From Chatroom to Classroom: The Evolution of Blockchain Education


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The Rise of Blockchain Curricula

Conceptualizing a course five years ago carried a degree of risk, but like the crypto market writ large, there’s a “positive relation between risk and expected return.” That risk has paid off.

By 2014, the movement had made enough noise to attract the attention of academic institutions. Over the coming years, some of America’s leading universities would introduce blockchain- and crypto-concentrated curricula into their course offerings.

Before universities began these course offerings, the closest thing to a blockchain accredited education came in the form of online courses. The likes of IBM and the Linux Foundation established blockchain certification courses, a seemingly more legitimate extension of the video series that forerunners like Antonopoulos offered for free. It wasn’t long until universities followed suit. Princeton and MIT, for instance, both offer online resources for blockchain education: Princeton with a course on Coursera, and MIT with essays and interactive videos on the subject.

Other universities have dug full-bore into the subject area. Vanderbilt, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, NYU, Duke and Stanford all offer classes dedicated to blockchain technology or the cryptocurrency field to some capacity.

In its third year, Stanford’s Computer Science course on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies (cs251) “is intended for Computer Science students and teaches how the different blockchains operate, how to build applications that interact with the blockchain, and how to write smart contracts,” Professor Dan Boneh, the course’s instructor, told Bitcoin Magazine.

“These courses can be taught from different perspectives,” Boneh believes. “I focus our course on technology, but other professors may choose to focus on law or economics.”

Indeed, other institutions, such as the NYU Stern School of Business, take an applied rather than technical approach. Since 2014, professors David Yermack and Geoffrey Miller have offered the “Digital Currency, Blockchains and the Future of Financial Services” course, which focuses on “the emerging role of digital currencies and blockchains in money, banking, and the real economy,” the course’s description states.

Duke University’s offering straddles both the technical and applied aspects of the industry with its I&E 550: Innovation and Cryptoventures course. Taught by Fuqua School of Business professor Harvey Campbell, the course covers areas from cryptofinance to smart contract development, and its multilayered approach has brought “a mix of business, law, computer science and engineering students” to its lecture hall, Campbell conveyed to Bitcoin Magazine. In 2014, the course began with only 13 students. Now, Campbell claimed in our correspondence, more than half of the Fuqua School of Business’s 2018 graduating class had taken the course before walking this spring.

And he’s not alone in experiencing such a high turnout. In our interview with Yermack, the professor revealed that over the 2017–2018 academic year, “the course was so popular that [the instructors] had to relocate to the largest lecture hall on campus.”

Campbell candidly admitted that this was, in part, the result of the hype-induced enrollment of some students. Following the crypto market’s exponential rise, he went from 75 students in 2017 to 231 in 2018. Yermack noted a similar trend, indicating that 2018’s spring enrollment for his class hit 230 students, a sizable increase from its inaugural enrollment of 35 in the fall of 2014.

As with the industry at large, this hype could easily be seen as a blemish, the emotive trappings of an industry marred by volatility and get-rich-quick aspirations. Even so, even in a time when industry hype hadn’t reached its peak, these courses weren’t hard sells.

“It was easy to get the curriculum approved. The committee was very supportive. In fact, some of the faculty who approve new courses said that they want to take this course themselves,” Boneh said.

Yermack had a similar experience, while Campbell told us that his original pitch was “naturally” met with some skepticism. “At that time,” he said, “most thought that blockchain equaled Bitcoin. Many perceived the technology as enabling illegal transactions. In the end, Duke University embraced my course.”

Campbell added that conceptualizing the course five years ago carried a degree of risk, but like the crypto market writ large, he believes that there’s a “positive relation between risk and expected return.” And to him, the risk has paid off.

It’s hard to imagine the risk not having an upside given blockchain technology’s increased exposure in financial markets, technological sectors and the purview of an increasingly interested global public. Be it for hype or genuine interest, the “subject is growing quickly,” Yermack told us, “and there is a lot of demand from students for courses in the fintech area.”

This coincides with a rise in demand from the industries — technical, financial and anything else — the blockchain could disrupt.

“In my area, Operations Research should be teaching ‘Supply Chain with Blockchain Technology,’ [and] Accounting should be teaching ‘Financial Reporting with Blockchain Technology,’” said Campbell. “Marketing should be teaching ‘How Blockchain Technology Disrupts Marketing.’ Finance is low-hanging fruit, and they should be teaching a course called ‘The Tokenization of Everything.’ Law should have multiple courses on ‘Smart Contracting.’ They should also offer courses on the regulatory implications. There are a vast array of computer science courses dealing with key aspects of this technology (that are not on the books at most schools). There is much to be taught.”

Of course, the industry’s ever-changing landscape means professors must remain vigilant to keep syllabi up-to-date. With the market and industry constantly in flux, curricula could become markedly different from one year to the next.

To “keep up with the quickly evolving range of topics,” Yermack said that he has to essentially reinvent his syllabus every year, and Boneh revealed that for each new class, he has to “redo the bulk of the course from scratch.”

The industry’s dynamicism, it seems, is the primary pain point keeping it from earning a spot in additional course offerings. Some professors are wary of investing the time to learn and teach an unsolidified and unstable subject that, at worst, may be a passing fancy.

“Currently some faculty are unsure if this area is a fad or if it is here to stay. Clearly, I believe that this technology is here to stay and we need to educate our students how to build on it,” Boneh said.