By Eric Pulier

The coming of Web3 holds immense promise for the education field. By leveraging blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, virtual spaces, and programmable NFTs, the way we teach and learn is on the cusp of being significantly reshaped. In this article, I’ll explore the potential of Web3 for education, both now and in the future, empowering learners, educators, and institutions to create a more collaborative and effective ecosystem.

For our purposes, when we speak of Web 3.0, we are referring to a set of converging exponential technologies under the banner of the “third generation of the web”, rather than a more narrow definition related only to decentralization. These elements include artificial intelligence, programmable digital objects (NFTs), 5G networks, edge computing, and social experiences across AR and virtual spaces. That’s a lot happening all at once, and it may seem daunting at first to understand how all these pieces fit. However, it’s not necessary to become an expert in each one or create brittle integrations. Platforms such as “Vatom”– the company I’m part of, that invented the Smart NFT in 2015– integrate these elements into a single, easy to use platform, masking complexity and allowing creators and students to focus on content and experiences. 

The Advent of Web3

Web3 is the next generation of the internet, adding a social and ownership layer onto the existing online experience. The are several exciting aspects to the new model:

  • Identity: moving from others owning your data, to you owning your own identity and everything you do with it. Web3 fosters user control and data ownership, paving the way for more transparent and equitable online interactions.
  • Wallet: in the future, everyone will have a Web3 wallet where they keep their own objects and tokens. The wallets will be integrated into existing apps and abstract all the blockchains away from the user for a simple, convenient experience.
  • Objects & Tokens: virtual assets that are fungible (indistinguishable from one another), or non-fungible (each one unique). Fungible tokens act as units of loyalty, value for payment, utility, or measures of achievement. Non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) can be represented with 3D graphics, animation and sound, and can be programmed to be games, tickets, coupons, collectibles, and change state with real world events or achievements.
  • Virtual Experiences: Web3 brings a set of social overlays onto the real world and web that allow for more spontaneous human interactions and more memorable collaboration. These can take place in augmented reality (as a graphical overlay on the real world) or virtual spaces, where you can “go inside” websites and run into other people. Instead of the common view of the metaverse as a game you “live” in, the metaverse will actually be a natural extension of the web as we know it– only instead of an information topology, it will be a 3D space you can socialize and learn within. Every website will have a “come in” button.

In conjunction with one another, these innovations change the way we teach and learn. In this new form, you will show up online as “yourself”– regardless of which educational institution or project you are entering– just like the real world. You will interact socially in 3D spaces with other real people, as well as AI-driven characters (sometimes known as NPCs– or “non-player characters”), in environments designed for storytelling and building memories. Lastly you can pick up digital objects in these spaces, from augmented reality and spatial websites, that not only serve as units of achievement, but also as ongoing interactive elements for continuous engagement.

AI in the Metaverse:

One of the more promising educational uses of AI in virtual spaces will go beyond simple AI-driven teachers, to NPCs that students actually teach. The ability to learn by teaching can be embarrassing if you don’t yet know the material yourself, but in this context, students can gradually master a subject by training an AI to become smarter as it asks increasingly harder questions.

Another use of AI in the virtual classroom is in immersive language instruction. Simulating real-world scenarios, such as shopping in a foreign city, or storylines like running a crime investigation, draw students into fun and engaging scenarios that accelerate mastery of language and nuanced communication in context.

Along the same lines, scenarios that teach EQ vs. IQ are especially well suited for virtual spaces where one needs to react to complex human behaviors and situations. For instance, if you are breaking up a fight between two friends– how will you help them find common ground, and how will their reactions depend on the backgrounds of each person? If you are managing a rude customer at a hotel, how do you manage the politics to a successful conclusion? How can you console a friend who has lost a loved one?

Exploring the emotions of empathy and complexities of human connection are far more effective in 3D virtual spaces with real-time reactive AI NPCs than watching Youtube videos, or a lecture on Zoom. When combined with gamification techniques such as leaderboards and point systems, the advantages of these techniques are unmistakable.

Web3’s Influence on Education Today

In the realm of education, Web3 is already making its mark, catalyzing profound changes in the way knowledge is imparted and consumed. In Web3 learning systems, students get immediate access to a digital wallet that serves many functions, including keeping track of their educational histories. Digital badges upon task completion become non-transferable, non-forgeable artifacts of achievement. These badges can become “token gates” (or keys) that unlock access to additional learning adventures.

Importantly, because of the open nature of blockchain technology, it then becomes easy for one program to honor the credits you receive from another. Without the need for any technical integration, a student who acquires an NFT certificate from one institution can enter another and simply present their wallet with express permission to check. The new group can then know, without any technical integration or fear of fraud, that this student has indeed achieved the credentials they claim.

