April 20th, 2021
When Twitter’s founder and CEO Jack Dorsey put his very first tweet up for sale, it caused quite a stir. Not for the fact that it sold for an astounding $2.9 million, but for its chosen method of sale - an NFT.
NFT’s (or Non-Fungible Token’s) are digital assets that are provably unique, creating digital scarcity. They can't be duplicated or divided. This is in direct comparison to an asset that is fungible, i.e. bitcoin. If you trade one bitcoin for another bitcoin, you’ll have exactly the same thing, but you can’t trade @jacks first tweet for a duplicate.
From a technical point of view, a NFT at its core is a digital asset that contains identifying information recorded in its smart contract and immutably recorded on that token’s blockchain; typically Ethereum. From a practical perspective, a NFT offers digital proof of ownership of any uniquely identifiable asset, in the digital or real world.
There are numerous examples touted of how an NFT might be used, including the approach becoming a modern method to exchange ownership of works of art, either online or in physical form. Let’s branch out from the common examples though, and look at how they could be used within a modern learning environment?
As more higher education institutions are offering remote learning, the accrual and receipt of education is becoming more digital than ever. As an NFT is effectively just digital proof of ownership of a unique asset, it could be used as an effective method to provide evidence of a qualification, degree or other academic achievement.
The smart contract can contain a wealth of metadata (including student name, awarding body, date, and even curriculum covered) that would help maintain the integrity of an academic award and allow employers to have confidence in the qualifications of the applicant.
As the NFT is backed by the blockchain, the history of the smart contract is effectively secured, and - as they are unique by design - they would be tied to a single student. Whilst the NFT could technically be sold on, the associated metadata will still point back to the student who achieved the qualification.
These NFT’s could then be recognised as automated prerequisites for higher degrees, and could be utilised by universities within their alumni programmes to open up opportunities to those with matching qualifications.
Privacy remains a key concern for all individuals and exposure of this identifiable data has a large amount of drawbacks.
As professional development platforms head towards a skills based approach, the employee’s progress and skills acquired become pertinent to understanding a person's abilities, but also what they are aspiring to achieve. This skills data can be utilised by companies to identify gaps in their business (that could be filled with an acquisition or merger, for instance) or missed opportunities based upon previously unknown skill sets within their organisation.
The transfer of the employee’s skills record between organisations and systems, however, still remains a significant challenge. The skills data for each individual is commonly stored within the specific platform that it has been achieved, and within a format unique to each vendor.
Fast forward to a vision of where - in a similar way to education - the NFT could be used as digital proof of personal ownership of a skill, and can be transferable and evidenced between employers. An NFT could provide a unified and accredited source for each skill, all stored in a defined format; a more formalised LinkedIn skills association, if you may.
Taking this a step further, this global skills record could also be utilised to connect employees with employers, or candidates with experts in their field. Employees with skills in Leadership, Computer Science and DBMS can be connected with employers across the globe who are looking for this certain set of skills, or even be invited into a private network of like minded individuals and experts to discuss topics of mutual interest. Additionally, the individual will be able to locate the most applicable professional development course and training event with ease.
Whilst the vision here seems to make practical sense, the technicalities of this still remain challenging. Various questions arise, including who the authorised issuer(s) of accreditations would be, and then how categorised and accessible this data should or could be. Privacy remains a key concern for all individuals and exposure of this identifiable data has a large amount of drawbacks. In a similar way to how vaccination passports may potentially create tiers of society, public exposure of a person’s education and qualifications could even accelerate division between the skilled and unskilled.
Challenging or not, digital proof of ownership is a problem the connected world needs to solve, and with robust blockchain technology behind this latest approach, this direction may be the most direct approach yet.