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Blockchain Gains Currency in Higher Ed

Despite lingering skepticism about the future of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the technology behind them is becoming a focus of university teaching and research.

August 13, 2018
 
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When he was in graduate school and working toward a doctorate in computer science, Arthur Carvalho made a life-changing decision.

“It was 2012, and my friend suggested that we invest some money in Bitcoin,” he recalled. At the time, one Bitcoin was valued at around $13. At its peak valuation in late 2017, the price had jumped to almost $18,000.

“I would be a millionaire now,” Carvalho said. “But I told my friend, ‘I don’t trust this thing.’ I thought it was a scam.”

He didn’t get rich from Bitcoin, but he did become interested in cryptocurrencies and how they work.

“I followed the development of cryptocurrencies really closely,” he said. “I took a personal interest in learning more about the technology.”

Carvalho is now an assistant professor of information systems and analytics at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio, where there's a growing consensus among faculty that blockchain -- the technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin -- is worth watching.

Carvalho's colleagues are not unique; interest in blockchain technology is growing fast in the business world -- and universities and colleges are responding. Many professors are incorporating blockchain into their teaching, and several universities have developed full courses devoted to the technology. In the process, they are providing the emerging discipline, once seen as unserious, with intellectual legitimacy. This summer Columbia University and Stanford University both launched blockchain research centers, following in the footsteps of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Digital Currency Initiative, which launched as part of the MIT Media Lab in 2015; MIT was among the first institutions to create such a program.

At Miami University, business school faculty members had started mentioning blockchain and cryptocurrencies in lectures, but it wasn’t until students from the Miami University Blockchain Club, one of the largest student-led clubs on campus, started asking for more detail about how the technology works that faculty members started to seriously consider creating a blockchain curriculum.

“We agreed that blockchain is a technology that is here to stay,” said Carvalho, “so we decided to develop a three-credit-hour course.”

The course is scheduled to start in spring 2019 and will teach the theory of how blockchain works, as well as potential real-world applications. The course will be cross-disciplinary and cover topics related to business, computer science and mathematics.

Though several universities have introduced courses on cryptocurrencies, there are few that focus on blockchain technology for undergraduates, said Carvalho.

“I don’t even have a textbook -- everything has been developed from zero.”

Changing Attitudes in Academe

There is a lot of hype, and hyperbole, about blockchain -- It has been described as “bigger than the internet” in terms of its potential impact on society -- but it is no exaggeration to say that the potential applications of blockchain technology are numerous.

By storing information about financial and other transactions as "blocks" across a network, rather than at one central location, blockchain technology creates a digital record that is transparent, easily verifiable and extremely difficult to tamper with.

The technology is already being used to securely process financial transactions without the need for banks. Major supermarkets such as Walmart are using blockchain to track items in their food supply chain, and health-care providers are exploring how blockchain might give patients greater ownership of their medical records. Even universities are getting in on the action and using blockchain to issue digital degrees that can be easily verified by employers.

Chris Wilmer, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, is co-founder and managing editor of a peer-reviewed journal for blockchain-related research called Ledger (University Library System, University of Pittsburgh). When the journal was launched in 2014, there were just “a few brave academics” conducting research on blockchain, and even fewer peer-reviewed journals in which to publish, says Wilmer.

Just a few years ago, there was a lot of stigma attached to researching cryptocurrencies, said Wilmer. "People thought it was a scam, or illegal," he said.

“Academics were worried about their reputation,” he said. “Now it’s everywhere.”

Wilmer said acceptance of this research has occurred in part because of some “semantic jujitsu.” While research on Bitcoin, cryptocurrencies and blockchain is related, the term "Bitcoin" can still “make people’s hair stand on end,” said Wilmer. “Calling it blockchain has helped a lot.”

Submissions to Ledger have grown substantially, he said. In its first year, the journal received about a submission a month; now it gets one or two a week. Popular research questions include whether cryptocurrencies could cope with billions of users and the pros and cons of various consensus algorithms -- the process by which the integrity of data in the blockchain is ensured.

Some of the first scholars to publish in Ledger were lawyers, said Wilmer. Academics addressing blockchain research questions now come from a broad range of disciplines, including computer science, mathematics, economics, business and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences.

“I think interest will grow,” said Wilmer. “Many people are still just dipping their toes.”

