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From play-to-earn to learn-to-earn

From play-to-earn to learn-to-earn

Over the last year, we’ve seen the growing popularity of play-to-earn (P2E) cryptocurrency video games which allow players to convert their hard-earned in-game assets into real-world cash. Yet despite this, we’ve yet to see similar inroads in the learn-to-earn (L2E) space.

At a glance, many of these P2E games seem like elaborate pyramid schemes wherein late entrants payout early adopters. But in developing countries, such titles provide cash-strapped individuals with a supplemental or primary source of income from their daily playing.

I am pretty comfortable with such innovations if they facilitate an honest reflection of “work”. If gamers can create something with intrinsic value, then these products look more like market-based platforms.

Call me biased, but learning strikes me as the pinnacle of honest work. But despite this, we’ve yet to make similar inroads in the learn-to-earn (L2E) space.

Now before we continue, I have to say that there’s nothing new about L2E. For years, people have paid students to study or given cash prizes as motivation for excellent results. A research effort headed by Roland Fryer and others notably distributed $6.3 million to 20k students to test the impact of incentives on student achievement.

As expected, the research showed that paying people solely for attaining higher scores does not work. However, rewarding people who know how to transform the excitement of “getting paid” into tangible actions will boost their achievement.

Despite this, Fryer’s study highlighted that providing monetary rewards could be more cost-effective than other educational reforms, such as lowering class sizes. I am not entirely in agreement with this sentiment. In the real world, such financial undertakings can be prohibitive for most educational institutions.

Against the backdrop of Fryer’s research, I came across SMILEYCOIN, an experiment by Gunnar Stefansson which explored the usage of cryptocurrency in an educational context.

Stefansson (deftly) sidestepped the need to raise new capital for this experiment by creating the SMLY token. A student could earn SMLY by completing learning tasks on Stefansson’s site, Tutorweb. Following this, the student could exchange SMLY for other cryptocurrencies through an exchange.

Initially, students were sceptical of Stefanson’s proposal, but after finding out that they could use SMLY tokens to purchase coffee or vouchers, they were on board. Over time, a small, flourishing economy came into play.

From Stefansson and Fryer’s research, I put together three thoughts on L2E:

  • When devising L2E solutions, you must have several use cases for the reward tokens within your ecosystem. When this is not possible, you need to unbundle your ecosystem so that “out of scope” experiences indirectly enrich your platform. You could have a secondary market where users can buy related educational content, such as books, courses or 1-1 sessions. If the perceived utility of your reward token is low, then its market price will drop.
  • Some of your users might come from developing economies where they only live on a few dollars a day. These users will probably cash out at the earliest opportunity. In such instances, your ecosystem must guide students towards better learning and better financial opportunities. There needs to be a component to integrate with complementary services which reward supporting behaviours and the subsequent re-investment of your tokens.
  • Users will learn how to game your L2E model over time, so take your attack vector seriously. With Stefansson’s efforts, he noticed that non-students were increasingly accessing Tutorweb and spending far less time (30 seconds compared to 140 seconds) answering questions. He suggests considering methods to auto-detect this sort of abuse or make it difficult. But it’s likely to be a reoccurring issue, as attackers will discover different ways of thwarting detection methods.

In closing, we still have lots to discover about the long-term effects of paying students to pursue learning. However, as the play-to-earn market matures, we’ll be able to pick up and re-apply any best practices that will guide people to better learning experiences.

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