BERKELEY, California – On a clear and warm night at the beginning of this year, several dozen students from the University of California, Berkeley sat down gray chairs for a three hour lesson on how to think like blockchain entrepreneurs. The challenge of the evening, presented by Berkeley city council member, Ben Bartlett, was to discuss how to use blockchain technology to alleviate the growing problem of homeless people in the city.
"We have at least 1,400 homeless people in our city, and this includes many right here at the University of Berkeley," Bartlett told the class. "So, how can we use the blockchain to finance a new prosperity? This is a challenge that I would like to get you involved."
The course, held by visiting professor and former venture capitalist Po Chi Wu, is one of an increasing number of blockchain technology classes and research initiatives emerging in universities. Blockchain – a method to create and maintain a global transaction log that does not require a third-party intermediary such as a bank, a government or a company – is best known for its role in enhancing bitcoin virtual currency. Technology applications are emerging in areas such as retail, humanitarian aid, real estate and finance. Although some analysts believe that blockchain will not acquire widespread adoption for another five or ten years, companies like IBM, Facebook and Google are investing heavily in technology – and universities are taking note.
New York University, Georgetown, and Stanford are among the institutions that offer blockchain technology courses to convince students to think about their potential uses and prepare them better for the workforce. Job offers requiring blockchain skills have increased 200% in the first five months of this year, compared to the same period of the previous year, although less than 1% of software development jobs remain. , according to the research firm Burning Glass Technologies. Universities such as MIT, Cornell and Columbia are launching laboratories and research centers to explore technology and its political implications and to initiate the development of rigorous programs on the subject.
Ikhlaq Sidhu, founding director and chief scientist of UC Berkeley's Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, and Alexander Fred-Ojala, director of research at Data-X, a research laboratory at the University of Berkeley, supported in a recent blog post that does not teach blockchain "it would mean ignoring Internet technology when it emerged 25 years ago".
Related: Silicon Valley focuses on technology to help low-income children overcome school
There are reasons to be skeptical about the potential of the blockchain, and also the universities that they explore technology are taking a relatively conservative approach. It is enormously inefficient of energy; and currencies based on blockchain technology have proved susceptible to fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. This means that the research that could form the constituent elements of the curricula is nascent, textbooks are scarce and scholars are only beginning to develop the interest and skills to contemplate the teaching of the subject. Furthermore, the blockchain is multidisciplinary and extends across fields such as IT, law, finance and engineering, making it a difficult choice for the relatively rigid world of the academic world.
"Academics feel a lot of pressure to maintain their status as & apos; world-class experts & # 39 in a tightly defined field, "wrote Wu, the visiting professor of Berkeley. "Just keeping up with progress in their field is quite challenging and requires all their time and energy."
Sidhu says that some universities are reluctant to teach and research emerging technologies because many highly publicized technological innovations never take off and prove to be a dead end. "Universities can not be expected to take advantage of all these issues," he said. "It takes so long before everyone understands something is happening, when everyone understands it, it's irrelevant and it's not the thing that should be taught anymore."
But he and others say that the blockchain seems to have constant power – and the potential to shake global systems. In his blog post with Fred-Ojala, the couple envisages the creation of tamper-proof digital identities and records, a decentralized user-controlled Internet rather than service providers and public infrastructures with fewer intermediaries – like an electricity network that allows producers and consumers to connect directly. "Here's where we can help," he said of the universities. "We can show [students] challenges and opportunities, give them access to resources and then encourage them to solve the problem on their own."
He and other professors from the University of Berkeley began to recognize the emerging role for the academic world in blockchain three years ago when employees of companies like Google and Yahoo began to discuss technology during presentations to students enrolled in an executive education program run by the Centro Sutardja. In 2017, the center launched Blockchain Lab and a series of "collider sprints", projects that connect students with industry experts to challenge them to create innovative solutions to problems. Last fall, he also created his first blockchain class, the one visited by Councilmember Bartlett. At the same time, the UC Berkeley law school has launched a course called Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies and the future of technology, business and law. "More offers are being processed," said Sidhu. "It's still a little decent, but you can see the route."
Columbia University started offering some blockchain courses a few years ago, although they were unique lessons, said Jeannette Wing, a Columbia professor of computer science and the director of her Data Science Institute. In an attempt to approach technology in a more holistic way, the university created the Columbia-IBM Blockchain and Data Transparency Center where it will adopt a multi-pronged approach addressing research, education and entrepreneurship. . With the launch of its center, Wing said that Columbia will develop new courses that will offer regularly covering not only blockchain dice but also data transparency and related ethical issues. (The Hechinger report, which produced this story, is an independent unit of the Teachers College of Columbia University.
