The first thing you’ll notice about this article is a new vocabulary. That suggests that these technologies represent a fundamental change in the way we view transactions, credentials, and intellectual property; a more equitable way.
When you hear the word blockchain or cryptocurrency you may have some preconceived notion of what it is, view it as a mystery/wonder, or might be deeply involved in that space. The vast array of reactions is exactly why we must not shy away from this technology but rather embrace it. As this new technology establishes itself in our world of finance, art, and supply chain logistics, all our students’ lives will be altered; from how they invest to how their fresh groceries arrive at their local store. So we as educators have to break down these unknowns into small consumable bits for our students to learn, whether it’s in a math, business, art, or technology class.
With any topic that shakes up the status quo, this introduction is to start the conversation on how we as educators can provide students an opportunity to get familiar with blockchain and cryptocurrencies, to not only take advantage of the opportunities they bring, but also avoid the pitfalls they are not aware of. The goal of this discussion is not to convince you to buy cryptos or hail blockchain technology as the only future for students. It is to help you be aware of how the basic principles can be used in your classroom, for board consideration, and in the school, so that our students can make sound decisions if they decide to enter that space, either professionally or recreationally.
So what is the blockchain?
Imagine the blockchain as a set of blocks connected by a chain, each one reliant on the one before. And within each block is a ledger recording a series of transactions. This ledger shows all the transactions on that blockchain since the 1st recorded event.
However, instead of a central entity controlling this information, it is controlled by a decentralized network of computers as shown below.
Another good way to explain it to students is actually using the video clip from none other than the Simpsons. This video gives a concise explanation of how the blockchain operates. The technology has vast implications that are affecting entire industries from finance to supply chains, and has already started impacting most organizations as they begin to see its potential.
What is a cryptocurrency?
One of the big misconceptions is that cryptocurrency is blockchain technology or vice versa. People may mistakenly use these terms interchangeably. A cryptocurrency (or “crypto”) is a digital currency that can be used to buy goods and services but uses an online ledger with strong cryptography to secure the digital transactions. Blockchain is the vehicle that enables the existence of cryptocurrency. Differentiating the two is important.
Some of you will immediately think of Bitcoin and Ethereum as some examples of where you’ve seen cryptocurrencies. Even though these are cryptocurrencies, there are vast differences in what they do. Bitcoin has grown to serve as a store of value since its inception, very similar to how gold is viewed. Ethereum is token, but it provides the ability to be programmable, which opens the door to financial services such as AAVE, games such as The Sandbox, and other dapps (decentralized applications) that might be created.
Why is this important for students to learn?
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies will likely shape how our students invest, conduct commerce, and most importantly, open up a door to a wide array of potential careers. Imagine students exploring careers as smart contracts engineers, DeFi analysts, community managers, and CEOs of the crypto-companies themselves. This massive new industry will not only open up doors within new companies but also open up new doors in existing monoliths such as Amazon and Goldman Sachs. However with every pro, there are cons, but that doesn’t mean we should put our heads in the sand and ignore them. With the emergence of this technology, it will be important for students to learn about the volatility of cryptocurrencies, how they operate, and how to research and fact-check topics relating to crypto and blockchain.
How can we introduce this to our students?
Whenever I think of ways to incorporate this topic into our existing classrooms or curriculum, I dissect it into smaller parts. The reason is that if you take the subject as a whole, it seemingly doesn’t fit your traditional topics such as English, humanities, math, and others. When you break it down into consumable portions, you quickly realize you can create individual lessons or whole units that fit nicely into your scope and sequence.
- One example is introducing cryptocurrencies and blockchain into your Computer Science or Math classroom. You can create a unit where students have to build their own data mining rig and determine the profitability of their rig based on hash rate and power consumption. Students have to learn about the various algorithms and specifications of different miners (graphics cards and asics) to determine if their rig will be profitable. This also gives students a chance to dig into its impact on energy consumption and topics that compare proof of work mining and proof of stake mining. Educating students on these differences will help them decide how they want to invest in cryptocurrencies or the various roles that live in the blockchain industry. One can Introduce them to new roles such as smart contracts engineers or a blockchain engineer.
- Creating a lesson on how DeFi is challenging the status quo of banks. By taking concepts from traditional finance and turning these into transparent protocols through smart contracts, DeFi provides a trustless ecosystem that delivers anything from insurance to loans to savings accounts. Many people are familiar with savings accounts but with blockchain, we can discuss how staking and yield farming can provide passive income much like a savings account. Teaching students about venture capitalists has parallels in crypto, as you can learn with the students on how DAOs operate and how financial systems are impacted by these. Coupling this with your traditional finance curriculum about stock markets, bonds, hedge funds, and inflation will help give students a more up-to-date view while educating them on an evolving market.
- In a humanities class, you can explore how different currencies such as Stellar Lumens can help people in developing countries become more mobile. Imagine a world where you no longer pay a currency conversion fee or foreign transaction fee. The idea is that someone fleeing their home country can take their wealth on their phone and re-establish themselves in another country without the need for an extensive banking system, which some countries do not have. Understanding how blockchain can create borderless financial systems is exciting but there is also an opportunity to teach students about how this can be used to fund nefarious operations. You can also discuss the truths and myths about how cryptomining and the environment are related.
- As art and music teachers, you can explore how digital art can be created and minted on the blockchain. This opens up a new avenue for creators by utilizing technology to create, distribute, and fund art. With it, you can have conversations about art’s value and discussions about intellectual property and theft. NFTs (non-fungible tokens) give musicians the potential to provide enhanced media to supporters and fans. Putting items into NFTs with a clear transaction history back to the creator could overcome this counterfeiting problem seen in music, art, and collectibles.
You can’t avoid it.
If you take a look at PWC’s 8 essential technologies, you see topics such as AR/VR, drones, and 3d printing, which we all see in many of our independent schools. However, you will also see the blockchain on that list. The blockchain and cryptocurrencies are not going away. They are here to stay and will impact everyone from more efficient supply chains to a more global economy. It will also bring with it scams, rugpulls, and facilitating nefarious acts. However, this is no different than 3D printing that can print appendages for people with disabilities, but also bypass gun regulations by printing plastic guns. It’s no different than drone technology that can provide access to services and homes that were formerly a challenge to reach, but also be used to transport drugs. Just like any technological advance, you can be an agent of good or bad. So as educators we should be teaching our students how to navigate the good and the bad outcomes of new technologies. If we choose to shy away from it we will be putting our students at a disadvantage, as the blockchain technology is not a fad. I challenge educators and schools to find ways to introduce the topic, just like many of you have done with drones and 3D printing, and find ways that our students can be prepared to make decisions as they grow older. We want them to use the technology for the betterment of society and also discover ways to hold others accountable.