Among many college students, blockchain has a branding problem. “I thought it was synonymous with Bitcoin,” says Andrea Christie, a graduate student at RMIT University (formerly known as Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Melbourne Technical College). “Like many people, I thought that blockchain was electronic money, and it was a scary concept.”
After studying blockchain for the past year, however, Christie is seeing a much broader horizon for the technology. She’s now focused on studying the application of blockchain technology in the nonprofit sector. It could be used, for example, to track vouchers given to disaster victims to better understand what they’re purchasing, or to track charitable donations to ensure they comply with donor expectations.
While blockchain isn’t a mainstay yet in college curriculums, more universities are offering courses exploring the technology and business and industry use cases. It’s an area of intense focus at RMIT, which has set up a Blockchain Innovation Hub that draws students from the business and technology schools and offers courses in blockchain technology to both groups of students.
“Every new technology that arises goes into a popularity cycle,” says Dr. Arthur Adamopoulos, a lecturer at RMIT. “My goal is to ensure that students come out of my classes knowing how to cut through the hype and that they have realistic expectations of what types of problems blockchain technology can solve.”
Blockchain technology builds a list of unalterable records—called blocks—that link together through cryptography to form an open ledger that can record transactions securely and permanently. The technology allows organizations that might not fully trust each other, or even be aware of each other, to agree on a single, highly secure source of truth.
Adamopoulos uses Oracle Blockchain Platform in his curriculum. He started using it in the spring of 2019, after a colleague connected him with Callan Howell-Pavia, principal cloud solutions consultant for Oracle Australia, who helped Adamopoulos set up blockchain in his classroom and provided him with materials—even updating them for Adamopoulos’ specific needs.
“I wanted Oracle because I wanted a cloud blockchain,” says Adamopoulos. “Although cryptocurrencies run on their own networks, most companies are not really interested in running their own blockchain networks on their own platforms. I think a lot of industry blockchains will be in the cloud.” Students also have the benefit of learning about a blockchain service that offers flexible implementation options, including standalone cloud services and capabilities built into other types of applications, such as supply chain and HR.
According to Franco Ucci, Oracle’s innovation and strategy leader for Australia and New Zealand, blockchain has been a trending topic across industries, but most students still lack an in depth-knowledge of the technology. “A key part of this is collaborating with the industry partners and finding specific use cases,” says Ucci. “Everyone wants to be part of it but they need to be able to see the true potential.”
Key to RMIT’s focus on blockchain is a clear vision into the potential of the technology. Michael Fairbairn, associate director of Business Operations and Engagement at the Blockchain Innovation Hub, believes that blockchain is on a similar path to that of the internet, where it took years for people to understand its capabilities. “The Bitcoin conversation is a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, Bitcoin really proved the technology and viability of blockchain. On the other hand, it was used at times for nefarious activities, such as the dark web, and that put some people off,” says Fairbairn.
Blockchain’s complexity and processing requirements can make it an expensive way to collect and consolidate data. However, once people understand the broad value for blockchain across industries, Ucci says he expects that many organizations will find specific, high-value purposes for the technology. “It’s like a knife that’s very sharp,” he says. “You don’t need to use that very sharp knife all the time.” Organizations shouldn’t ask themselves, ‘What can I use blockchain for?’ Instead, they should identify the objective, then determine if they need blockchain’s ‘distributed’ control of data, or whether the centralized control offered by a database would solve the problem more economically. For example, Jyoti – Fair Works, a small German “fair fashion” label, tracks its materials from cotton field to textile maker to weaver so it can show buyers what went into their product.
Building the Chain
At RMIT, interest in Bitcoin is driving blockchain class registrations. But once students arrive in class they start to learn how blockchain can be a driver of overall business communications and trust. “Most of my students aren’t going to become blockchain developers,” says Adamopoulos. “A lot of them will become accountants or marketers and will land in companies that want to try blockchain for some key processes. My students will understand the technology and be able to make an immediate contribution.”
The industries and lines of business that students can move into is almost limitless. “Business and IT and logistics are the obvious areas,” says Fairbairn. “On the policy side, governments are going to need blockchain experts. Or you might work for a shipping transport company, a healthcare company, or an educational institute.” And those students are likely to find a welcoming job market. In 2019, the Australian Computer Society reported that there were 10 jobs for every blockchain-trained job seeker.
Blockchain may be in its infancy, but it’s poised to become the connective tissue in almost any kind of relationship that relies on a ‘trust but verify’ model. Christie believes that people who have these skills will be at a huge advantage when it comes to employment. “My advice for any student who’s even mildly curious about blockchain is to go for it—jump down that rabbit hole and never look back,” says Christie. “It’s the perfect time. Blockchain is in its very early stage, and no one really knows what impact it will have on the world.”