Meeting Employer Demand

Growing interest in blockchain by employers has presented them an opportunity to provide workers professional and continuing education. Peter McAliney, executive director for online and extended learning at Montclair State University’s center for continuing and professional education, recently spearheaded the launch of three professional blockchain certificates -- one covering the basics, one for developers and one focusing on applications of blockchain in the financial sector.

The three certificate courses cost between $1,995 and $4,250 and are delivered in partnership with The Blockchain Academy -- a company that offers corporate training and education in blockchain.

McAliney said Montclair State plans to eventually incorporate blockchain into various courses. In the short term, the continuing education certificates fill an immediate need for people who “can go out and apply” blockchain technology to real-world problems in the public and private sector, he said.

The continuing education courses are scheduled to begin in September, and the university is making an effort to try to recruit a diverse group of students, McAliney said.

“It’s important that we build diversity while blockchain is still so new,” he said. To that end, the university has started working with local high schools to introduce students early on to new financial technologies such as blockchain.

“We’re making an effort to go into all corners,” said McAliney.

New Funding Opportunities for Research

The number of universities with dedicated blockchain research centers is small but growing as more businesses look to engage with universities in blockchain technology research and development.

Columbia University’s research center was launched in collaboration with technology company IBM. In addition to supporting research, the Columbia-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency will lead policy discussions and provide support for academics to incorporate blockchain in their teaching. An "innovation accelerator" will also support blockchain-related start-ups at the university.

Sharon Sputz, director of strategic programs at Columbia’s Data Science Institute, noted that the university has a more than 70-year relationship with IBM and began serious discussions with the company about a blockchain and data transparency collaboration in the last year.

Sputz believes the center will foster “deep and broad engagement around research, education and innovation” related to blockchain technology and data transparency. IBM is contributing an undisclosed sum to support the center, but the company’s interests go beyond funding research that will lead to new business applications, she said.

“One of the reasons we were very excited about launching the center with IBM is that they’re very forward thinking. They’re interested in fundamental research and thought leadership. It’s not just about developing blockchain products,” said Sputz. Calls for proposals will be open to faculty and students at Columbia later this year.

The Center for Blockchain Research at Stanford University launched in June and is led by computer scientists Dan Boneh and David Mazieres. The center’s initial five-year research program is being supported by several blockchain organizations -- the Ethereum Foundation, Protocol Labs, the Interchain Foundation, OmiseGO, DFINITY Stiftung and PolyChain Capital.

Boneh said the center is building on existing interest in blockchain at Stanford.

“There are already a number of academics working on different aspects of blockchain,” he said. “The center was a good way to bring everyone together,” he said.

Even at Stanford, where a course on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies has been taught since 2015, Boneh knows not 100 percent of faculty members are convinced about the technology.

“I think that faculty that think it’s a fad are going to come around,” he said. “It’s like the early days of the internet -- at first email was the only application, then it became its own field.”

He said there are serious scientific questions to be addressed in blockchain research. “I don’t think there’s any debate about the academic rigor of this work,” he said.

Two current topics of investigation include how to compress information in the blockchain so that it doesn’t take up so much space, and how to introduce delays in financial transactions to allow time to cancel them if they are made in error -- a new area of research called verifiable delay function.

“This is a beautiful question,” said Boneh. “We’re running a full day of discussion on this topic.”

Even as private industry is increasingly supporting blockchain research, very little government funding is being made available, said Cesare Fracassi, associate professor of finance at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Many of the companies providing financial support are small start-ups, but more established blockchain companies such as Ripple are starting to step up. Ripple announced last month that it would be distributing $50 million to 17 university partners, including UT Austin, for blockchain-related research of the institutions' choosing.

Fracassi called this a "big deal" and noted that companies don't often hand out unrestricted gifts in underfunded research areas. The money will allow Fracassi and colleagues to hire additional staff and “jump-start” blockchain-related research. A call for proposals will open this fall.

Because blockchain was developed by industry and not in academia, university researchers have been “struggling to catch up,” said Fracassi. Blockchain technology has been around for almost a decade, but it’s only in the last couple of years that universities have begun researching it. Now academics can play an important role in developing blockchain technology, he said.

“Blockchain was discovered and developed by practitioners who focus on the short-term business applications, but academics have the luxury of thinking more long term,” he said.

Bringing together academics from multiple disciplines can help develop new ways of thinking about blockchain technology, Fracassi said. And because many people singing the praises of blockchain are invested in it succeeding, academics can bring more objectivity to the research, he said.

“We can treat it as a scientific experiment and figure out if it’s a good technology or not,” he said.

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