Memes, Metaphors and the IoE: A Steward's Guide & 2020 Postmortem

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Memes, Metaphors and the IoE: A Steward's Guide & 2020 Postmortem

Written by
Taylor Kendal

Memes, Metaphors and the IoE: A Steward's Guide & 2020 Postmortem

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Written by
Taylor Kendal

Well then…what a year! As we collectively pump the brakes and bring 2020 to a close (or perhaps say good riddance), it’s safe to say this past year was in one sense predictable and in another utterly unfathomable. Since being announced at the World Economic Forum in January, the Internet of Education (IoE)— a global network and vision to connect all humans on earth to education and economic opportunity — has been codified into a global meme and movement. Simultaneously, a novel virus swept the earth, destabilizing much of the institutional and social fabric of our species. From the atomic to the truly cosmic, our work at Learning Economy Foundation (LEF) has been anything but static in 2020.

As sense-seeking humans, we’ve always relied on memes and metaphors to help bring collective clarity to the ever-evolving and infinitely complex world around us. And as Simone Ravaioli and I recently explored in an article for the G20 Global Briefing Report, Neuro-hacking International Education, global education, much like our own biology, is nothing if not dynamic and complex. It seems a few guiding metaphors may matter now more than ever as we look to build back better.

So in reflecting on all that has come to pass, and perhaps more importantly the work yet to be done, I wanted to close the year by exploring the analogies, memes, and metaphors that have surfaced and proven useful in helping to tell the story of the IoE. And while 2021 will still surely involve a tangled web of tribal knowledge, technical jargon, and inaccessible acronyms, our goal at LEF is to inspire and bring clarity to the dreamers and doers willing to pledge their commitment to new possibilities. I hope a few of the ideas and resources below will not only help to memorialize 2020, but also provoke dialog and make the work yet to come both more approachable and purposeful for the current and future stewards of the IoE.

Open Standards

2020 represented an incredible year for the ongoing evolution and adoption of many IoE-dependent open standards. Similar to the Internet (see TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP), the vision for the IoE is reliant on a number of emerging standards such as Verifiable Credentials (VCs) and Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs). Unfortunately, these fledgling protocols (i.e. rules/norms) are often highly technical and therefore inaccessible to the average leader, learner, or worker who might advocate for and benefit from their acceptance and use. Cue the analogy!

Given the undeniable value and challenges that surround standards, some have turned to the notion of a Skills USB to help bring salience to what might otherwise seem insignificant. While most (myself included) are helpless to describe how a USB drive actually works, we can all appreciate this universal standard that allows us to easily transfer data between computers.

Similarly, an evolving suite of open standards related to things like identity, skills, and credentialing is paving a new path towards a more effective, interoperable, user-centered world of education and learning. What if skills and credentials, much like data on a USB drive, could transfer fluidly within and between institutions? What opportunities might we unlock and what unintended consequences need to be considered?

Beyond the meta-analogy of the Skills USB, there are also standard-specific metaphors that are worth mentioning. Timothy Ruff’s three-part series on Verifiable Credentials offers a very useful way to think about VCs. Just as the standardization of the shipping container revolutionized supply chains and global trade, this digital credentialing standard could have an equally disruptive effect on the digital economy. Already, VCs have seen broad adoption by organizations working on identity, global trade, legal entity verification, union membership, VC management, and a range of education initiatives led by IBM, Hyland, Dock and others.

Open standards will continue to evolve within groups like the W3C Credentials Community Group, the Decentralized Identity Foundation, IEEE LTSC, IMS Global, ISO, and many others. At LEF, and for the sake of the IoE, we will continue to invest in the evolution of these standards and owe thanks to Kim Hamilton Duffy, Kerri Lemoie, Wayne Chang, Heather Vescent, Joe Andrieu, Simone Ravaioli, Daniel Hardman, Manu Sporny, Orie Steele, Nate Otto, Christopher Allen, Juan Caballero, Balázs Némethi, Brian Platz, and all those who tirelessly, and often thanklessly, contribute to open standards (i.e. the Skills USB of the IoE).

