UC Berkeley in 2016 saw the potential for teaching about blockchain with a primary focus on bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies the technology underpins.
At the time, about 70 students signed up.
Next month, the university will kick off an online professional certificate program for blockchain, a three-month, two-part course focusing on cryptocurrencies and permissioned blockchains aimed at equipping students for careers in developing the distributed ledger technology for businesses.
So far, 7,400 students have signed up.
"We've had other online courses that have done well, mainly STEM-related content... but I'd say this course's early results show very impressive enrollments," said Suzanne Harrison, director of design and development at UC Berkeley.
It's the first time Berkeley has opened its blockchain education program to students globally through an online learning platform.
The blockchain employment market is red hot. The job of developing blockchain distributed ledgers for businesses was recently ranked first among the top 20 fastest-growing job skills; postings for workers with those skills grew more than 200% last year.
In high-tech regions of the U.S. such as Silicon Valley, New York City or Boston, a blockchain developer has a median annual salary of $158,000 - an $18,000 premium over salaries for general software developers.
Berkeley hasn't marketed its blockchain certificate program. Just as bitcoin's value skyrocketed sans advertising from 30 cents in 2011 to more than $6,400 today (along with rollercoaster volatility in between), registration for the new blockchain professional certificate program has grown mostly through word of mouth, according to Rustie Lin, the team lead for Blockchain at Berkeley's edX team. Lin and Mengyi Wang, created the content and are the blockchain program's instructors.
The course isn't aimed at producing blockchain coders per se; it's designed more to equip students with strong fundamental blockchain literacy and the basic knowledge needed to enter any type of technical and non-technical blockchain career.
While the typical student enrolled in the program majors in computer science, economics, mathematics, business or finance there are also philosophy and law students.
As the Blockchain Fundamentals online course description states, it is "accessible by anyone, with any background. Whether students are planning their next career move as a blockchain developer, crypto trader, data analyst, researcher, or consultant, or are just curious about this field, the is the best way to get up to speed on blockchain technology."
"We have an entire course module on blockchain use cases," Lin said. "Blockchain, along with many other fields when they first come out had a lot of hype around it. After a couple years we'll find out the long-term effect. But, as it stands right now, blockchain is moving very fast and I think it has technical merit for the very real problems it solves."
While bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies may have been the first widespread applications enabled by blockchain, today the peer-to-peer transaction network is being used in pilots across vertical industries to enable cross-border payments, supply chain management, cargo shipment tracking and the secure exchange of sensitive data across disparate platforms. Technology providers such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle now offer blockchain-as-a-service.
"I think blockchain as a whole is very good at solving coordination failures," Lin said. "One of my favorite one liners: blockchain is a technical solution to a social problem - social coordination."
Berkeley's certificate course began as a club called the Bitcoin Association of Berkeley and it matured to become Blockchain at Berkeley, which is part of the on campus DeCal Program – accredited classes run by students. Blockchain at Berkeley and faculty from UC Berkeley's Computer Science department then partnered with open online course provider edX to develop the online professional certificate program – a survey of core topics in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.
"It primarily had a focus on cryptocurrency and blockchain. But over a two-year course of time, we decided to offer a more comprehensive view of the industry," Wang said. "This online platform was really powerful for us."
EdX enabled Wang and Lin to expand the course content because they were no longer constrained by the time limitations associated with campus classes and student schedules.
Initially, students began recording lectures and discussions and posting them online, a strategy that expanded to 50, hour-long recordings, Lin said. "We saw the need to scale that up, especially as the need for blockchain education is increasing," he said.
The online certificate program consists of a set of short video lectures, followed by problem sets, quizzes and opportunities for question-and-answer sessions, "so they know they've grasped the concepts," Lin said. After a six-week course, students are paired up and perform peer review of blockchain use cases they've developed over the course of instruction.
The first course, Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies, covers basic properties of bitcoin, the mechanics behind it (i.e. cryptographic hash functions, Bitcoin Script, privacy and hash commitment schemes) and its roots in the Cypherpunk movement and Libertarian ideals. It will also provide an overview of practical applications of Bitcoin such as wallets and mining, as well as how to destroy bitcoins, including network attacks and malicious mining strategies. It will also take a look at Ethereum and how blockchain can be used outside of cryptocurrencies.
The second course, Blockchain Technology, initially looks at distributed systems and alternative mechanisms, as well as cryptoeconomic and proof-of-stake governance systems. Then it explores the fundamental applications of bitcoin and blockchain technology, including enterprise blockchain implementations, such as JP Morgan's Quorum, Ripple, Tendermint and HyperLedger, the challenges and solutions around scaling blockchain adoption, and the measures the government is taking to regulate and control blockchain technology.
The course wraps up with a look at various blockchain ventures today and concludes with a blockchain-based future thought experiment.
EdX's Professional Certificate programs are series of courses designed by universities and industry experts, and they are highly valued by perspective employers. For example, Microsoft recently committed to contribute toward the cost for any community college student to complete the entry level Computer Science Professional Certificate program on edX.
Berkeley isn't alone. Several accredited U.S. universities now offer on-campus or online courses on cryptocurrencies and blockchain, including MIT, which offers two courses on cryptocurrency engineering and design; Princeton University; Stanford University; and Duke University, which also has a student-run curriculum. There are also specialty schools such as Mountain View, Calif.-based Blockchain University and London-based education startup B9lab, which launched an online Certified Ethereum Developer Training program in 2016.
"Our primary goal with this program... is to build a strong mental model of this new paradigm of distributed blockchain thinking," Lin said. "Whether the students use this knowledge to pursue blockchain development careers... or whether they're trying to pursue non-technical positions, it still requires a fundamental understanding of the technology. That's the thinking we encourage of our students to carry with them into their professional careers."