Blockchain in Modern Educational Systems

Martin de Borst is a blockchain expert and a co-founder of fintech startup Younder. On this episode of Blockchain Beyond Hype, we sat down with him to discuss a range of issues – from blockchain in the education space, to fintech and early adoption, to the act of educating oneself on a technology – like Blockchain – that is still emerging and being developed.

Martin, like many Blockchain experts, is largely self-taught. He read voraciously, watched countless videos, took online courses, and more, to teach himself the ins and outs of Blockchain and how it works – and can work – to solve problems in the business world and society more generally.

One of Martin’s most important lessons shared is the importance of practical knowledge. There are limits to classroom education – especially in fields that are just a few years old. There are no formal courses, few professors with proficiency, and just a general lack of institutional knowledge. The answer? Get out there and just do it.

Laks: We’re here today with Martin de Borst to discuss blockchain technology in modern educational systems. So, the world is changing so fast, and it’s sometimes hard to keep up with innovation. How have you gathered enough knowledge to be able to advise other companies and even prepare materials for the university?

Maarten: I got into blockchain a couple of years ago. I got a call from a friend. He was really into blockchain, and I was into business, and I’d already read into blockchain a bit – some articles, some books.

But, at that point in time, I didn’t see the problem blockchain was solving. Fast forward two years, the guy gave me a call, and I read into it again. I was finishing one of my projects at a Dutch bank, and saw so many inefficiencies in their systems. When I got to see blockchain again, I was like ‘wow’ this really is genius. How could have I missed this last time?

From that point, I thought that this is definitely going to overtake old technology and I should know more about this. I had a lot of help from my friend. He sent me videos, articles, and really anything he could find. I read throughout the whole summer – everything I could find. It was a beautiful summer, so it was kind of pity, but after a month I thought ‘OK, let’s put my money where my mouth is’. So I started a bit of investing, and I’m really glad I did that for two reasons. Mainly, because it was before the Big Bang, so it was a good financial position.

Laks: Yeah.

Maarten: But also, when your money is at stake then it’s different because you really want to be right. So you’re on top of the materials, you’re on top of your investments – although they were really small investments. But still, you want to be right.

From that moment on, I just kept on reading, writing, doing experiments, small projects, etc. We introduced a cryptocurrency for a big coworking space in Amsterdam. We actually backed it through a bottle of Heineken to keep the prices stable, and we made headlines in Amsterdam.
We had a lot of fun times, and I thought – ‘OK, this now this is going to be worth something at some point in time’. Then, last year, I teamed up with an old colleague of mine to found Younder, my small fintech firm, and we’re doing a lot of innovative projects in the education space, with banks, and a lot more.

Laks: You mentioned before that working closely with businesses gives rare practical knowledge. When was the moment when you decided to get more involved in education, and even collaborate with the university?

Maarten: Yeah, true. I said that and I really mean that. I love to work with interns. I hired two interns to just help me out because we had a lot of work to do, and then I found out that they didn’t just help me, but I was learning too. They learned a lot from the business world, the practical stuff – what is actually happening – because there’s a big gap between education and the real world so to say.

On the other hand, I got to know something of the education world – what they teach you at schools. I really liked that, and after, the intern I was talking about, he got a job at a technology firm. He didn’t learn his skills at his school – he just got into it with me, studied all of the materials over a year and then he thought – ‘OK, I’m just going to combine finance and technology’. So yeah, I think practical knowledge is definitely needed and a good thing.

Laks: Are you using blockchain technology for one of your current projects? You mentioned that you are organizing deliveries of second-hand computers to a few schools in Indonesia. How are you tracking them?

Maarten: Yeah. So we mainly focus on fintech, and blockchain is part of that. We don’t do the implementation ourselves, but we do a lot of projects with blockchain technology, work closely with startups, have invested in some startups, and are working together with them.

One project I was really happy to do was over in Bali – in Candidasa in the East. We sent computers – second-hand, donated computers – to Bali, and we tracked and traced them with blockchain technology.

What we did is actually really easy, just take a NFC chip – the chip you put into a bank card – put it on some reward item, a camera, a chair or whatever, and you can scan it with an NFC reader on a phone to prove authenticity. You can also transfer ownership. You can add pictures, where’s it been, where’s it going, and stuff like that.

