Venture Beat: How Universities Should Teach Blockchain
This piece was co-authored with Anish Mohammed, security and cryptography researcher and consultant
Like nearly every company and institution these days, universities don’t want to miss out on the blockchain gold rush.
On college campuses the demand from students for blockchain-related courses is skyrocketing. In 2014, NYU’s Stern School of Business became the first major academic institution to offer a course on cryptocurrencies; now nearly half of the world’s top colleges teach a blockchain-based class. As a result, schools are fighting among themselves to announce initiatives, courses, and big-name partnerships.
But universities should approach blockchain with caution. Unlike other buzzed-about technologies like virtual reality or self-driving cars, blockchain poses a unique set of challenges that make building educational programs especially difficult. In the rush to be seen as forward-thinking, universities risk creating programs that are likely to go obsolete, saddle students with debt, and fail to provide a valuable education in the long run.
The core issue is that blockchain is really hard to teach correctly. There’s no established curriculum, few textbooks exist, and the field is rife with misinformation, making it hard to know what is credible. Protocols are evolving at a rapid pace, and it’s tough to tell the difference between a white paper and reality. Having so much attention around blockchain specifically frames it as a miraculous and novel development rather than an outgrowth of decades of computer science research.
Matt Blaze, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a cyber-security researcher, points out that the push for degree programs in blockchain is part of a trend of overspecialization by some engineering schools. The concepts sound good on paper but don’t live up to their promise. Despite the best of intentions, trends change, and students get stuck in narrow career paths.
In order to avoid these pitfalls, universities will have to take an approach they’re not used to. This involves three pillars:
Focusing on core concepts rather than trendier aspects of the technology
Guiding students to understand real industry needs
Creating curricula that have rigorously enforced expiration dates.
The key to learning a constantly changing subject is to focus on the core concepts while ignoring the irrelevant yet popular discussions of the day. In the case of blockchain, that means a deep investigation of security engineering, cryptography, and governance concepts — as well as the psychology and context of how people make decisions. So far, these topics have been given lip service by the startup community but remain largely ignored — especially that last topic. While blockchain is a highly technical and mathematical subject, building anything useful with it also requires a broad understanding of human behavior.
Second, universities can help refocus blockchain entrepreneurs and developers on actual problems businesses are facing. To that end, schools should customize educational programs for different career tracks. Blockchain intersects with law, engineering, and finance in unexpected ways, so analyzing and directing its impact will require looking at it through many different perspectives. An environmental researcher might be most excited about the ability to have a decentralized network of pollution sensors, whereas a tax lawyer may be most interested in the compliance benefits of immutability.
Finally, in order to keep up with the rapidly evolving field, instructors need to update at least 80 percent of their material every semester. Anything less will be too inadequate to be relevant. (For example, last semester the focus would have been on utility tokens, but this semester the discussion has moved on to security tokens.) Cryptographic approaches, collective decision making processes, and data organization systems are all rapidly evolving as well. And that alone isn’t enough – they need to stay connected with the problems that developers, entrepreneurs, and researchers are actively working on. The most important thing universities can teach students is how to navigate the rapidly changing waters of advancing technologies for themselves.
Blockchain could benefit enormously from more academic involvement because universities can make significant contributions to a field when private industry’s incentives are not aligned with the common good. This includes work on foundational issues related to security, stability, and infrastructure. Universities produce research on blockchain that everyone benefits from because it is trustworthy, reliable, and free from conflicts of interest.
The fact that you can get a basic economics education at almost any university has helped fuel the growth of the finance industry over the last century. If blockchain is ever to reach its potential, it needs to be taught in a scalable way. Building a decentralized and fully digitized world will require millions of new minds working on it – and universities will be key to making that happen.