Digital Wallets

So we’ve got our skills USB, but what’s the point of shared open standards without applications that bring their underlying value to life? Perhaps the most popular and ubiquitous metaphor, within the IoE and beyond, is that of the digital wallet. But before we think about digital wallets, let’s first consider a physical one. Inside, there might be an ID, a few credit cards, a loyalty card from your local coffee shop, and perhaps a $20 bill. These items all come from different places, have different contextual value, and serve different purposes, but you use your single wallet as a tool to store and organize all these items so that you always have quick and easy access to what you need, when you need it.

Digital learner wallets (preferably standards-based) work the same way, but rather than physical things like credit cards and IDs, digital wallets hold digital things. For a learner, this could be a report card, a certificate of completion for an online course, proof of a unique skill, or an entire transcript. And much like a physical wallet, learners can add and remove things from their digital wallet and choose what to share, when, and with who, depending on the specific need or circumstance. This critical shift towards agency and sovereignty around personal records and achievements has only just begun and it starts with the digital wallet.

At LEF, and central to our theory of change, we believe that the practical and psychological benefits of individual ownership and control, brought about by the scaled adoption of interoperable digital learner wallets, will help to solve many of the most pressing challenges in education (retention and persistence, attainment rates, economic mobility, etc.). While 2020 was largely about expanding awareness and building capacity (via Co-Labs), the years to come will be about ethical, research-driven products that empower individuals. As part of our work to come in 2021, we’re excited to announce the Super Skills Lab, a partnership with The LEGO Foundation to pilot and pioneer digital wallets for young learners.

For those interested in a more technical look at this critical IoE metaphor, take a look at the Universal Wallet specification being co-design within W3C; a perfect marriage of open standards and end-user application. And speaking of end-user, I should also acknowledge the inextricable connection between digital wallets and identity and bring attention to the work of Kaliya-IdentityWoman, Phil Windley, Pamela Dingle, Daniel Buchner, Doc Searls, Christopher Allen, Elizabeth M. Renieris, Rouven Heck, and all those who have helped to shape our understanding of the complex relationships between people, power, and technology. The work of this community, highlighted by the Internet Identity Workshop and the notion of Self Sovereign Identity (SSI), has been nothing short of instrumental to our work at LEF.

And lastly, for some added multimedia meat on the digital wallet bone, check out these videos: one by the Microsoft Security team, and another by Drummond Reed, Chief Trust Officer at Evernym. These offer a very thorough and accessible look at the current state of digital identity and wallets, and help paint the picture of a more equitable future.

Decentralized identity explained | August 14, 2020

SSI: Who Will Own the Wallet of the Future? | September 16, 2020

Skills Libraries

So now we’ve got foundational standards and digital wallets, but what about actual learning experiences? Just as standards mean very little without end-user applications, digital wallets are meaningless without opportunities to learn skills and earn credentials that can then be collected, stored, and shared.

So in the context of the IoE, we think about learning and the acquisition of skills and knowledge more like stepping into super-powered public libraries full of expert guides, both human and machine. As opposed to learning being the pre-defined, linear, lock-step process we’re all familiar with (often referred to as the factory model), what if we imagined education to be more like stepping into an infinite and dynamic world of ideas, intrigue and opportunity?

Intuitively, we all know that learning happens throughout our lives and not just “in the classroom”, so why not build systems of learning aligned to that truth and to the diversity of the world around us? With skills libraries, and in the context of the IoE, that’s the paradigm we envision and what we aim to continue building towards and supporting.

Fortunately, there are already a range of emerging products and initiatives helping to expose this new network of IoE skills libraries and non-traditional learning pathways. Many companies (e.g. Salesforce, LEGO, etc.) already have robust internal skills libraries. Platforms like edX, Khan Academy, and Skillshare offer vast portals to new skills. The T3 Innovation Network and aligned Open Skills Network are supporting this vision at an ecosystem level. And more recently, projects like Find Something New and Skillup have emerged as direct responses to COVID-19. In many ways, this constellation of opportunity has only just begun.