We’ve also followed the trail of blockchain with an app called ReCheck – a startup that we work with from Eastern Europe. It’s really nifty app that’s really easy to use – just scan something, prove ownership, transfer it. So you see a lot of potential. Especially in tracking and tracing of reward assets for blockchain technology.

Laks: How education is adjusted to fit current needs has always been a question for many countries. As you had to educate yourself in an absolutely new field, where did you start, what did you do, and what sources would you recommend?

Maarten: It was really exciting because there was no real courses on blockchain technology – there are still hardly any real courses at the bachelors level. I just had to educate myself, and when I look back on it, I did it – I think – threefold.

One is reading, just read as much as you can find. The web is a great source. I love reading Medium, for example, but also corporate articles, and books – old fashioned books. I still like them.

Second, is watching documentaries and taking online courses. On Coursera, for example, you can watch anything for free – or most of it for free – and it’s really helpful, with the best professors in the world from the biggest schools, universities, colleges. It teaches you a lot.

And third is what I think is maybe the most important one. Just talk to people. Talk to anyone you could find who you think this is an interesting person. Let’s talk to each other. Especially in emerging fields and new technologies, people are really open to that compared to in established fields. People are really reluctant to share knowledge, but with emerging technologies, it’s really easy to talk to people.

In Amsterdam, I found myself like going to a different meetup every night in the beginning because there were just so many people who were talking about it. So, just read, talk, and watch. Also, one of the things I learned is to talk to people who are really pessimistic.

Don’t talk only to people who love technology – talk to the other side as well. People who say this is never going to work, this is never going to be as big as people think, because then you can form your own opinion.

Laks: And get all perspectives as well.

Maarten: Yeah.

Laks: The perception of digital natives has shifted towards video consumption. Why have you chosen the format of books, and how are universities adjusting to the trend of video content?

Maarten: Yeah, it’s kind of weird actually, learning such a new technology with something as old fashioned as a book. But this is also as my personal view. Something that’s intangible, somewhere in the cloud…people don’t understand it. An old fashioned book is a great resource, but that’s my personal opinion. I think books and written articles are not going away. Of course, you see a lot of videos, like you said, there are a lot of lectures and stuff online, so you know when you go to school you really don’t have a reason to go to the lecture anymore.

There is so much great content. Everybody can be an author right now, so there’s a lot of written information. We chose to write a book for this reason – we’re working with educators and they really wanted to have a physical book, so they still use it. It’s going to be an e-book as well.

Laks: All over social media, there are posts by different professionals who are worried that their jobs will become automated – AI is killing many of them, etc. How do you see educational systems following – or not following – this rapid shift in the job market?

Maarten: Yeah, I see the worries of people, and read about them a lot. I think that’s something that’s gone forever – the process of creative destruction – old professions get killed, and new ones exist. I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. I think the biggest, well the worrying part of here, is that technology is changing so rapidly – exponentially almost – and only a small part of people and companies can afford to keep up with that rapid change.

Tech companies with big pockets, they can afford to keep up, invest a lot of money in it, a lot of resources, while the majority of people cannot. So there’s a really big information gap and I think that’s the worrying part because, especially for educational institutions, you might end up studying for four years and then, after a couple of years, you find out there are no jobs for that the thing you actually studied.

In our lectures, we start a lot of times with ten professions that didn’t exist ten years ago. And then you actually see that those professions are all over the place. Everybody is a social media expert, SEO specialist, big data, and so on. AI and blockchain – both very common right now – really didn’t exist ten years ago. I think the educational system really has to run faster in order to keep up with it.

Laks: Could you give us a story of an institution which was looking into integrating the blockchain technology? Where did they start and fail, and what did it take them to actually do it successfully?

Maarten: Like I said, we didn’t do the implementation ourselves, but we work closely with startups. So what I see generally right now is that not too many of projects go beyond the pilot phase. There are a lot of different reasons, but it’s mainly because all of a sudden it gets real and data cannot be altered anymore. People really have to work together from different companies, and we rarely see that. We saw such a thing ourselves, as well. We did a pilot with the same app I was telling you about — the transfer of ownership app. We were using that to find out where my clothing came from.

