Universities Racing to Provide Lectures on Crypto: Opportunities and Pitfalls

Knowledge is power, particularly in the Information Age, where an understanding of ‘the new’ can provide an edge over the competition. This is why, barely a year since crypto exploded into mainstream awareness — and long before it’s likely to enjoy blanket adoption — it’s already been the object of a growing number of university courses. While a minority of these have focused on the actual coding, computer science and cryptography lying behind cryptocurrencies, most others have sought to provide a detailed introduction to crypto, so that a more business-focused audience will have the basis for deciding whether — and to what extent — it should adopt Bitcoins and blockchains.

In other words, increasingly profit-oriented universities are seeking to capitalize on the crypto-rush by offering the public nontechnical courses on cryptocurrencies. However, even if many of them are simply teaching students how to conceptualize blockchains as opposed to how to actually code and create them, students are reporting considerable satisfaction with the teaching they’ve received so far. And despite not necessarily providing them with the ability to build decentralized apps and currencies for themselves, the knowledge they’ve received may be vital if crypto is to be adopted on a mass scale in the future.

The United States

For the most part, the teaching of crypto takes place in the context of business-related programs, with very few universities offering specific degrees in cryptocurrencies or blockchains themselves. In the U.S., a number of high-profile MBA (Master of Business Administration) programs have been or are adding cryptocurrency courses, enabling students to gain a grounding in crypto at the same time as learning about accounting, finance, entrepreneurship, and so on. This is the case with the following institutions:

  • Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley
  • NYU’s Stern School of Business
  • Fuqua School of Business, Duke University
  • MIT Sloan School of Management
  • UCLA Anderson School of Management
  • Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business
  • The Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania)

To take an example, NYU’s Stern School of Business offers MBA students an introductory course titled, “Digital Currency, Blockchains, and the Future of the Financial Services Industry.” According to the course’s own outline, it aims “to equip the students to better understand the law and business of blockchain technology, both in its initial application in the digital currency Bitcoin, as well as in the applications currently being explored for a wide variety of uses and functions.”

Since the teaching is centred around understanding the applications of blockchain tech, its lectures cover such topics as payment systems through history, how blockchains work, criminality and cryptocurrencies, and managing bank runs. There is no coding or computer science-aspect of the course, which is typical across the institutions listed above, with students instead being schooled in the basic principles of cryptocurrencies and the impact they’ll likely have on the financial sector.

Given that only three of the schools listed above were offering their courses when Cointelegraph published a similar article on blockchains and universities roughly a year ago, their expansion signals that cryptocurrency courses are enjoying a steady growth. And what’s interesting about such growth is that it’s being driven, to a large extent, by the students themselves, who in some cases are pushing their universities to include modules, courses and lectures on crypto in their programs.

For instance, second-year MBA student Itamar Orr said in April that Stanford’s inclusion of its cryptocurrency course was in part the result of pressure heaped on the Graduate School of Business by him and 12 other students, who wrote a joint letter to the school demanding the addition of a crypto-themed module.

“Many of us will have to discuss blockchain at our jobs. It makes sense to teach it. It gets you a competitive advantage; it’s an extra hammer in your toolbox.”

Similarly, universities and professors themselves recognize the growing public demand for crypto courses, a demand that’s been heightened by the price movements that cryptocurrencies have enjoyed in recent months. David Yermack, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, reported in February that the first lecture theatre he used for his Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies course had a maximum capacity of 180 people, but he had to move to a bigger theatre that accommodates 225 people, after interest exploded in the new year. Likewise, Dawn Song, a professor at UC Berkeley, reports telling her students, “This is a very precious opportunity for you to be able to sit in this class […] There are a bazillion other students who are waiting for your spot.”

The rest of the world: MOOCs and courses

The supply and demand for courses in crypto is perhaps highest in the U.S., but that’s not to say such courses aren’t available elsewhere. In fact, there are a number of places outside of America where students can gain full degrees or qualifications in a crypto-related field.

In Cyprus, the University of Nicosia has offered a MSc in Digital Currencies since 2014, when it also launched the first module of this program as a free MOOC (massive open online course). Available online and worldwide, the program includes lectures on banking, regulation, blockchain applications, financial markets and digital currency programming. Its coverage is therefore quite broad, with its overview stating that it’s “designed to prepare participants to become competent professionals in the field of digital currency.”

The University of Nicosia isn’t the only place in Europe students can obtain a master’s degree in cryptocurrencies. The Universidad de Alcalá in Spain is now offering a “Máster en Ethereum, Tecnología Blockchain y Cripto-Economía,” which promises “to provide comprehensive training in the field of blockchain technology, DAOs and smart contracts, including cryptocurrencies as a special and transversal case, from a triple perspective: technological, economic-financial and regulatory.” A similarly tripartite focus is also evident with the Expert Master in Blockchain and Cryptoeconomics organized by the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Running from this September to May, it’s “aimed at providing professionals with the basic tools related to blockchain in these three fields: technological, economic and legal.”

And while its degree is a postgraduate diploma rather than a master’s, the Universidad Europea Madrid is also attempting to tailor its crypto program specifically for professionals. Its Postgraduate Diploma in Bitcoin and Blockchain begins in October and last for six months, at the end of which students “will be able to analyze in a critical way the technical and legal viability of solutions based on blockchain technologies and to develop integral projects related to cryptocurrency.”

Another vocational diploma is available from the Buenos Aires Institute of Technology, in Argentina. The Diploma in Cryptoeconomies: Blockchain, Smart Contracts and Cryptocurrencies is again targeted at people “with very basic knowledge and who want to learn the reasons, mechanics and disruptive opportunities at a monetary, technological level and as a form of investment.” It lasts only for a couple of months starting July 11, underlining the fact that its priorities reside more with introducing students to blockchains and cryptocurrencies than with fully teaching them how to be an integral and productive part of the cryptocurrency industry itself.

