Blockchain Goes to College

How schools are experimenting with blockchain tech in their operations and working out how to teach it in the classroom.

AccessTimeIconOct 9, 2020 at 11:31 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 10:06 a.m. UTC
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Let’s say you’re a 17-year-old high school senior. You finished near the top of your class, you nailed your SATs and now you’re trying to figure out where to go to college. 

Option A is an elite university that will likely (but not certainly) reward you with a decent job, but it will also guarantee a crushing $200,000 in debt, and who knows what the economy will look like in four years, or even if we have an economy, or even if we have a planet?

This story is part of the CoinDesk U series about blockchain at universities. See our ranking of U.S. universities here.

Option B is a school that “only” leaves you with $80,000 in debt but it has the whiff of mediocre compromise.

What if there’s a Secret Option C? 

What if, theoretically, you could get the same caliber of education as the Ivy League, at the fraction of the cost, through some non-traditional classes and self-study? You’re skeptical. It sounds like a scam. Like an infomercial. And who would trust this DIY college degree? 

Now what if your dream employer had the same trust in your DIY degree as a diploma from Harvard? What if he or she genuinely believed that because you demonstrated a certain fluency in Japanese or mastery of coding or grasp of Murakami’s short stories, that you are the same caliber of graduate as a senior from Yale? What if all these credentials were trusted because they were – wait for it – verified on the blockchain?

Maybe this is where you roll your eyes. “Blockchain can revolutionize education,” of course, will elicit the same skepticism as “Blockchain will revolutionize the world.” Yet given the soaring costs of higher education, if blockchain can put any competitive pressure on the system, that alone would be a win. 

That future will not happen magically, it will not happen overnight, and it starts with a few modest early steps. That future starts with programs like what’s quietly brewing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, led by an entrepreneur-turned-blockchain-professor named Hunter Albright. 

Blockchain University Opportunities

The plan was to meet in person, on the campus of UC Boulder, and speak to the students about blockchain. 

That plan, like most plans in 2020, was scotched.

“The students are back in quarantine,” Albright tells me over Zoom. In August, a new spike in COVID-19 cases forced the school to switch from hybrid classes back to remote. So here we are, once again awkwardly staring into our computer monitors, not quite making eye contact.

Albright is tall and fit. At 49, he looks just a bit like James Comey. He’s the founder and executive director of the University of Colorado Blockchain Alliance, the CEO of Curve10 (a firm that helps inventors with product design) and the de facto Godfather of UC Boulder’s blockchain initiatives, which include pilot programs for self-sovereign identity, putting college credentials on the blockchain and using the blockchain for student elections. 

UC Boulder isn’t the biggest or the first university to embrace blockchain, but the school’s nascent program gives a window into the opportunities – and tricky challenges – of injecting blockchain into mainstream academia.

To throw a slap of cold water on the hype and misinformation: There’s no Blockchain Degree, no Blockchain Masters Program and not even a Blockchain Minor. “I don’t know if there’s a demand or a need for a degree, to be honest,” says Albright in his clear, slow, friendly cadence. If students take four blockchain-related courses at the graduate level – such as Distributed Systems, the Mathematics of CryptoSystems, or “Blockchain and Cryptocurrencies – Speculation or Innovation?” – then they can earn a blockchain “certificate” as a sort of degree add-on. (No student has earned this certificate yet; the program is new.)

Albright first offered Introduction to Blockchain in Spring 2019, available to both undergraduates and graduates, primarily from the engineering and business schools. “That class filled up instantly,” remembers Jack Rice, who took the course as an undergraduate sophomore. Rice entered UC Boulder as a pre-med student, but he had already caught the crypto bug, building an Ethereum mining server as a teenager. (The mining “didn’t work out super well” as the price of Ethereum collapsed.)  