I’m a pretty curious person. So I would just ask myself, “Where does my clothing come from?” Then, we tried to find out. As it happens, it’s really not possible to find out. So, we tried that with blockchain technology, and we learned a lot. The thing was that we had some pretty good mentors, and it was pushed really high up within the business. They were sponsoring us, essentially. It was like, “Ok, we’ll talk to other people high up,” then, after the first talks, it was, “OK, let me know more,” and after that came the realization. “Ok, this is going to kill my business model because you guys want transparency and I get money because of nontransparent markets.” People just didn’t want that.

What we mainly learned was that we were skipping steps to get there, and we were not starting with the right industry, mainly because it is too old fashioned. Clothing is really physical, there’s not too much ‘digital’ in the clothing industry. So we found out that it is maybe impossible to just go from physical – skip the digital part – and then go directly to blockchain.

Laks: Being one of the early users and early adopters of blockchain technology, which use cases have been the first and why, and which use cases are about to follow?

Maarten: Well, the first one is obvious. I think for me it was definitely global currencies, especially because of the fact that it just still doesn’t make sense to me that we have had the internet since the end of the 60s, the web since the 90s, and we still don’t have a global currency.

So currencies just stop at borders, which is a really a weird thing. Well, for me anyways. So I really like the idea of a native internet currency. Secondly, and that’s also referring to the last question you asked, I expect the next use case in blockchain technology to be use cases which are already kind of digital already. So, for example, stock certificates or financial instruments. They’re all digitally traded, but part of the bookkeeping still is on paper. So it’s really easy to just manage that on blockchain technology. And third, and this is one I’m really looking forward to, is the tokenization of real world assets – cars, houses, whatever – and you can divide everything into a hundred thousand million pieces if you’d like. Ttransfers of ownership within seconds instead of days, weeks, or some countries months. So yeah, I see a lot of advantages.

Laks: What are the best knowledge sources you can suggest? How should business owners keep educating themselves to stay afloat?

Maarten: Like I said in the beginning of this interview, I think it’s threefold – reading Medium, books, anything you can find. Watch Coursera, and talk to people. Just send them a LinkedIn invite and just talk to people. That’s what I did a lot. AIt helps you form your own opinion. And in addition to what I just said about both sides of the spectrum so to say, I would also say try to keep an open mind. Don’t think in silos, because everything is interconnected nowadays. So if you’re in financial, don’t just read into financial stuff. If you’re in media, don’t just read into media, but also try to keep a more a generalist view because everything is interconnected.

Laks: What are the main aspects of blockchain technology that we should keep an eye on, according to your book?

Maarten: Blockchain is both financial and digital, so we’re covering those. They are the first two chapters of the book. Here’s an example of why we do that. We’re here in Bali, and if I want to convince you of the value of a bamboo straw, for example, to drink your coke, I’m not just going to tell you about the straw and try to convince you. What I’m also going to do is tell you about where the straw is coming from. So it used to be made of plastic, but the plastic ends up in oceans as pollution, fish eat the plastic, we eat fish, and eventually medical costs can go up. So you better have the bamboo straws. Better for everyone, right?

Laks: Yeah.

Maarten: That’s the line of reasoning we find really important because you’re not going to just tell someone about the solution – blockchain – without knowing the problem. That’s just really hard for you to get a hold on, so that’s what we’re doing.

How does the financial system work? It’s a really complicated global financial system we have. So we’re talking about advantages, the crisis, and the pitfalls, digital, everything. We take the same line of reasoning, and then we go deeper into what might be the solution. Blockchain technology – how it works, what you can do with it – and we had 20 or 30 interviews for the book with researchers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and people from different kind of fields, just to form our opinions. We kind of crowdsourced our opinion. So I’m really looking forward to the 1st of August.

Laks: OK. The 1st of August, I’ll keep it in mind.

Blockchain technology is creating a tremendous shift. If you were to explain what this technology means for the world, what would you say to a grandfather, and what would you say to a child?

Maarten: I Love the question. There are two completely different answers. To start with the grandfather. Well, start with not knowing the problem, like we just discussed. I think it’s really hard to explain the advantages of blockchain technology because they don’t know the problems of digital. Well, at least my grandfather and grandmother don’t.

