November 4, 2019 By Soroush Abbaspour 4 min read

Blockchain is rapidly becoming a force within higher education, even going so far as to challenge the very foundation of how skills and qualifications are measured. Innovations such as microcredentials and blockchain-based certifications have made blockchain one of two key technologies, along with voice assistants, that will have the biggest impact on higher education over the course of the next four to five years.

Nascent blockchain curricula are already giving students the skills they need to succeed in tomorrow’s economy. Nearly half of the top-ranked top universities offer at least a course on blockchain or cryptocurrencies. Within the next two years, the world’s first crop of blockchain Master’s Degrees will begin hitting the workforce, thanks to a new degree program at the blockchain-friendly University of Malta.

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These programs will play an important in preparing today’s students to thrive in emerging industries. But at the same time, creating these new curricula requires a framework that encourages education, research, and innovation along while also promoting ethics and the transparent use of data. Last year saw the launch of the Columbia University-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency to do just that.

IBM and Columbia University: A rich history

The storied relationship of IBM with Columbia University began in 1930, when professor Ben Wood petitioned Thomas J. Watson to build a specialized tabulation machine suited for statistical analysis. Since then, Columbia and IBM have been tireless collaborators, from the establishment of the IBM Watson Lab in 1945 to the development of Columbia’s first ethernet in the mid 1980s. Through the years, the two organizations have developed a reputation as a nexus for technological innovation, generating innumerable advances that continue to benefit people and industry around the world.

The Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency’s core mission is to foster education, research and innovation, not only in the nascent blockchain space, but other fields related to the advancement of data transparency.

“Blockchain is a very promising technology because of its potential to offer secure, tamper-proof recording and storing of information and of transactions,” said Juliette Fisbein, director of strategy and operations for the Columbia University-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency. “Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize the way in which companies, governments, and other entities store and exchange information. The blockchain community now has to address challenges of scalability and trust in order for this technology to continue to thrive.”

Blockchain and higher education: A three-pronged approach

Since its launch last year, the Center has made great strides in each of its three tracks: education, research and innovation.

On the education front, a number of new courses have been added to the curriculum, ranging from undergraduate studies on smart contract and app design to MBA-level courses exploring the socioeconomic implications of cryptocurrency. Additionally, the Center holds a call for proposal each Spring in which professors are encouraged to submit topics for new programs in the field of data transparency and blockchain technology.

This year, IBM is funding three of those proposals: an introductory computer science course on the foundations of blockchain, a business class designed to familiarize students with the basics of cryptocurrency, as well as an electrical engineering course introducing the concepts of distributed ledger ecosystems and applications.

On the research track, a similar call for proposal process enables students and faculty to obtain funding for exciting new projects. Last year, IBM awarded Columbia faculty three grants for projects that included an analysis of blockchain’s impact on securities and regulation, as well as smart contract certification and the economics of knowledge production through machine learning and a study of the incentives for blockchain. A new call for research proposals was issued this Fall.

In addition, the Center is organizing a number of thought leadership educational workshops around IoT and blockchain, focused on such topics as privacy and the valuation of data. This will be an opportunity for academic and industry experts to discuss the latest challenges and opportunities posed by emerging technologies.

Finally, the Center’s innovation track helps students and alumni develop their business ideas through an accelerator program that supports pre-seed, early-stage ventures, offering both technical guidance and mentorship. In addition, this past March, the accelerator hosted its first Demo Day, where the inaugural cohort of 10 startups presented apps like Lucidity, a blockchain-based marketing analytics tool, Securitize, a platform for managing digital securities, and IPwe, the world’s first blockchain-based patent platform.

A new cohort will be announced in December to join the second iteration of the “Launch accelerator program.” Eligible entrepreneurs curious about data transparency flows and innovative applications of blockchain technology are invited to submit applications.

Blockchain and Columbia: Taking learnings off-campus

Like many of the most promising open-source blockchain projects, Columbia’s initiative is a community endeavor.

“The Center is constantly evolving, and we are always working to enhance research and identify meaningful opportunities in the blockchain and data transparency space,” said Fisbein. “While we have a mission and plan to follow, we also welcome suggestions from our leadership team as we continue to explore research areas, curriculum development and multidisciplinary expertise throughout the University.”

As the Center continues to grow in the months and years to come, Fisbein expects its impact will be felt not only at Columbia, but throughout the blockchain education community at large.

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