Hunter Albright, entrepreneur-turned-blockchain-professor, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Hunter Albright, entrepreneur-turned-blockchain-professor, at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Rice, who’s now the president of the school’s Blockchain Club, is not exactly sure what he wants to do when he graduates – he switched from Pre-Med to Information Sciences – but now he’s mulling over blockchain-enabled startup ideas. Rice says that when business ideas float through his head, he frequently asks himself, “We do it one way now, and how can I use blockchain to improve upon it?”

Other students were simply curious about the new tech and how it could, potentially, give them an edge in their future careers. “Once something new comes out, I just want to learn it, just to satisfy my curiosity,” says Hare Muthusamy, a grad student studying software development, who moved from India to enroll at UC Boulder.

Muthusamy didn’t want to just learn about the concepts of blockchain – he wanted to play with it, build with it. Through the Blockchain Alliance, he worked with Albright on creating an application for the Blockchain Research Network, which aims to aggregate crypto academia. With Albright’s coaching, Muthusamy built a decentralized system that allows researchers to anonymously upload papers for peer review, and then a network of academic reviewers – across multiple universities – could anonymously review the study, and then the materials all live on the blockchain. “The course covered the theoretical concepts, and the project I did with Hunter covered the practical concepts,” explains Muthusamy. 

Most students aren’t taking these courses to prepare for a career in blockchain, but rather to scratch an itch (a natural curiosity) or to give their degree a bit of crypto gloss. This squares with the insights from Olta Andoni, a professor at Chicago-Kent law school, who teaches a course on blockchain and the law. Even though she is known as a “crypto-attorney,” she says most of her students do not take the class with that intent, and she stressed this several times during our call: “If you are a potential law school applicant, do not go in with the intent to become a crypto-attorney.”  

Andoni has found that teaching blockchain involves some odd challenges, starting with the uncertainty over how much the class already knows. “The level of knowledge is very diverse [among] the students,” she says. When you teach a course like, say, “maritime law,” the odds are good that every student begins with a similar level of ignorance. Not with crypto. Some build their own Ethereum mining servers and others think Bitcoin wallets come in leather.

Other challenges: What do you use as a textbook? Outside of Satoshi Nakamoto’s white paper, there are few source materials that all agree are canon. “There’s been a lot of struggle in finding the right source materials,” says Angela Walch, a professor of Law at St. Mary’s, who has been teaching blockchain since 2013.  “Sometimes I’ve been very surprised to find what instructors are using.” For example, Walch has misgivings about the use of 2016’s "Blockchain Revolution" by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott as a primary text. “That’s been very worrying to me, as I view that [book] as largely hype.” 

I struggle with how much I should do crypto, and how much I should do blockchain in my course.

And even if you curate the perfect teaching materials, what should be included in the course? “This can be quite contentious,” says Kevin Werbach, a professor at the Wharton Business School, who also teaches a blockchain-focused class. He contrasts blockchain to a field like chemistry, where there’s not much dispute about the periodic table. Werbach – and every blockchain professor – needs to make judgment calls, such as whether enterprise distributed ledgers should be taught. (He says yes.) 

“I struggle with how much I should do crypto, and how much I should do blockchain in my course,” says Angela Walch. “You can’t cover it all.” As the tree of blockchain has grown, it’s harder to master every branch and twig. “You cannot be an expert on what is happening in the blockchain supply chain, at the same time as you’re an expert on blockchain voting, at the same time you’re an expert on DeFi,” she says. “They’re all their own intricate specialized worlds.”

A more subtle challenge is that the overall interest in these courses, perhaps not surprisingly, seems to wax and wane with the price of bitcoin. “Each time we have a boom in the cryptocurrency market, I do see a lot more interest from students,” says Andoni.  

Werbach remembers an “explosion in activity” during the 2017 ICO bubble. In contrast, these days he’s “not seeing a mass of students knocking on the door.” Walch goes even further. “To be honest, I’m sensing a little bit of a lull in the interest in blockchain education,” she says, adding that the slowdown could simply be due to the pandemic, quarantine, or the 5,000 other complications of 2020.