Many university students, attracted by the multidisciplinary nature of the blockchain, its possible applications in a variety of fields. The rise of some cryptocurrencies during 2017, they are in front of their professors in terms of advancement of their footprint on university campuses.Also at the University of Berkeley, among the first institutions to incorporate the blockchain into the curriculum, some students they are definitely frustrated by what they believe to be the glacial rhythm of the academy.
"I think many universities are falling behind the times and they are not really preparing people for these new job markets," said Anthony DiPrinzio, senior seniors in economics at Berkeley. "Whatever your major, you're stuck in that silo and you're just learning this specific area, with teaching methods that are often obsolete. "
Related: Work on IT security is exploding: Why are women locked up?
DiPrinzio is deeply involved in a non-profit club run by students called Blockchain in Berkeley, which in a few years became a force in the blockchain field. The organization offers two blockchain lessons for students on the campus of Berkeley, and in the fall it debuted a free access blockchain certification course. That class, which has so far enrolled more than 13,000 people around the world, offers students the opportunity to acquire professional in-demand skills by obtaining a professional certificate. Both the campus and the online course offer a beginner program, covering topics such as history and blockchain mechanics.
Club members also offer consulting services, attracting customers from nearby Silicon Valley and Fortune 500 companies such as Exxon Mobil and Qualcomm who are interested in exploring, for example, how the blockchain can make its business more efficient . The club has 100 active members, according to its marketing manager, Cliff Ahn, a UC Berkeley senior; its Slack channel to the public, a cloud-based messaging platform, includes 2,000 people.
"This technology is not just about buying bitcoins and investing in ether," Ahn said. "There are all the implications of technology and what it can do to democratize money, politics, power, trust, all of these problems that affect our society – many of them can be solved with this technology – it's just a matter of getting people to understand it. "
Andrew Myers, a professor of computer science at Cornell University, said that technology will filter through university curricula while the knowledge of accumulated blockchain, research and politics deepen. "Blockchain as a technology requires understanding a lot of other things first: cryptography, distributed systems, operating systems," he said. "Before you know it, you have a fairly long chain of prerequisites: to really teach a full-blown blockchain course, you need textbooks, and a lot of this knowledge has not been distilled into a form that allows you to really teach a good university course yet. "
Two years ago, La Princeton University published one of the first textbooks on bitcoin and cryptocurrency technology. The university also offers a free online accompanying course, based on an on-campus class that explores how bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies work on a technical level. Scores of other resources on the blockchain are available online, as well as numerous books on the algorithms behind blockchain technology. Columbia & # 39; s Wing said that one of the objectives of the campus center is to publish research papers and develop curricula, but creating a textbook will be more difficult: "When the textbook is written, technology advances . "
Related: School uphill districts to get good deals on and tech
In a sense, the hug (even if slow) of the blockchain on university campuses is part of a trend wider than universities seeking to be more responsive to businesses and to the labor market needs. With the cost of the college rising, the long-standing disconnection between what universities teach and what skills require employers are doing more control. Companies are forming new partnerships with universities to create certifications that are meaningful in the workplace and in some cases go around universities to offer their own courses and other training courses. "The realities of modern life are forcing academic institutions to change," said Wu, the Berkeley professor.
Wu, whose curriculum includes 30 years as a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, ensures that his class mixes skills techniques, theory and entrepreneurship. Students receive a mandatory exercise on the blockchain technology taught by a recent graduate of the University of Berkeley, but much of their time is devoted to developing and launching business ideas based on blockchain technology.
These are often oriented towards social welfare. An extraordinary example of this past semester, according to Wu, was a proposal to ensure that music artists were equally compensated for their work by developing a blockchain platform that closely controlled ticket sales and profit sharing between artists and places. Another project, aimed at alleviating public distrust in charitable organizations, would use the blockchain to allow a more direct relationship between donors and charitable organizations, with greater control over how funds are used.
Meanwhile, the city of Berkeley is carrying out plans to explore using blockchain technology to help publicly fund community projects that, among other goals, alleviate homelessness and housing problems in the city. According to the proposal, the city would use blockchain technology to issue and track "micro-bonds" – in amounts of $ 10 to $ 20 – to raise sufficient funds to finance local projects such as affordable housing. At UC Berkeley, students and professors are continuing to fumble in the blockchain space, pulling out the lesson focused on blockchain applications in technology, economics and law for a second semester and hiring a tenured professor who will dedicate part of his research to blockchain.
For students like DiPrinzio, the blockchain-club leader, the future looks bright. "Blockchain is a young industry, we do not compete with people who have been working in the industry for 30 years.The people who run this business are not much bigger than me," he said. "It's a very nice thing: I can talk to the managers of these big companies and I'm 21. And they listen to me very carefully."
This story about education and the blockchain was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit news organization focusing on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.