (employers, administrators, registrars, learners), collaboratively explored a range of efforts leveraging these new technologies and tools to promote social equity and learner empowerment. By early next year, we plan to promote and publish recommendations from each workgroup, along with a final report discussing findings and next steps.

This work is part of a body of knowledge that we intend to continue supporting and growing as we head into 2022. Related outputs and reports include the following:

A special thanks to Taylor Hansen, Sarah Cunningham, Erin Lockett, Noah Sudow and all those who facilitated workgroups and participated in this series throughout 2021. Your hard work and thoughtful contributions to this emergent ecosystem can't be overstated.


Final Thoughts

It’s hard to believe that 2021 is behind us. This past year has been challenging yet endlessly rewarding, painful yet productive, and uncertain yet hopeful. Through it all, we continued to cultivate and lean on a pandemic-proof network of optimists; a resilient network of hearts and minds that acted as armor and insulation when times were tough. If this past year taught us anything, it’s that human ingenuity and positivity are both required when looking to make intergenerational impact. Thank you again to everyone who stood with us, and remember, the possibilities and discoveries yet to come are truly infinite.

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