Walch, who has been teaching blockchain since nearly the dawn of crypto time, also wonders who should count as an “expert” in this nascent field. “I really wrestle with who’s qualified to teach about these topics,” she says. “They’re incredibly multi-disciplinary, so claims of expertise have to be made with an asterisk.” 

Hunter Albright largely agrees, although he views that very ambiguity as one of the appealing challenges. “There are very few experts in general in this space,” he says. “Some of it is just a willingness to be sort of open and to discuss the ideas.” Albright is the first to admit he’s not the “end-all-be-all in terms of the knowledge,” but thinks the mark of a good blockchain professor is a blend of humility, curiosity and eagerness to engage in the conversations. “That’s one of the things that hooked me and got me so excited.” 

That excitement started, as all great distributed ledger stories do, with golf.

Student wallets

Albright’s background – like blockchain itself – is a jumble of tech, startup, invention, disruption and partnership with the banks. At the University of Virginia, he thought he’d be a pro golfer, was a top-20 ranked junior, and played alongside guys like David Duval and Phil Mickelson. In the end he “couldn’t putt well enough,” so he made the typical switch from golfing to a PhD in Systems Engineering, with a focus on artificial intelligence. While still a grad student he co-founded a company, ERICA, that invented an ocular interface that allowed you to control a computer with your eyes – Stephen Hawking used it.  

In the 1990s he studied algorithms, neural networks (modeled on the brain) and predictive models. Long before this kind of thing became fashionable, Capital One hired him to build predictive models that analyzed pools of data – demographic data, economic data – to assess risk and target their direct marketing campaigns. Then more startups, then more banks. In the late 1990s, he helped launch an organic competitor to Webvan. Barclays then lured him to the U.K. to help run its credit card and loan portfolios, and it was there that he saw, firsthand, the flabby system of cross-border payments – and primed him to later appreciate the merits of blockchain. 

Now at the hub of UC Boulder’s blockchain community, he partners with the Learning Economy – a non-profit that works with a web of colleges and universities and the state of Colorado – to pilot blockchain-based projects. These are part of the “C Lab” (Colorado Education Work Lab), a sort of incubator for creating digital student wallets, running student elections, and putting school credentials and diplomas on the blockchain. (These are all still in the prototype phase – none are live.)

On the surface, these projects might not sound that provocative. Don’t students already have ID cards? How hard is it to request your diploma? Look one layer deeper. “This is about self-sovereign ID and data control,” says Albright. “That’s the part that’s really interesting for me.” The ownership of data would shift from the university to the student. Albright envisions ID cards that only reveal partial information – only the data you wish to share – which then respects your privacy.  So if you’re a woman entering a bar and the bouncer asks for an ID, you could only show your age – not your street address. 

They’re working to put diplomas on the blockchain. Colorado, of course, is not the first to go there: Malta, Greece and universities like MIT have already tinkered with decentralized degrees. Yet, one goal of the C-Lab is to create a more fluid credentialing system that would work across a network of universities – first in the Colorado school system, and then around the globe – to let students have an easier time transferring credits from one school to another. 

Colorado has precedent for this kind of incremental change. Spencer Ellis is the director of Educational Innovation in Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, a division in the state government that partners with the university system. Ellis points to something the state legislature passed in 2017, the Prior Learning Assessment bill, that helps military veterans (and active duty troops) get college credit for skills they can demonstrate they learned while serving. 

Ellis says that prior to the bill, he heard stories of military vets who learned foreign languages while deployed – sometimes speaking four languages fluently – and then when they tried to transfer to a university, they only received 15 credits in a 100-credit language program. “Does that not seem absurd?” Ellis asks. With the PLA, you’re rewarded with more credits for the skills you can prove. 

