UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Representatives from two global companies recently presented their experiences with implementing blockchain to students in the College of Information Sciences and Technology’s (IST) emerging issues and technologies course.
Numerous industry and academic experts view blockchain as the next disruptive technology. The blockchain has evolved from a cryptocurrency platform into an architecture that can offer greater levels of security and trust while streamlining digital business processes.
“There is a lot of hype about blockchain, and Penn State is one of a few universities offering any courses in it,” said David Hozza, lecturer, who is instructing the course this fall.
Simply put, blockchain is a trusted, secure ledger of transactions shared among stakeholders without the need for a centralized administrative authority. Each stakeholder in the chain maintains a copy of the ledger and transactions are chronologically and cryptographically linked together in blocks to maintain immutability. Trust amongst members is achieved through consensus mechanisms that select who can append a new block to the chain. The cryptographic and consensus mechanisms allow trusted network participants to trace and verify the authenticity of transactions or assets throughout the life cycle.
Blockchain is widely known for its use with cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, but the technology can also be utilized for transactions such as negotiating smart contracts, voting online, or tracking the authenticity of goods like diamonds or coffee beans from the time they’re mined to the time they’re purchased.
Inquiries from the College of IST’s corporate associates prompted college leaders to explore a course offering in blockchain technology. Hozza and Edward Glantz, teaching professor, designed the curriculum with input from the college’s corporate associates including IBM, Deloitte and KPMG, as well as with support from Penn State’s Applied Research Laboratory (ARL).
“[Having industry partners and ARL help build the curriculum and share their experiences with students] allows us to cut through the hype and focus on the core technologies and use cases that are in production today,” said Glantz. “For example, open source platforms such as Ethereum and Hyperledger are enabling the development of business networks that leverage smart contracts and consensus mechanism on blockchain.”
IBM is one of the college’s corporate associates that collaborated to develop the course curriculum. Mark Fisk, partner and public service blockchain leader, and Sean Brown, blockchain consultant, spoke to the class on Sept. 10. They presented several use cases for how IBM implements blockchain with its customers, as well as the economic benefits of using the technology.
“Penn State getting out in front of [blockchain] is awesome,” said Fisk. “Sometimes you’re thinking about the way things are or the way things were five years ago when you’re looking at materials. This is looking at the way things are going. It’s a great emerging technology if you look at it that way.”
Chris Brodersen, lead for Deloitte’s New York blockchain lab, presented to the class on Sept. 17.
“The growth of blockchain is very analogous to the internet,” he said. “Blockchain is expected to have an enormous impact on businesses all over the place. Students that understand that now, that it’s likely going to evolve business models, could have an advantage.”
Before his presentation, Brodersen asked students to define use cases for the technology, which he reviewed during the class.
“I was pretty impressed,” he said. “They had a pretty good understanding of some of the areas where blockchain could have big implications.”
Hozza noted that guest lectures by corporate associates like IBM and Deloitte, and the presentation by James Webster of the Applied Research Lab earlier this month, allow students to see real-world applications of these technologies and emphasize the concepts.
“Our goal is that by the end of the semester student teams can create their own proof of concept blockchain projects with feedback from our partners,” he said.
Students enrolled in the course understand the value of learning the fundamentals of blockchain before entering the workforce. While blockchain is the current focus of the revolving emerging issues and technologies course, college leaders hope to continue offering instruction in future semesters.
“Blockchain is a really hot topic in the field of technology, and having the knowledge is really important, said Ashish Kumar, a senior in the course who is pursuing a degree in security and risk analysis. “We get so much practical experience that other universities don’t offer. It’s a really good course.”
“Companies come here to show that they need people who know this, and the college is doing such a good job of giving students the opportunity to take this course,” he added. “We can hopefully apply what we learn and get a job with one of these companies. Students should take full advantage of this.”
Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a U.K. private company limited by guarantee (“DTTL”), its network of member firms, and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as “Deloitte Global”) does not provide services to clients. In the United States, Deloitte refers to one or more of the US member firms of DTTL, their related entities that operate using the “Deloitte” name in the United States and their respective affiliates.