Beyond specific products, skills libraries, and those enabling interoperability at the ecosystem level, there are also organizations like Emsi, SkillsEngine, and Credential Engine offering robust data tools and taxonomies (i.e. shared languages) to act as bridges between. These modern, data-driven enablers act as the OPAC or library card catalog for skills and credentials helping us make sense of the vast amounts of data within this new landscape.

In a world of interconnected skills libraries that put learners in control and smart taxonomies (i.e. modern oracles) that enable simple translations and transition from one library to another, what might be possible? How could investment in human capital (a resource far more important than oil, data, or gold) be reimagined? While there’s plenty of work to be done, the notion of skills libraries took a big step forward in 2020 and represents a critical metaphoric utility for the future of the IoE.

Learner/Career GPS

So with standards, wallets, and new ways to think about the curation of skills and learning itself, this brings us to the culminating metaphor of the learner or career GPS. When we can design and curate individually-relevant skills libraries, and store verifiable credentials in a self-sovereign digital wallet, all while adhering to shared open standards, we can start to imagine a new global navigation system for learning. But instead of helping us avoid a traffic jam or direct us to the perfect coffee shop in an unfamiliar city, the learner GPS helps us navigate the complex world of learning opportunities, games, assessments, and credential providers to arrive at a fulfilling career; the one each and every human on earth deserves.

Now more than ever, the world is in desperate need of a GPS for learning.

That said, the GPS didn’t arrive on our phones overnight. It began with research and standards, then satellites and triangulation, then stakeholder buy-in, and finally a suite of robust data tools. Only after this foundational ecosystem was developed were we able to download personally-controlled, GPS-enabled apps to our phones. Similarly, a successful and globally-scaled Learning and Career GPS will require foundational infrastructure and a shared vision of what’s possible. This is the IoE. With ongoing support from visionaries and stewards like you, this is a future we can (must?) create for future generations.

The IoE & Learning Economy

Only when combined as a full suite of complimentary public good utilities (open standards, digital wallets, skills libraries, and a learner GPS) can we start to imagine a single Internet of Education and Learning Economy. A new paradigm in which learners can easily and accurately express, with verifiable trust, that their skills and knowledge make them uniquely qualified to add value (not just profit) to local communities and a shared global economy. A coming future of prosperity and abundance where knowledge and abilities become transferable assets, much like currencies. A future where learning is earning and equity gaps are finally dissolved.

This is a future where education and employment, like the initial vision of the Internet, is open, ubiquitous, and freely available to everyone regardless of their race, gender, or zip code; a future where learners, teachers, dreamers, and doers have ultimate agency and control of their personal data. This is a world where education is the gold standard; a proven lifeline offering everyone the opportunities they deserve.

In looking back on 2020 and imagining our work to come, I can’t think of a better metaphor to end on than that of the cosmos. The possibilities and discoveries yet to come are truly infinite. I hope you’ll join us!

“The talent ecosystem is a galaxy of actors in constant motion, some new star-like initiatives forming, others stable in their orbits, and some consolidating, merging, or even going supernova and spawning a host of new opportunities.” ~Matt Gee | CEO, Brighthive

I also want to acknowledge and extend a shared LEF thanks to Sharon Leu, Phil Komarny, Alison Griffin, Laura Faulkner, Noah Geisel, Bryan Alexander, Alex Grech, Walter Fernando Balser, Brian Platz, Jay Wall, Steven Hodas, Janet Rafner, Louka Parry, Sallyann Della Casa, Megan Raymond, Wesley Teter, Sherry Jones, John Paller, Ana Rold, Phil Long, Alex Kaplan, Nam-ho Park, Sam Oh, Marito Garcia, Dominic Regester, Michael Nettles, Catherine Millet, John Goodwin, Spencer Ellis, Michael Vente, Angie Paccione, Russell Castagnaro, Naomi Boyer, Dawn Marvino, Kathleen DeLaski, Takis Diakoumis, Cameron McCoy, Dale Allen, Kelly Ryan Bailey Tara Lifland Baumgarten, Cecil Banhan, Kim Bartkus, and all those who have opened doors, inspired, and supported us in 2020. We are without question the company we keep!

If you found this post useful, please consider becoming an IoE signatory or download the IoE app to continue the conversation. If you have questions or would like to get involved, please reach out:

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