Like almost every company and institution these days, universities do not want to miss the blockchain's gold rush.
On college campuses, students' demand for blockchain courses is skyrocketing. In 2014, the NYU Stern School of Business became the first major academic institution to offer a course on cryptocurrencies; now almost half of the world's best colleges teach a blockchain-based class. As a result, schools are fighting each other to announce big name initiatives, courses and partnerships.
But universities should approach the blockchain with caution. Unlike other buzzing technologies such as virtual reality or self-driving cars, the blockchain poses a unique set of challenges that make it particularly difficult to build educational programs. In their haste to be seen as far-sighted, universities risk creating programs that risk becoming obsolete, saddening students with debts and failing to provide good long-term education.
The main problem is that blockchain is really difficult to teach correctly. There is no established curriculum, there are few textbooks and the field is full of misinformation, making it difficult to know what is credible. Protocols are evolving at a rapid pace and it is difficult to understand the difference between a white paper and reality. Having so much attention around the blockchain specifically frames it as a miraculous and new development rather than a consequence of decades of computer science research.
Matt Blaze, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and researcher in computer security, points out that the push for blockchain degree programs is part of a trend of overspecialization by some engineering schools. The concepts sound good on paper but are not at the height of their promises. Despite the best intentions, trends change and students remain stuck in narrow career paths.
To avoid these pitfalls, universities will have to take an approach that they are not used to. This involves three pillars:
- Focus on basic concepts rather than more fashionable aspects of technology
- Lead students to understand the real needs of the industry
- Creation of programs that have strictly applied the expiration dates.
The key to learning a constantly changing subject is to focus on the key concepts while ignoring the irrelevant and popular discussions of the day. In the case of the blockchain, this means an in-depth investigation into the concepts of security engineering, cryptography and governance, as well as on the psychology and context of how people make decisions. Until now, these topics have been worded by the startup community, but remain largely ignored – especially the last topic. While blockchain is a highly technical and mathematical topic, building something useful with it also requires a broad understanding of human behavior.
Secondly, universities can help to redirect blockchain entrepreneurs and developers to the real problems companies are facing. To this end, schools should tailor educational programs for different career paths. Blockchain intersects with the law, engineering and finance in unexpected ways, so analyzing and directing its impact will require you to look at it through many different perspectives. An environmental researcher may be very enthusiastic about the possibility of having a decentralized network of pollution sensors, while a tax attorney might be more interested in the benefits of compliance than immutability.
Finally, in order to keep up with the rapidly changing field, instructors must update at least 80% of their material each semester. Anything less will be too inadequate to be relevant. (For example, the last half of the year focuses on utility tokens, but in this semester the discussion has moved to security tokens.) Cryptographic approaches, collective decision-making processes, and data organization systems are also they are evolving rapidly. And this alone is not enough: they must stay in touch with the problems on which developers, entrepreneurs and researchers are actively working. The most important thing that universities can teach students is how to navigate the rapidly changing waters of advanced technologies.
Blockchain could reap huge benefits from greater academic involvement because universities can make a significant contribution in a field where private industry incentives are not aligned with the common good. This includes work on fundamental issues related to security, stability and infrastructure. Universities produce blockchain research that everyone benefits from because they are reliable, reliable and free of conflicts of interest.
The fact that you can have basic economic training in almost all universities has helped fuel the growth of the financial sector in the last century. If the blockchain reaches its potential, it must be taught in a scalable way. Building a decentralized and fully digitized world will require millions of new minds to work on it, and universities will be key to making this happen.
Tarun Wadhwa is CEO of Day One Insights, a strategy and consulting company focused on technological convergence, corporate reinvention and social impact, a contributor to Forbes and author of Identified: the digital transformation of who we are. He also teaches blockchain courses at a national university and at Fortune 500 companies.
Anish Mohammed worked for security and cryptography for two decades as a researcher and consultant. Its main focus today is the security, scalability and consensus of blockchains and smart contracts for AI security, cryptoeconomics and token engineering. He teaches Fintech at the University of Harbour.Space in Barcelona and hosts conferences, seminars and workshops on the subject at a global level.