Security

Universities add blockchain classes in effort to help close tech skills gap in enterprise

Few people know how to fully leverage blockchain technology, but these universities are adding curricula on its fundamentals and a growing number of use cases.

Blockchain is poised to revolutionize the enterprise across a number of industries, but knowledge of how the technology actually works remains lacking from both a tech and business perspective. Universities worldwide are beginning to step up and try to fill the gaps, teaching students and collaborating with companies on best use cases for the blockchain to enhance security and productivity.

For those unfamiliar, blockchain is a public ledger technology that uses digital signatures and cryptographic hashing to provide a record of secure transactions that cannot be altered. It is also the technology that allows Bitcoin and other digital currencies to be open, anonymous, and secure.

"Blockchain adoption is in the very, very early stages," said Martha Bennett, principal analyst at Forrester. "There is a lot of interest, and a lot of companies are experimenting. But there are comparatively few that really realize that you need to take a long term view to it. This is not just about building a faster force, it's about transforming the way in which we do things."

SEE: IT leader's guide to the blockchain (Tech Pro Research)

As demand for professionals skilled in blockchain technologies begins to skyrocket, a number of universities in the US—including Stanford, MIT, and University of California-Berkeley—have begun offering courses in either blockchain or cryptocurrencies. Many online tutorials and massive open online courses are also available.

Searches for jobs mentioning blockchain, bitcoin, or cryptocurrency jumped more than 1,000% since November 2015, according to Indeed, and several new IT jobs have been created around the technologies.

"It's good that academia is beginning to be more interested, because a lot of companies have jumped into technologies like this that haven't been properly scientifically reviewed or researched," Bennett said. Many current blockchain practitioners are self-taught, and came from fields including cryptography, distributive systems, or advanced mathematical modeling, she added.

Young technology, young talent

In 2016, Blockchain at Berkeley launched as an undergraduate organization that now offers two courses to students: Blockchain Fundamentals is a generalized course for students from any major to take, and Blockchain for Developers, a deeper dive class for students with coding abilities to turn that basic knowledge into actionable skills.

Interest in the courses has increased, likely in part due to the Bitcoin price spikes hitting the news, said Nick Zoghb, a junior computer science major at UC Berkeley and one of the undergraduate instructors of the blockchain course.

"Despite the various dips that have been occurring over the recent weeks in pricing, we still see an increase in interest in the blockchain," Zoghb said. "Currently it's a buzzword, and many people even outside of the electrical engineering and computer science departments here are Berkeley are seeking out more resources to be able to study it and find out what blockchain is."

The developers course is capped at 80 students, while the fundamentals course is at 200 students, but the number of applicants to each course far exceeds the number of available spots, Zoghb said.

SEE: What is blockchain? And 5 other questions your boss needs answered ASAP

Universities across the globe reach out to Blockchain at Berkeley on a weekly basis to ask for advice on course design, Zoghb said, so it's very likely that similar courses will pop up worldwide in the near future. Berkeley is also launching an edX course to bring its classes to a wider audience.

However, universities will need to take care in creating these courses, Bennett said.

"We need to distinguish people just putting on courses because it's a hot topic, and doing those doing serious research," she added. Some curricula is so high-level that it's almost meaningless, she said.

Course curricula will need to be updated regularly, as the technology is in a rapid state of change, Zoghb said. "In the past there have been a number of security issues with blockchain development," he added. "Remaining up to speed with the developments in the space really benefits everyone involved."

Blockchain at Berkeley also consults with companies to develop strategic approaches to implement blockchain technologies.

"One of the pillars of our education program is tackling blockchain, especially enterprise-facing blockchain solutions from a pragmatic standpoint," Zoghb said. "That is to say that one must be incredibly vigilant and have knowledge of the already existing solutions that are non-blockchain related."

When working with a business, it's key to first ask if blockchain is the best solution, because many others exist that are more established, Zoghb said.

With a young technology like blockchain, most of the people who are involved in the space also tend to be young, Zoghb said. For example, Blockchain at Berkeley is one of the largest academic organizations focused on this space right now, and it is made up entirely of undergraduates, he added, many of whom have gone on to become experts in the field.

While younger developers tend to be incredibly creative, they lack enterprise experience, such as how to harden applications for enterprise purposes, Bennett said. She encouraged academic institutions to focus on deep research so we can fully utilize the concept for new business models.

"There is a big gulf between successful proof of concept and then actual deployment," Bennett said, with issues arising around user interface, key management, and SLAs. "If that is something that can be picked up in some of these courses from people who have done research, that I would greatly welcome," she added.

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Image: Blockchain at Berkeley

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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