Just as the Colorado government made it easier for military veterans to prove that their experience should count for college courses, the C-Lab programs, ultimately, aim to help students prove their own qualifications. “A degree is a vehicle of trust,” Albright explains on one of our Zoom calls. When a student earns a degree from Harvard, that lets Employer X trust that the student has met certain standards.

Theoretically, says Albright, blockchain could authenticate where you earned certain credentials, and even demonstrate your skill – like proficiency in coding, or fluency in a foreign language. “So let’s say that I’m home-schooled and you went to MIT," says Albright in his patient, mild-mannered tone. “If I can show that I can do what you can do, then there’s an argument that I should have the same value to an employer as you do.”  That’s the overarching idea. To get to that end-game, Albright, the Learning Economy and the C-Labs are working on pilot projects that help capture students’ credentials, skills and capabilities.  

Albright is not some anarchist predicting the demise of the college system, and he points out that universities still offer intangibles like the “residential experience.” But he adds, “If there’s an alternative model, then yeah, that puts a lot of pressure on the university to say, how are we different?”

If you think the idea of blockchain reshaping education is far-fetched, you’re not alone, and not even all blockchain educators are onboard. “I’m not sure what blockchain would really do to reshape education,” says Walch. “It’ll allow you to track and prove to people that you took a particular course? Well, that doesn’t negate the subjectivity in the grading.” 

Walch says this invokes the Garbage In-Garbage Out concern that “follows blockchain through all of its manifestations.” How, exactly, would we determine the skills that the blockchain would authenticate? Would we use standardized tests, like the SAT or the LSAT? Then you bump into the problem of standardized test inequities, particularly to marginalized communities and people of color. “I’m not sure that blockchain would succeed here where others have failed,” says Walch. 

Wharton’s Kevin Werbach shares that skepticism. While he is “excited and bullish” about the long-term potential of blockchain, and he agrees that the education system needs to change, he also thinks that “it’s way too easy to think that just because there’s a decentralized mechanism to connect people and information, that that’s going to undermine all of the long-standing, very well-established systems that serve [educational] purposes today. 

"That’s like saying, ‘So why hasn’t Facebook disappeared? Because we can do Facebook on the blockchain.’ But it hasn’t, and it won’t.”

He quickly clarifies that perhaps it’s possible that in 10 or 20 years, a decentralized social media platform might indeed topple Facebook, but that in general, “people get way too hung up on this disruption concept.”

Perhaps that’s the case, but the minds behind the Learning Economy – a key partner in the C-Lab programs of digital wallets, and college credentials on the blockchain – have even more daring ideas. The Learning Economy Chief Program Officer Taylor Kendal casually mentions the possibility of a future Learn Coin or Learn Bank.

“We envision a future where skills and knowledge are actually treated like assets,” says Kendal. “We’re looking to invert the entire model.” In the current world, the logic goes, the quest for knowledge yields a mostly intangible benefit – self-improvement, wisdom, a supple mind. What if this could be quantified? In some ways, “quantifying knowledge” is the most radical possible use of blockchain – more audacious than tokenizing real-estate, or using quadratic voting for elections.

“This is very blue sky,” Kendal clarifies, “and way into the crypto future.” The idea still feels a bit abstract and squishy, but at heart the gist is to peg economic incentives to learning, knowledge and skill-sets. That’s not the way it works now. That’s not the way it has worked since the dawn of time. (If there’s any doubt, just compare the salaries of investment bankers to philosophers.) 

So why do these C-Lab programs matter, and why does blockchain matter? When people talk about how “blockchain is going to change the world,” there’s usually a yada-yada-yada about how, precisely, this revolution is going to happen. Humble-sounding programs – okay, fine, even boring-sounding programs – like “putting college credits on the blockchain” are part of that yada. 

It’s an unsexy but necessary step. And it’s a case study of the blockchain community growing up, buckling down and playing nice with the systems of power. Maybe real change comes from a flame-thrower, or maybe it comes from a string of tiny wins.



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