On a clear, warm night earlier this year, several dozen students at the University of California, Berkeley, folded themselves into gray chairs for a three-hour class on how to think like blockchain entrepreneurs. The evening’s challenge, presented by Berkeley city councilmember Ben Bartlett, was to brainstorm how blockchain technology might be used to alleviate the city’s growing homeless problem.
“We have at least 1,400 homeless people in our city, and that includes many right here at UC Berkeley,” Bartlett told the class. “So how can we use blockchain to fund a new prosperity? That’s a challenge I’d like you to take on.”
The course, taught by visiting professor and former venture capitalist Po Chi Wu, is among a growing number of classes and research initiatives on blockchain technology emerging at universities. Blockchain—a method for creating and maintaining a global ledger of transactions that doesn’t require a third-party middleman such as a bank, government, or corporation—is best known for its role in powering the virtual currency bitcoin. But applications are springing up in other areas as well, including retail, humanitarian aid, real estate, and finance. Although some analysts believe blockchain won't gain widespread adoption for another five or 10 years, companies like IBM, Facebook, and Google are investing heavily in the technology—and universities are taking note.
New York University, Georgetown, and Stanford are among the institutions that offer blockchain technology courses to get students thinking about its potential uses and to better prepare them for the workforce. Job postings requiring blockchain skills ballooned by 200 percent in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period a year earlier, though they remain less than 1 percent of software development jobs, according to the research firm Burning Glass Technologies. Universities like MIT, Cornell, and Columbia are launching labs and research centers to explore the technology and its policy implications and seed the development of rigorous curricula on the topic.
Ikhlaq Sidhu, founding director and chief scientist of UC Berkeley’s Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, and Alexander Fred-Ojala, research director of Data-X, a UC Berkeley research lab, argued in a recent blog post that not teaching about blockchain “would be equivalent to ignoring internet technology when it emerged 25 years ago.”
A Tough Fit for Academic Curricula
There are reasons to be skeptical about blockchain’s potential, and even universities exploring the technology are taking a relatively cautious approach. It is hugely energy-inefficient, and currencies based on blockchain technology have proved susceptible to fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. That means research that could form the building blocks of curricula is nascent, textbooks are scarce, and scholars are only beginning to develop the interest and skills to contemplate teaching the subject. Plus, blockchain is multidisciplinary, spreading across such fields as computer science, law, finance, and engineering, making it a tough fit for the relatively rigid world of academia.
“Academics feel a lot of pressure to maintain their status as ‘world-class experts’ in some narrowly defined field,” Wu, the Berkeley visiting professor, wrote in an email. “Just keeping up with the advances in their field is challenging enough and demands all their time and energy.”
Sidhu says some universities are hesitant to teach and research emerging technologies because many highly touted tech innovations never really take off and prove to be dead ends. “You can’t expect universities to be out ahead on all these topics,” he says. “It takes so long for everyone to agree that there's something going on, and often, by the time they all get it, it’s irrelevant and not the thing that should be taught anymore.”
But he and others say blockchain appears to have staying power—and the potential to shake up global systems. In his blog post with Fred-Ojala, the pair envision the creation of tamper-proof digital identities and records, a decentralized internet controlled by users rather than service providers, and public infrastructure with fewer intermediaries—such as an electric grid that allows producers and consumers to connect directly. “Here's where we can help,” he wrote of universities. “We can show [students] the challenges and opportunities, give them access to resources, and then encourage them to solve the problem on their own.”
He and other UC Berkeley professors started to recognize the emerging role for academia in blockchain three years ago, when employees from companies like Google and Yahoo began discussing the technology during presentations to students enrolled in an executive education program run by the Sutardja Center. In 2017, the center launched a Blockchain Lab and a series of “collider sprints,” projects that connect students with industry experts and challenge them to create innovative solutions to problems. Last fall, it also created its first blockchain class, the one visited by Councilmember Bartlett. Concurrently, UC Berkeley’s law school launched a course titled Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies, and the Future of Technology, Business and Law. “Other offerings are in the works,” Sidhu says. “It's still a bit decentralized, but you can see the path.”
Columbia began offering a handful of courses in blockchain a few years ago, but they were one-off classes, says Jeannette Wing, a computer science professor and director of Columbia’s Data Science Institute. In an effort to approach the technology more holistically, the university created the Columbia-IBM Blockchain and Data Transparency Center, which plans a multipronged approach to tackle research, education, and entrepreneurship. With the launch of its center, Wing says Columbia will develop new courses it will offer regularly that cover not just the nuts and bolts of blockchain but also related data transparency and ethical issues. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of Columbia University’s Teachers College.)