Laks: Mine wouldn’t either.

Maarten: Mine was actually in typewriters, so I’m really really sure what would I say to them. I would say this technology has the potential to change the way we transact with each other. And what your benefits would be – less paperwork, fewer checks and balances, and more time with your grandchildren.

Laks: OK. What about to a child?

Maarten: To a child. Like I said – completely different story. Mainly because they are digital natives, they’re better with computers and tablets than we both are probably, and they don’t know anything else other than digital. So that’s the hard part, I think. I would say that the frictionless world in which they transact with each other in computer games could be possible in real life with blockchain technology.

Laks: What kind of possibilities should educational institutions pursue in the demand for a new scope of specific knowledge on fintech and blockchain?

Maarten: I think that the fintech scene, like all financial education nowadays, is going to be hard because there has hardly been any innovation over the past decades in finance. A lot of people are educated for financial professions, so I think that’s going to change a lot.

They really have to cope with that, with blockchain, and maybe in general for education. So for those two as well I would say three things. More cooperation between private institutions and educational services is crucial, just in order to keep up to date with what is happening in the field, and so that you can change your or adapt your curriculum on a regular basis.

Second is more internships – just do more internships. I didn’t have to do an internship because I was studying at university, but I would put more and more effort in internships because I’ve learned that they really help. Also talking to people who are more experienced – what should I do, what did you, how did you choose your job, etc. I think that’s really important.

Third, and a thing that’s not addressed well enough, is to keep on questioning. Always keep on questioning. Say I’ve just learned how to sell mortgages. They will almost never ask you, “Is this the most efficient way? Is there technology to make it easier? Or maybe could you think of the technology that could make this – in short, what could technology bring to this new technology. Is this the way we do it because it’s invented by people. Is this the most efficient way?” Always keep on questioning. I think that’s a really tough one but also a really important one to keep telling yourself and your students. I think too many students are still educated with a thought like, “this profession is always going to be the same” – but, it doesn’t work like that anymore. Like we said, technology is changing exponentially.

Laks: Well, this has been interesting. Thank you for telling us about Younder and how the educational system is absorbing the knowledge of blockchain technology. We do like to ask all of our guests how do you envision blockchain changing the world?

Maarten: Thank you. I would say if it fulfills all the promises, I see a really bright future with frictionless payments. Transactions is one of the foundations of our economic system and are set to increase almost exponentially with the Internet of Things. Many technologies are gonna be working closely together, computers working close together with humans etc.

So transactions are one of the most important things, and I think blockchain is a beautiful tool to realize that. However, we’re not there yet. So I think we should always address the pitfalls where what should be changed and what should be adopted for that. It can be political, environmental, or technological. We always have to keep that in mind. But I definitely see a bright future.

Laks: And how do you think the market for blockchain-based solutions will evolve?

Maarten: Like I said before, first it’s going to be currencies, global currencies. Second, it’s going be records that are already digital now. And third, there are going to be tokenized real-world assets. I think people won’t even notice that it’s running on a blockchain because it’s just, let’s be honest, it’s just bookkeeping. Nobody likes bookkeeping, so why do you even care? It just it works the way it does. So I think it’s just going to be an under-the-hood technology, but one that is really useful. Nobody will notice that some product or service is running on blockchain technology. I think that it will be mainly under the hood technology that can fix a lot of problems we face today — mainly transactional problems.

Laks: Well, this has been fascinating. Thank you again for coming to speak with us at Blockchain Zoo about the way educational institutions view the blockchain technology.

BBH Guest: Maarten de Bortst, Research Consultant and Co-founder of Younder
Maarten is currently writing a book about hands-on experience of tech experts in the blockchain. He spent the first five years of his career working in banking and financial industries and the next five years on advising companies on FinTech. One group of his clients in the EU are Educational institutions that would like to get more agile and adjust to exponentially growing changes in technologies. The book he is writing will be used as a handbook for students in the Netherlands.

Blockchain Beyond Hype is a series of interviews with blockchain experts and technology professionals from all across the globe about blockchain projects, challenges, innovations and the future of blockchain within the blockchain jungle!

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