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:
- Working definitions of decentralized networks and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchange.
- The promises and pitfalls of reliability and trustworthiness associated with decentralized networks and P2P exchange.
- Working definitions of blockchain and select narrower applications (e.g., Bitcoin and smart contracts).
- The promises and potential pitfalls of this technology, in comparison to its forebears.
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?
Peruse provided articles and videos (hyperlinked and listed in Skills Workshop).
Consider the chronological development of decentralized networks and how social, political, and economic pressures molded these technologies and their legacies.
Potentially adapt the topic to suit your particular classroom culture. Use the links offered here as a springboard to research and select a few articles that more directly address your course’s goals (e.g., you might gravitate toward blockchains as platforms for political agency/action or Marxist readings of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin).
Read whatever articles the instructor chooses to assign before class (hyperlinked and listed in Skills Workshop).
Think about the development of distributed, decentralized networks.
Watch videos, making note of how blockchain technologies conceive of and extend concepts of reliability and trustworthiness.
Participate in class research and discussions about ethos, reliability, and trustworthiness on blockchains.
Your first meeting is designed to get students thinking about the basic terms you’ll be using to generate discussion (in the classroom and outside). You’ll likely want them to have read Daniel Drescher’s Blockchain Basics: A Non-technical Introduction In 25 Steps: “Seeing the Big Picture: Software architecture and its relation to the blockchain” (9-17) and “Recognizing the Potential: How peer-to-peer systems may change the world” (18-25). Additionally, you may select 1-2 videos from those hyperlinked in the Skills Workshop section for students to watch prior to class.
If necessary, provide a brief recapitulation of ethos as a rhetorical appeal, reiterate the investment rhetoric and composition have in constructing and transmitting concepts of good character, reliability, and trustworthiness (10 minutes).
Divide students into groups of 4-5 and assign each group a specific revolutionary network to research and discuss (30 minutes). Examples might include: ARPANET (1969), Usenet (1979), Napster (1999), and Bittorrent (2001). Have each group present their research to the class, as a whole (20 minutes). For the remaining time (or as a post-class, online assignment) ask students to discuss how ethos was conceived of and constructed within these early P2P networks and how shifts in technological reliability and social trustworthiness drove progress of distributed systems.
For your second meeting, you’ll likely want students to have read Daniel Drescher’s Blockchain Basics: A Non-technical Introduction In 25 Steps: “Discovering the Core Problem: How to herd a group of independent computers” (27-32), “Disambiguating the Term: Four ways to define the blockchain” (33-7), and “Understanding the Nature of Ownership: Why we know what we own” (39-47). Have them pay special attention to the claims made about ownership, identification, authentication, and authorization, and how blockchain intervenes on each. Additionally, you may select 1-2 articles or videos from those hyperlinked below to assign.
Review the generic-use patterns of blockchain that Drescher identifies (224): Proof of existence, proof of nonexistence, proof of time, proof of order, proof of identity, proof of authorship, and proof of ownership.
Pretty fuzzy, eh? To make your discussion more concrete, divide students into groups (they could be the same as the previous class period or different) and assign each a specific application area of blockchain technologies to research (30 minutes). These might be: 1) Financial instruments, records, and models (e.g., currencies, private equities, derivatives); 2) Private records (e.g., contracts, signatures, wills, trusts, GPS trails); 3) Public records (e.g., land titles, business incorporation/dissolution, regulatory records, birth/death certificates, voting, government and nonprofit accounting/transparency); 4) Semi-Public Records (e.g., university and college degrees, certifications, grades, learning outcomes, medical records, genome data, delivery records, arbitration); 5) Intangibles (e.g., coupons/vouchers, patents, copyrights/trademarks, software licenses, music/movie/book licenses, online identities, proof of authorship or prior art). Have each group present their research to the class, as a whole (20 minutes, total).
For the remaining time (or as a post-class, online assignment) ask students to define in their own words what the main differences between earlier P2P models and blockchain models are. You might ask them to discuss how ideas of ethos shift between the P2P networks they researched during the last class period and the application areas they looked at during this class. Further, how have changes in our expectations of technological reliability and social trustworthiness driven the narrative of progress within distributed systems? Finally, you could assign a more long-form essay on the rhetoric of blockchains: what are some of the problems these technologies are meant to solve? How do they aim to solve them (i.e., by what mechanisms or relationships)? What claims do they make about financial, educational, governmental, or judicial processes and what are the potential risks associated with such social and political transformation? What does blockchain offer in the way of reliability and trustworthiness and is it, in itself, reliable and trustworthy—why/why not?
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.
These class periods and their attendant assignments can be developed into a student portfolio project in at least two ways. First, students can collect the citations for their group research and individual writings from both class periods and compile an annotated bibliography (any collaborative work can be tracked on GoogleDocs or your school’s LMS). Second, groups or individual students might focus on one overarching metaphor used to describe the evolution of P2P and blockchain technologies and discuss the broader rhetorical claims of distributed networks and ethos in a brief paper.
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.
The in-class and online discussion can be incorporated into an overall participation grade. Additional points might be awarded for further research and writing assignments on the topic.