This same system will be used for cross-company loyalty reward systems and can be used for incentives in education as well. If Kroger, for instance, wanted to award all high school graduates a free ice cream after the ceremony, it would be very hard in Web 2 to do the technical work of checking for diploma status with the school’s computers and then triggering a coupon. In the new model, the high school issues an NFT diploma, and Kroger puts up a QR code at the register for the student to scan with their wallet– getting a red or green response on the presence of their new diploma and their eligibility for reward. No integration necessary.

Personalized Learning

Web3 enables personalized learning experiences tailored to the unique needs, abilities, and learning styles of individual students. Decentralized platforms leverage data analysis and adaptive learning algorithms to deliver customized recommendations and assessments.

Through AI algorithms, a platform can analyze student data and provide personalized learning paths. Students earn microcredentials for completing modules, which are stored on the blockchain, providing a portable and trustworthy record of their achievements.

With the ability to provide indelible digital badges for any level of achievement, a new system of microcredentials becomes possible. In this way, you can achieve a highly personalized education, and ultimately be better matched to employers seeking specific tasks or expertise. Skills built this way can allow students to go deep in the combination of areas most interesting to them or most relevant to their goals, in a manner not normally recognized in traditional educational settings. These skills can be stacked together to satisfy various types of comprehensive qualifications.

One amazing organization called XPRIZE, founded by noted futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, uses prizing as an incentive model to accelerate innovation to solve humanity’s greatest challenges.  The Global Learning XPRIZE challenged teams from around the world to develop open-source, scalable software that empowers children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic within 15 months. The prize money was put up by Elon Musk, and The Global Learning XPRIZE was jointly won by two teams: onebillion and Kitkit School.

UK-based team onebillion developed ‘onetab’, a dedicated learning device preloaded with ‘oncourse’, their comprehensive and modular software that adapts to a child’s abilities. The win has helped them scale their software and reach children around the world. Kitkit School, created by Enuma, is a solution that uses technology and design from the game industry to lower barriers for struggling users. The team is based in Berkley, CA and Seoul, South Korea. Their vision is to create solutions that empower struggling learners to become independent learners.

The Global Learning XPRIZE has shown the world that self-learning software can enable children to teach themselves and each other how to read, write, and do basic math. This has been a breakthrough in how the world perceives children’s learning​. Collectively over the course of the competition, the five finalist teams invested approximately $200M in research, development, and testing for their software, a total that rises to nearly $300M when including all 198 registered teams.

All of the software created to win the competitions became open source, and is now being leveraged in numerous ways to expand the goals of the contest. Just as the first XPRIZE launched the commercial space industry, we are now seeing the same level of innovation and business potential pouring into the educational sector. Building on the success of these projects, and the open nature of the software built, Web3 technologies are now being applied–artificial intelligence, Smart NFTs, and experiential content.

Decentralized Learning Platforms

Web3 introduces the concept of decentralized learning platforms, built on blockchain technology, that have the potential to disrupt traditional education systems. These platforms facilitate direct interactions between students and educators, removing the need for intermediaries and enhancing transparency and trust within the learning process.

A prime example is On-Demand Education Marketplaces, ODEM. ODEM provides a global marketplace where students can directly connect with educators and access a wide range of courses, certifications, and skills training. By eliminating the role of intermediaries, the platform ensures that learners have direct control over their education, including course selection, payment, and content access.

ODEM can use blockchain based Smart Contracts to connect creators, employers, students and even offerings from existing organizations–without human intervention. This creates a far more transparent, open system for the dissemination of consumption of educational content. By eliminating friction in the middle, money flows more equitably and participation is more affordable.

Furthermore, decentralized learning platforms can leverage smart contracts to automate administrative processes such as enrollment, grading, and certification issuance. These platforms allow for a more democratized education system, empowering learners from across the globe to access world-class education resources, irrespective of their geographical location or socio-economic background.

Tokens as Incentive

Fungible and Non-fungible Tokens can be used to incentivize learning. For example, students might earn tokens for hitting certain educational milestones. These tokens could then be redeemed for things like additional learning resources, extracurricular activities, or real-world goods and services. In this model, businesses can donate prizes in the form of redeemable NFTs that serve marketing purposes even as they reward students who complete classes or achieve honors.

