Can you hear that? A certain high frequency hum which, until recently, was perceptible only to dogs, bats, and cryptography cognoscenti? It’s the mounting buzz over “blockchain”—an umbrella term referring to a number of shared ledger services that promise to revolutionize every aspect of social and political exchange, from financial transactions to medical data, voter registration to birth certificates.
Due in large part to the way they address the twinned threats of system failure and malicious users which plague our increasingly bloated, outmoded, centralized systems of exchange, blockchains already appear to be altering institutions that have structured human life and interaction for centuries. More radical in their (re)imagining of system reliability and trustworthiness than cloud computing, social networks, or the Internet of Things, blockchain-based technologies like Bitcoin are certainly a massive phenomenon. But what is a blockchain? How does it work? And can it actually deliver on what it ostensibly promises?
The answers to these questions are highly complex and, like blockchain itself, require no mean amount of human computing power—whether it’s building consensus or hashing (out) values. That’s where this lesson plan comes in. As an instructor working between classical rhetoric and digital methods, I’ve herein refrained from using technical jargon or delving into algorithmic minutiae in favor of constructing a lesson plan that introduces students to this subject in a straightforward and disciplinarily targeted fashion.
This lesson may be deployed in rhetoric and writing-intensive courses, as it regards blockchain through the lens of ethos and decentralized network exchange (i.e., how we build trust computationally within an anonymous, global community). It may also be used for a course more narrowly focused on political action or public discourse, as it provides insight into the promises, potentialities, and public effects of one of the most transformative technologies of our time.
Students will learn the general contours of blockchains, broadly construed, from a nontechnical perspective. This lesson plan presents a rhetorical reading of shared ledgers and asks students to analyze constructions of ethos in older models of distributed agency as well as newer blockchain-based technologies. This means they will come away with a rudimentary understanding of:
Two 1.5-hour class periods (alternatively split between three 1-hour periods).
Classroom equipped with projector and computers. Ideally, you will mix outside activities/assignments with in-class time, e.g., share all necessary media on Google Drive or your school’s learning management system (LMS) prior to class and ask students to bring their own devices to your meeting.
Some prior coverage of appeals to ethos and concepts like digital identity, ownership, and exchange would be helpful. No technical skills necessary beyond web browsing and collaborating on digital media.
Access and Adaptability
Hoping to be as flexible as virtual networks of exchange and consensus-building, themselves, this lesson plan is adaptable to a variety of classroom settings, instructor goals, and student needs.
In terms of hardware and software adaptability, consider assigning a heavier portion of the reading and viewing outside your meeting time, when students with specific accessibility needs won’t be constrained by in-class limits on time or the use of inhospitable hardware/software.
Further, if you ask students to bring their own devices to class it will better accommodates those with accessibility software installed on their personal computers. Since this lesson involves reading and viewing web content, there should be a number of workarounds available for those requiring disability accommodations like 1.5x time to complete assignments or video closed-captioning.
In terms of content adaptability, you might choose to focus closely on the potential for blockchain technologies to increase political, social, or economic interaction (including its purported access-granting and democratizing effects) or conduct classroom discussion toward the promises and pitfalls of decentralized networks, P2P, and blockchain with regard to accessibility and the digital divide, specifically.
Students will be introduced to concepts of distributed agency, decentralized networks, virtual exchange, and the latest innovation of blockchains. They will be asked to think critically about the rhetorical appeals to ethos made in each technological instance and ultimately approach the new wave of technology with a sophisticated, skeptical eye. Both instructor and students will be challenged to dig into this complex topic and come away asking far more questions than they entered with—that’s a good sign.
The hype around blockchain is considerable, but how grand should expectations really be? What ethics are involved in the gold-rush mentality surrounding, for example, Bitcoin? Blockchain may offer greater reliability, transparency, and security to users (i.e., consumers, workers, voters, etc.) around the globe, but who are its key influencers and stakeholders; how might it be co-opted in order to propagate even greater social, political, and economic inequalities? For example, why is it that some of the institutions that this technology is designed to dismantle or make obsolete are the very ones stocking up on blockchain patents or collaborating with blockchain startups?
Since this lesson is explores a digital topic and requires some computer use both in and out of the classroom, but does not demand any special skills or programming knowledge, what I offer below is a collection of additional sources to inform your teaching and generate student discussion. This list is by no means exhaustive…though it might initially look exhausting.
Instructors should familiarize themselves with the media presented here, which are meant to convey the general contours of this topic as well as highlight a few interesting little detours worth exploring. If certain texts or videos speak more to the goals of a particular course, the lesson plan can be augmented or steered in that direction.
Blockchain: The Road to Utopia (Nathaniel Karp and Marcial Nava) (NB: as with other sources, students should make note of how and for whom this article was produced: “This document was prepared by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria’s (BBVA)…BBVA operates primarily through its subsidiary Compass Bank.” This might lead to good discussions of how banks are disrupting the purportedly disruptive technology of blockchain.)
The Blockchain & Bitcoin (Computerphile) (NB: This is definitely a more technical explanation, but uses pen-on-paper diagrams and fairly vernacular descriptions. Students will need contextualization of terms like “database,” “node,” “input/output,” and “hashing.” Probably not advisable for non-computer-science inflected courses.)
The following are Portfolio-Style and Traditional Assessment suggestions. In both, students are assessed on the extent to which they generate a portfolio or contribute to a discussion that rhetorically analyzes distributed networks, blockchain technologies, and how we construct ethos on anonymous, global platforms of exchange.
Instructors should moderate GoogleDocs or LMS contributions and offer ample feedback as to about how students can improve the project prior to its due date, either in-person or on the sites. After the assignment(s) is/are due, students can meet with the instructor to reflect on their portfolios.