Again, short courses that cater to professionals and terminate in a certificate or diploma are becoming increasingly common throughout the rest of the world. In February, the RMIT University in Australialaunched an eight-week online course, Developing Blockchain Strategy, in which — for the price of around $1,200 — students will receive an “introduction to the blockchain basics,” will then “look at the scope of the wider blockchain industry,” and finally will be advised on how to “apply these learnings to [their] own business.”

Back in Europe, the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark has been running a one-week Blockchain Summer School since 2016, with this year’s edition due to take place in August, and to “focus on the application of blockchain technology for generating business and social value.”

In Russia, three institutions added crypto-related courses to their financial programs at the end of 2017: Moscow State University, the Saint Petersburg State University, and the Higher School of Economics. Meanwhile, a couple of technical universities (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the National University of Science and Technology) are adding courses on how to develop cryptocurrencies, highlighting the ways some nations are aiming to teach students the means of building blockchains, rather than of just understanding them on a conceptual and financial level.

Education, or profiteering as well?

But while there appears to be no shortage of courses and degrees for those interested in crypto, it’s still an open question as to just how valuable such courses and degrees are. Do they enable students to become active in cryptocurrencies and to design blockchains for themselves, or do they simply provide a higher, more marketable class of general knowledge?

As the above summaries reveal, most of them are tailored toward business professionals, who are either interested in beefing up their CVs with a fashionable qualification, or who actually want to decide whether it’s worth integrating blockchains or cryptocurrencies into their businesses. Universities therefore increasingly seek to capitalize on such people, and — given that the knowledge they’re imparting is sometimes ‘basic’ — it’s arguable as to whether their underlying motive in offering crypto courses is partly profit-driven, rather than being guided solely by a belief in the wider social, economic and political value of what they’re teaching.

Of course, there has been no admission from any of the universities concerned that they’re simply looking to make money out of the crypto craze, although the increasing commercialization of universities in general would strengthen such a suspicion. For example, between 1988 and 2018, the average tuition fee for an American private nonprofit university — i.e., Harvard, NYU, Duke, Georgetown, etc. — rose from $15,160 to $34,740 per year in real terms, representing an increase of 129 percent. In England, yearly tuition fees went from £0 (in 1998) to the current £9,250 in 19 years, catalysing a change that has seen universities becoming more driven by targets and teaching ‘outcomes’ in a bid to attract more student numbers — or, rather more “customers,” as one anonymous academic put it. And such a process has been exacerbated by the financial crisis, which, in the U.S., U.K., and other nations, left universities with less public funding, and therefore more impetus to find revenue streams for themselves.

There is, then, reason to think that some universities are being drawn toward crypto partly by their increasing corporatization and commercialization, especially when the tuition fees for their crypto-courses range from $1,200 — for a mere eight weeks at the RMIT University — to €12,080 — for 18 months of studying online with the University of Nicosia. However, even if this is the case, the students that Cointelegraph has talked to indicate considerable satisfaction with the teaching and instruction they’ve received.

Christelle Bure, a director at a South African consultancy firm, is taking the MSc at the University of Nicosia, and — despite being in the early stages of the program — already reports gaining helpful knowledge.

“The free MOOC (Module 1) was a wonderful intro to crypto and blockchains. It covered information on both a business and technical level. Obviously, it is an intro course, but the knowledge I received was incredibly useful and helped me conceptually understand the what, how and why of crypto and blockchains.”

Another student at Nicosia who has actually completed the program is cryptocurrency journalist Caleb Chen, who confirms that, aside from looking at money and the markets, the degree also involves cryptographic and coding elements. “The nine course degree program had two paths, one for those with a developer background and one for those without,” he explains. And although he chose the non-developer route, the program still delved into how to understand and use cryptography.

“As an example, every student did have to create and sign their own multi-sig testnet transactions with the instructor as the 3rd key in one of the classes, even in the non-developer course path. The program in general definitely focused on design of blockchains and cryptocurrencies more than how to engineer or code them — though I imagine that may have been covered in the developer course path.”

Education = Adoption

Such accounts show that, even if some crypto courses are more introductory than intensive, there are others that provide students with a thorough and varied schooling in cryptocurrencies and blockchains — one that will actually help them play an active, rather than passive, role in the crypto industry. Added to this, while their numbers are still small, there are certain courses that do focus specifically on the technical aspects of crypto, such as Cornell University’s Distributed Consensus and Blockchains, Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts, and Blockchains, Cryptocurrencies, and Smart Contracts courses, which are all available through its computer science department, rather than through its SC Johnson College of Business.

Another example comes from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which runs Cryptocurrency Engineering & Design and Shared Public Ledgers courses as part of its Digital Currency Initiative. In Europe, the University of Edinburgh now runs a Blockchains and Distributed Ledgers course for undergraduates at its School of Informatics, while the Varna University of Management in Bulgaria is planning to include a blockchain module in its Software Engineering program in the 2018/19 academic year.

While it may take other universities some time to catch up with such offerings, the more general and introductory courses on crypto are still very valuable — and not just in a professional sense. As highlighted PwC’s Daniel Diemers in a recent interview:

Adoption of new technologies requires more education.”

This is why the healthy growth in general and introductory courses on blockchains and Bitcoin is a very welcome development, since, even if these courses don’t necessarily breed the next generation of crypto coders and developers, they will breed the next generation of people ready to adopt what these coders and developers produce.