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The latest trend in the course catalog? Blockchain 101

On a warm night at the start of this year, several dozen California University students, Berkeley, turned into gray chairs for a three-hour lesson on how think like blockchain entrepreneurs. The challenge of the evening, presented by the councilor of Berkeley, 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 the guest professor and former venture capitalist Po Chi Wu, is among a number growing classes and research initiatives on emerging blockchain technology 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 the bitcoin of virtual currency. But applications are also emerging in other industries, including 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 initiate the development of rigorous curricula 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".

A Tough Fit for Academic Curricula

There are reasons to be skeptical about the potential of the blockchain, and even universities exploring technology are adopting a relatively conservative approach. It is enormously inefficient from an energy point of view 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, blockchain is multidisciplinary, spreading in fields such as computer science, law, finance and engineering, making it a difficult choice for the relatively rigid world of the academic world.

Do not teach on blockchain "would be to ignore Internet technology when it emerged 25 years ago."

Ikhlaq Sidhu and Alexander Fred-Ojala

"Academics feel a lot of pressure to maintain their status as" experts " world-class "in a strictly defined field," Wu, the visiting Berkeley professor, wrote in an email. "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-claimed technological innovations never really take off and prove to be a dead end. "You can not expect universities to take advantage of all these things," he says. "It takes so long before everyone agrees that there's something to do, and often, when everyone understands it, it's irrelevant and it's not the thing that should be taught anymore."

But he and others say the blockchain seems to retain the power and potential to shake up 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 public service providers and infrastructures with fewer intermediaries, such as an electricity network that allows to producers and consumers to connect directly. "Here's where we can help", wrote the universities. "We can show [students] challenges and opportunities, give them access to resources and encourage them to solve the problem on their own."

He and other professors from the University of Berkeley began to recognize the emerging role of the academic world in the blockchain three years ago, when employees of companies like Google and Yahoo began to discuss technology during presentations for students enrolled in a management 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 and 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," says Sidhu. "It's still a little decent, but you can see the route."

Columbia started offering a series of blockchain courses a few years ago, but they were unique classes, says Jeannette Wing, a professor of computer science and director of the Columbia Science Data Institute. In an attempt to approach technology in a more holistic way, the university has created the Columbia-IBM Blockchain and Data Transparency Center, which designs a multi-long approach to addressing research, education, and education. entrepreneurship. With the launch of its center, Wing says that Columbia will develop new courses that will offer regularly covering not only blockchain hardware but also data transparency and related ethical issues. ( The Hechinger Report who produced this story, is an independent unit of the Teachers College of Columbia University

The students become impatient

Many university students, attracted by the multidisciplinary nature of the blockchain , its possible applications in a variety of fields and the rise of some cryptocurrencies in 2017, are in front of their professors to advance their footprint on university campuses.Also at the University of Berkeley, among the first institutions to incorporate the blockchain into the curriculum, some students are definitely frustrated by what they believe to be the glacial rhythm of the academy.

"I think many universities are falling behind on time and they are not really preparing people for these new markets. work, "says Anthony DiPrinzio, senior economics senior at Berkeley." Whatever your specialty, you're stuck in that silo and you're just learning this specific area, with teaching methods that are often outdated. "

DiPrinzio is deeply involved in a student-run non-profit club 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 ExxonMobil 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 for the public includes 2,000 people.

"This technology is not just about buying bitcoins and investing in ether," says Ahn. "There are all the implications of technology and what it can do to democratize money, politics, power, trust, all of these problems that afflict our society, many of these 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, says that technology will filter through university curricula while the knowledge of accumulated blockchain, research and policy is deepened. "Blockchain as a technology requires that you first understand a bunch of other things: cryptography, distributed systems, operating systems," he says. "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 teach a Good university course yet. "

Two years ago, Princeton 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. Columbia & # 39; s Wing says that one of the objectives of the center of this campus is to publish research papers and develop curricula, but creating a textbook will be more difficult: "When the textbook is written, technology advances . "

In some ways, the embrace of blockchain on university campuses, however slow it may be, is part of a broader trend of universities trying to be more responsive to the needs of businesses and the labor market. With the cost of college rising, the long-standing disconnection between what the university teaches and what employers' skills require is being examined more closely. 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.

Wu, whose curriculum includes 30 years as a capitalist enterprise and entrepreneur, ensures that his class mixes technical skills, 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, Wu says, was a proposal to ensure that artists were equally compensated for their work by developing a blockchain platform that tightly 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 charities, with greater control over how funds are used.

"Many universities are falling behind on time and are not really preparing people for these new labor markets."

Anthony DiPrinzio, senior economist and senior at UC Berkeley

Meanwhile, the city of Berkeley stands taking forward plans to explore the use of the blockchain to publicly fund community projects that, among other goals, would try to alleviate the homeless and housing problems of 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 tinker in the blockchain space, opening for the second semester the lesson focused on blockchain applications in technology, economics and law and hiring a professorship holder who will dedicate part of their blockchain research.

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 doing it for 30. The people who run this sector are not much bigger than me," he says. "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 was produced by The Hechinger Report, an organization of independent non-profit news, focusing on inequality and innovation in education.


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