Blockchain Strategies in Academia
Blockchain Technology are buzzwords, especially in business.
But... what exactly is it and how is it affecting various industries?
Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that permits transactions to be gathered into blocks and recorded, and allows multiple copies to be distributed via digital networks across the globe.
Its advantages include decentralization, cryptographic security, transparency and immutability where a complete history of every transaction is preserved, allowing information to be verified and value to be exchanged without having to rely on a third-party authority.
Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation talent director Siti Norliza Sahar said that when deployed in the right context, blockchain has the power to bring unique and possibly disruptive changes to certain business problems.
“A properly designed blockchain has the properties of immutability and traceability, which are particularly useful in applications requiring a high level of trust that the records are correct and all updates have a complete audit trail,” she added.
Land and property ownership registries are use case examples. “The technology offers a sufficiently high trust level to replace land and property titles, and maintain a complete record of previous owners.”
The prospects are endless. There is the possibility of replacing everything — from clearing and settlement systems, passports and land deeds registries to supply
chains that are paper-based — with a new software structure that will reconcile and manage everything without human intervention.
For those in academia and students at higher institutions of education, perhaps the more pertinent questions are the impact of blockchain technology on the workforce, the expertise needed and the professions in demand.
University of Oxford said Business Schools are among the top institutions taking the lead by offering an online programme on blockchain for business leaders and innovators.
The Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is also offering blockchain technology programmes, exploring long-term implications for business and its relationship with other emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
Local tertiary institutions are taking note of the rise of blockchain technology and are responding to its possibilities.
Maneuvering a disruptive technology
AS blockchain technology has the potential to disrupt all industries, the workforce will have to adapt to the changing environment where third-party intermediary services may potentially become obsolete.
Lance Cheang, Southeast Asia project director of blockchain platform provider NEM Foundation, said that businesses must realize that blockchain can either reduce their operating costs or provide services to previously unreachable customers.
It also means the masses will have the opportunity to participate in economic activities previously unavailable to them, without going through traditional middlemen.
“The key to this scenario is education. Business owners must understand the concepts of blockchain to be applied in their business, and software developers have to translate those concepts into systems,” added Cheang.
He stressed that the academia must focus on blockchain technology as “this will be the way we transact globally in the future”.
“Schools and universities must prepare students with the necessary skills and information to conceptualize business use cases and produce technically-inclined graduates to build these systems.”
Incorporated in Singapore, NEM Foundation has a presence in Kuala Lumpur through the NEM Blockchain Centre, which serves as its headquarters for regional operations while acting as a learning center, incubator and accelerator for blockchain-related startups.
NEM is partnering with universities to train and teach lecturers and students blockchain technology to better equip them for future employment.
Tee Wee Jing, a senior lecturer at Taylor’s University School of Computing and Information Technology (SOCIT), said that based on the varsity’s research, blockchain technology will disrupt various industries.
“The impact of blockchain on diverse industries and businesses will be significant, as blockchain is the next evolution of a trust network that provides a distributed, immutable, continuously growing list of transactional records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography,” he added.
“With the emergence of blockchain, our nation needs graduates trained in the technology to meet demand in the industry. Currently, we need expertise in blockchain development and blockchain specialists in various blockchain platforms.”
SOCIT is planning to offer blockchain as a specialization for computer science students.
“We are working with NEM to provide support and training in blockchain for our students.”
Dr. Fakhrul Hazman Yusoff, a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) Faculty of Computer and Mathematical Sciences, observed that there is a need for computer scientists with knowledge of blockchain who are well-versed in the financial and banking sector.
“Knowledge in statistics and actuarial science is also desired as blockchain is the new technology in fintech (financial technology) industry."
“Blockchain requires the use of encryption. Mathematicians have to devise the best encryption for an application,” he said.
“Blockchain technology should be included in the syllabus at university. People may closely associate blockchain with crypto-currency but the technology can be utilised in other areas such as the smart contract, a feature in blockchain that enables online agreements to be devised hence reducing dependence on legal firms.”
Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) talent director Siti Norliza Sahar said blockchain does not introduce many new demands on the workforce.
“Essentially it is a new component in a system, similar to cloud, OS (operating system), networking, databases, visualisation and data analytics."
“Solutions architects for IT-based systems essentially have a new tool to use in their designs; programmers now have a new set of toolkits, libraries and APIs (application programming interfaces) to learn in order to interact with a blockchain system.”
However, a knowledge gap has to be bridged. Solutions developers need to understand how to apply blockchain technology — in contrast with traditional solutions — to solve existing business problems.
“They need to envision novel use cases for blockchain technology and code programmes, including smart contracts (essentially a blockchain specific programme), which interact with blockchains.”
Blockchain technology is sufficiently different from existing IT solutions to require new modules.
These include blockchain architecture and design that should be introduced as an additional module in software engineering, computer engineering and computer science courses; and modules for new programming languages to write smart contracts. Electives in computing-related and other non-computing courses include blockchain use cases, privacy implications, governance, and regulatory and policy implications.
UiTM will be introducing four courses with a focus on blockchain targeted at students and the masses alike, said Fakhrul Hazman.
The introductory Fundamentals of Blockchain course is for the public; Blockchain and Cybersecurity is a technical course on the technology and its implementation in cybersecurity for the public and students; Blockchain Technology for Developers is for computer science and related students, and Blockchain Technology for Practitioners takes a technology user approach for non-computer science students.
“We are still discussing a smart partnership with several parties and we will make an announcement in due course.”
NEM is embarking on a host of activities to prepare the future workforce for blockchain.
“We recently organised a hackathon for university students to spread awareness and connect youths and our corporate sponsors to learn the problems companies face and how blockchain is able to solve them."
“We are working with Taylor’s University to further educate its lecturers and students on the topic. We are also hosting several of its undergraduates and doctoral students to provide input on their coursework or theses,” said Cheang.
SOCIT is planning to offer blockchain as a specialisation for computer science students.
It will sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with NEM to collaborate in three areas: knowledge-sharing, training and engagement with students for their final-year and research projects.
“Since last month, NEM has been holding Expert Forums. It is providing industry expertise and feedback in the creation of the blockchain syllabus, which will be offered by Taylor’s as early as next year,” he added.
One of the computer labs at Taylor’s University has been rebranded the Blockchain Lab powered by NEM to train students to be conversational in blockchain.
The Blockchain Lab engages with students working on final-year projects related to the technology.
Taylor’s University has set up a research focus group on blockchain headed by Associate Professor of Computer Science Dr. Raja Kumar Murugesan, who is head of research at the Faculty of Built Environment, Engineering, Technology and Design, to promote research into implementing emerging blockchain technology.
MDEC, in collaboration with industry partners such as Chaintope (one of its key partners in the fintech space), has signed an MOU with local universities to engage in blockchain research development. These universities include International Islamic University Malaysia and Tunku Abdul Rahman University College.
“In addition, under the Premier Digital Tech Universities and Preferred Industry Polytechnics initiatives, lecturers and students are exposed to this technology in the form of several tracks, which include lecturers’ development, undergraduates industry immersion programmes and industry-driven final-year projects. This is under the umbrella of structured industry engagement strategy called Platform of Real Industry Driven Exchange,” said Siti Norliza.
Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) is taking a different approach to collaboration in blockchain.
Dr. Mohamad Fakri Zaky Ja`afar, head of the Translational Research and Innovation Programme at UPM’s Putra Science Park Innovation Promotion and Marketing Division, is looking into a blockchain-powered project.
“We are trying to identify the best model and partners to make the project a reality. We want to introduce traceability in agriculture. We are developing a blockchain-based system that will give democratic power to consumers that will enable them to decide whether or not to buy a certain product."
“Through the system, they will be equipped with full details of the product, for example, the supplier and distributor. The power is with the consumer."
“We are at the conceptual model and at the stage of identifying the crops and supply chain, possibly the rice and vegetable supply chains."
“We are looking at partnering with the Farmers’ Organisation Authority and logistics companies on the project.”