Rustie Lin UC Berkeley CS, Distributed Systems, Blockchain

Making Blockchain Accessible

More blog posts available on the Blockchain at Berkeley Medium blog. The Blockchain at Berkeley edX initiative is also featured in Gloria's blog post here.

Education should be accessible. This should especially be the case in the blockchain space, which takes pride in its core value of decentralization. There’s nowhere saying that the decentralization that we value in the blockchain space is only limited to product or community. Why not extend this to blockchain education as well?

Since Fall 2016, Blockchain at Berkeley has been offering a survey course on the fundamental concepts of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. You can read more about that on the course website. Each of the lectures we taught were carefully designed to fit into the entire top down narrative of the blockchain space we were trying to weave with each iteration. The goal was to create a survey of the blockchain space that was accessible to anyone, no matter their background.

Our core curriculum, Blockchain Fundamentals, is split into two main “epochs,” which roughly models the gradual maturing and general sentiment about cryptocurrency and then later blockchain technologies. Our narrative starts with Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies, explaining cryptocurrencies as the first use case for blockchain, and Bitcoin as the original inspiration. Our aim for this first epoch is to explore both the technological and social aspects of Bitcoin, and then introduce Ethereum towards the end, so as to dramatically reveal to students the amount of intuition that carries over between understanding different blockchain platforms at a high level. While the name of the epoch is “Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies,” the primary motivation outside of explaining what the title says is to decouple the ideas of Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies from that of blockchain.

With the realization that their intuition carries from Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, to Ethereum, a more generalized blockchain platform, students then transition into the curriculum’s second epoch, Blockchain Technology. The aim for this second epoch is to further expand the student’s mental model of what blockchain is. At this point, students are confident in their understanding of cryptocurrencies and blockchain, so in this epoch, we start by diving into related technical topics. The first lecture in the second epoch explains that blockchain thinking has origins earlier than that of 2008’s Bitcoin whitepaper. At its core, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies of the modern day are based in historical academic research in distributed systems and consensus, and that’s where we take students. Consensus has existed for millennia, at least since humans started interacting socially, and the formal academic study of consensus in computer science and mathematics started decades ago, at least by when individuals in the aerospace industry decided they wanted to subject computers to adverse environments. From there, we explore how traditional literature has affected newer forms of distributed consensus. Having understood those fundamentals, we then invite students to seek understanding from a higher abstraction level – from that of (crypto)economics. This then ties naturally into various classifications of blockchains based on their access level (e.g. enterprise blockchains) and the various challenges to adoption they currently face, such as scalability and anonymity.

We end our main curriculum there. Having surveyed much of the blockchain space, we have presented enough information for students to have an intelligent conversation about blockchain. What the space needs is to facilitate more intelligent conversation. Regrettably, talent in the space is currently very dilute. With more accessible blockchain education, we hope to nurture the space into one that is revered by academia, industry, and the general public.