Bitcoin first captured popular interest in blockchained cryptocurrencies, but Lee McKnight, associate professor at the iSchool, envisioned more far-reaching distributed ledger technology applications. He understood that students could benefit most from that widened perspective, too.
As a verified ledger of all transactions, the technology could create trusted, secure, and virtually impenetrable records, making it perhaps the most significant innovation since the dawn of the Internet, he recalls thinking.
“Malware and social engineering make it too easy to crash into a system that is not architected properly. We already know we can’t trust 50% of the devices out there and we can’t trust many applications. Some fraction of solving these complex issues is using blockchain for verification of trust,” he explains. “Going to a cloud operating model where blockchain is one of the back-office solutions used for trust automation won’t be the only thing, but it will be one of those key tools that makes sense for many new applications.”
McKnight began teaching Blockchain Management at the iSchool in 2017 as experimental pedagogy, even though blockchain platforms were still extremely unstable and decent textbooks were unavailable, he says. He improvised by teaching core technology concepts, conducting hands-on labs in Ethereum and Hyperledger, and guiding students to ideate new blockchained business applications for presentation at a Shark Tank-style final class session with high-level industry guest judges. One first-year student startup, Joshua Jackson’s “Promptous,” presented to angel investors after the course ended then partnered with IBM to leverage Hyperledger to simplify dental benefits.
While many universities now teach blockchain courses, most still heavily focus on cryptocurrencies. Uniquely, the iSchool’s courses always centered on managing blockchains for enterprise applications. The courses were ready to be regularized and entered into the curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students by the end of 2018, “making these the first-in-the-world blockchain management courses taught at any university anywhere,” McKnight adds. He and IBM Business Executive Phil Evangelista now teach the graduate and undergraduate courses, respectively.
Arthur Thomas, associate dean for academic affairs, notes that with the support of its Board of Advisors and corporate and community partners, the iSchool consistently offers students opportunities to quickly tool new learning experiences that involve direct, hands-on application of prototype concepts well before they become commonplace. “Courses in the areas of Blockchain Management, Cloud Architecture and Management, Leading Issues in Information Security, Financial Systems Architecture, Network Virtualization, Digital Forensics and others keep our students ahead of the curve,” he says.
Meanwhile, news of McKnight’s ideas on how blockchain could remedy unstable and insecure Internet and IoT connectivity ‘cloud to edge’ soon spread. He spent much of 2018 presenting around the world, at MIT, Boston, and Fordham Universities, the University of Alaska, at the U.S. Congress, UN-IGF 2018 at UNESCO in Paris, and VMware in Palo Alto, as well as the First Liberian Inter-Agency Task Force and Advisory Group Meeting, the Alliance for Science and Technology Research in America, and Smart Cities Connect Conferences.
McKnight continues his research for the “the Open Specifications Model v0.5 for Blockchaining IoT,” designed to create authenticity in Internet and Internet of Things applications by closing the gap between the usefulness of IoT and its insecurity by making data and devices safer and less easily manipulated. Several volumes of his research are on tap to be published by 2020.