Students Grow Impatient
Many college students, drawn to blockchain’s multidisciplinary nature, its possible applications in a variety of fields, and the meteoric rise of some cryptocurrencies during 2017, are out in front of their professors in advancing its footprint on college campuses. Even at UC Berkeley, among the first institutions to incorporate blockchain into the curriculum, some students are downright frustrated with what they see as academia’s glacial pace.
“I think a lot of colleges are falling behind the times and are not really preparing people for these new labor markets,” says Anthony DiPrinzio, a senior economics major at Berkeley. “Whatever your major is, you’re stuck in that silo and you’re just learning this one specific area, with teaching methods that are often outdated.”
DiPrinzio is deeply involved in a student-run nonprofit club called Blockchain at Berkeley, which, in just a few years, has become a force in the blockchain field. The organization offers two student-taught blockchain classes on the Berkeley campus, and this fall it debuted an open-access, online blockchain certification course. That class, which has so far enrolled more than 13,000 people worldwide, offers students the opportunity to gain in-demand career skills while earning a professional certificate. Both the campus and online course offer a curriculum for beginners, covering subjects such as blockchain history and mechanics.
Club members also offer consulting services, attracting clients from nearby Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 companies such as ExxonMobil and Qualcomm that are interested in exploring, for instance, how blockchain might make their businesses more efficient. The club has 100 active members, according to its head of marketing, Cliff Ahn, a UC Berkeley senior; its public-facing Slack channel includes 2,000 people.
“This technology isn’t just about being able to buy bitcoin and invest in ether,” Ahn says. “It’s all the implications of the technology and what it can do to democratize money, politics, power, trust. All these problems that plague our society—a lot of them can be fixed with this technology. It’s just a matter of getting people to understand that.”
Andrew Myers, a computer science professor at Cornell, says the technology will filter into university curricula as the well of accumulated blockchain knowledge, research, and policy deepens. “Blockchain as a technology requires that you understand a bunch of other things first: cryptography, distributed systems, operating systems,” he says. “Before you know it, you’ve got a pretty long prerequisite chain. To really teach a full-blown blockchain course, you need textbooks, and a lot of that knowledge just hasn’t been distilled into a form that lets you teach a good undergraduate-level course yet.”
Two years ago, Princeton published one of the first textbooks on bitcoin and cryptocurrency technology. The university also offers a free online companion course, based on an on-campus class that explores how bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies work on a technical level. Columbia’s Wing says one goal of that campus’s center is to publish research papers and develop curricula, but creating a textbook will be harder: “By the time the textbook is written, the technology moves on.”
In some ways, the embrace of blockchain on college campuses, slow as it may be, is part of a broader trend of universities trying to be more responsive to business and labor-market needs. With the cost of college soaring, the long-standing disconnect between what universities teach and what skills employers require is drawing more scrutiny. Businesses are forming new partnerships with universities to create certifications that will be meaningful in the workplace, and in some cases they're going around universities to offer their own courses and other training.
Wu, whose résumé includes 30 years as a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, ensures that his class blends technical skills, theory, and entrepreneurship. Students receive a mandatory tutorial on blockchain technology taught by a recent UC Berkeley grad, but much of their time is spent developing and pitching business ideas built on blockchain technology.
These are often geared toward social good. A standout example this past semester, Wu says, was a proposal to ensure that artists are fairly compensated for their work by developing a blockchain ticketing platform that would tightly control ticket sales and profit sharing between artists and venues. Another project, meant to alleviate public distrust in charity organizations, would use blockchain to allow a more direct relationship between donors and charities, with more control over how funds are used.
Meanwhile, the city of Berkeley is pushing ahead with plans to explore the use of blockchain to help publicly finance community projects that would, among other goals, try to alleviate the city’s homeless and housing problems. Under the proposal, the city would use blockchain technology to issue and keep track of “micro-bonds” — in amounts as small as $10 to $20 — to ultimately raise enough money to fund local projects such as affordable housing. At UC Berkeley, students and professors are continuing to tinker in the blockchain space, rolling out for a second semester the class focused on blockchain applications in technology, business, and law and hiring a tenure-track professor who will dedicate a portion of their research to blockchain.
For students like DiPrinzio, the blockchain-club leader, the future looks bright. “Blockchain is a young industry. We’re not competing with people who’ve been doing this for 30 years. The people running this industry aren’t much older than me,” he says. “That’s a very cool thing. I get to talk to executives at these big companies, and I’m 21 years old. And they listen to me very attentively.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.