In addition, Web3 unlocks the potential for the widespread adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER), which are freely accessible educational materials that can be used, modified, and shared by anyone. Decentralized platforms empower educators to contribute to a global pool of resources, fostering collaboration and equal access to high-quality education. For example, BitDegree is a decentralized OER platform. Educators from around the world can create and share educational content, ensuring that knowledge is not restricted to a select few. Content creators receive tokens as a reward for their contributions, incentivizing them to produce high-quality materials. Tokens can be awarded to content creators based on factors such as the quality of the resource, peer reviews, and user engagement. This gamification aspect encourages active participation, stimulates creativity, and rewards educators for their contributions, thereby fostering a vibrant educational ecosystem.

Peer-to-Peer Learning and Collaboration

Web3 promotes peer-to-peer learning and collaboration, leveraging decentralized technologies to connect learners globally and facilitate knowledge exchange. Decentralized learning platforms provide tools for seamless communication, real-time collaboration, and the creation of global learning communities. Project-based Learning (PBL) platforms empower students to work collaboratively on projects, irrespective of their geographic location. By utilizing blockchain-based file storage and version control systems, students can contribute to projects, track changes, and provide feedback in real-time. This enhances critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and encourages diverse perspectives and cultural understanding among learners.

Furthermore, decentralized platforms can facilitate the creation of global learning communities where students from different backgrounds and cultures can connect and collaborate. This promotes cross-cultural understanding, empathy, and the development of a global mindset, preparing learners for an increasingly interconnected world.

Financial Inclusion and Scholarships:

Web3 can address financial barriers to education by enabling microtransactions and facilitating scholarships through decentralized platforms. Smart contracts can automate the disbursement of funds, ensuring transparency, accountability, and equitable access to educational opportunities. EduCoin is a blockchain-based platform that facilitates microtransactions for education. Students can earn tokens by completing educational tasks or contributing to the platform’s ecosystem. These tokens can be used to access premium educational content or apply for scholarships provided by sponsors, removing financial barriers and promoting inclusivity.

Many of the solutions and projects we’ve discussed need internet access to be effective. This is not true for all (the XPRIZE initiative, for example, operates on a self-contained tablet), but for the vast majority at least some kind of connection is implied. While low-cost networks are proliferating, they are usually not free, so to truly provide free access we must also address the cost of connectivity. One such project with massive potential is called N50. This project is backed by many large corporate partners, including Intel, who was one of the founders. The goal is to enable the next 3 billion people to participate in the digital world. The N50 Project accelerates digital adoption and community enrichment through innovative applications, network design, and business models– and most importantly, it partners with Telcos to provide “free minutes” for certain types of cached content on locally deployed edge devices.

Education content is a core component of this goal, allowing students to not “burn minutes” for interacting with the educational experiences.  According to N50, “​​access to affordable digital content, applications, and services at adequate speed is critical.” By galvanizing Fortune 500 companies, Non-Governmental Organizations, Academic Institutions and entrepreneurial ventures. N50 is creating an open, inclusive ecosystem that is paving the way for Web3-driven innovations in education to reach everyone. In this way, we can see a clear path to everyone owning their own identity, having control of their own data, and having the opportunity to build verifiable skills that they can use to earn a living.

The Tip of the Iceberg

By decentralizing content creation, tailoring individual learning pathways, and fostering global collaboration, Web3 is poised to change the way we teach and learn. In the coming years, billions of people will be empowered to learn in increasingly effective ways, using gamification science married with more immersive and engaging technologies. Students will achieve verified NFT credentials, not just for diplomas but for individual skills, connect with employers worldwide, and get paid for tasks and projects into their digital wallets. As low cost and free access to networks proliferate, and programmable objects and ai-driven personalized experiences become second nature, we will see high quality education coming to billions who do not have access today.

In the coming decade, a new model will emerge where every person has access to the training and content they want at low or no cost, delivered in personalized and engaging ways. This “top down” approach will be complemented by a “bottoms up” opportunity for students to leverage their new skills in real-time and get paid directly for their work and creativity.

About the author

As CEO & Founder of Vatom, Eric Pulier works to provide everyone access to the Vatom Metaverse Platform so creators and brands can realize unlimited creative and financial opportunities.

In 2015, Pulier envisioned a new world of human interaction and empowerment made possible by a better NFT. He saw beyond the mere dynamic art objects in the space, and proposed non-fungible tokens on blockchains that would come alive with 3D graphics, animation, sound, and programmability. This NFT would move seamlessly between AR & VR, change state based on external events, be redeemable and collectable, and help usher in the future of online engagement and commerce. He called this object a “Vatom,” short for “virtual atom,” which became the very first Smart NFT. Today, Vatom Smart NFTs are the most widely used NFTs, with 40 million created and distributed by some of the world’s largest companies, including Verizon, Unilever, P&G, Nestle, State Farm, iHeartRadio, and PepsiCo.