Teaching the Realities—and Possibilities—of Blockchain

Our students need to learn to apply this emerging technology to the problems of an ever-changing world.

Blockchain word cloud

IN OUR ROLES as researchers in blockchain, we are asked again and again why it is so important that business leaders understand blockchain technology. The answer is simple. Although it is often misunderstood, blockchain is quickly becoming an important economic and social reality with huge potential to disrupt not just our business models, but our daily lives.

We see this happening with the rise of cryptocurrencies, which now represent billions of U.S. dollars in market capitalization—with Bitcoin accounting for the largest share. Private companies and banks such as Bosch, Daimler, Commerzbank, Facebook, as well as other internet giants are placing blockchain technology at the epicenter of their corporate innovation. At the same time, countries such as China, Iran, the United States, France, Germany, and Liechtenstein are forging regulatory frameworks—such as the Liechtenstein Blockchain Act, a primary example of such regulation—in order to accelerate the adoption of the technology while minimizing risks for all involved parties.

These trends have significant economic, political, social, and technological implications. But if blockchain is so important, how can we teach it in business schools?

The two of us have spent a great deal of time exploring this question at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management in Germany. In the process, we have created a range of resources to help our students, faculty, and corporate partners cultivate at least a basic understanding of blockchain technology and its underlying mechanisms. We want to be sure all of them are prepared to manage its transformative impact.

AN EDUCATIONAL ECOSYSTEM

Right now, most people associate blockchain technology with the finance sector. That’s for good reason: Financial institutions are testing the technology to manage securities like debt instruments, stocks, funds, and more; and traditional currencies such as the euro and the U.S. dollar could soon run on blockchain-based systems. Once this occurs, various industries will be using these systems to support a wide range of financial transactions.

But blockchain has a large number of applications beyond finance, in areas such as voting systems, personal identity management, supply chain management, and smart contracts. Given that there are so many use cases of blockchain technology, it’s critical that future business leaders understand its technical basis and the code that makes it work.

We believe business programs can best help students cultivate this technical understanding by fostering what we call a blockchain education ecosystem:

Chart of blockchain educational ecosystem

As shown in the graphic above, business schools can explore three possibilities for integrating the topic of blockchain technology into the curriculum. They can teach it as a stand-alone module within an IT-related department. They can integrate it across their existing curricula and within applicable cases and course discussions, where they encourage students to ask, “If something works well, how can we make it work even better with blockchain technology?”

Finally, they can teach it within an autonomous or semiautonomous online offering. Given that many students who want to learn about blockchain are seeking online courses, this option is both essential and commercially worthwhile.

Whether they are teaching the topic in a stand-alone course or across the curriculum, business schools can integrate a range of activities into their curricula. Some activities are “low-hanging fruits, ” while others require a higher level of commitment:

Listening to podcasts and watching videos. Faculty can take advantage of the many podcasts and YouTube videos that convey basic knowledge about blockchain technology and its economic implications. These resources can help students better visualize blockchain transactions and understand basic nomenclature such as distributed ledger technology, or DLT, the underlying technological principle that allows multiple users to update and verify information, or hashes, the complex encrypted values that are the backbone of a blockchain network. This knowledge provides a basis for further, more intensive study.

Studying articles, white papers, cases, and websites. Students can gain insights by exploring the websites of trade journals and projects in the blockchain community. They also can read relevant articles on platforms such as Medium.com or in specialist forums. They should especially read research on two of the most important cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and Ether. This form of study is most effective if, after finishing their reading, students discuss what they have learned with peer groups.

EVERYONE WHOSE WORK WILL BE IMPACTED BY BLOCKCHAIN SHOULD BE ABLE TO PROGRAM SIMPLE SMART CONTRACTS.

Joining blockchain communities. We highly recommend that students network, online and offline, within the blockchain community. By engaging with those working in the sector, they will get the most firsthand knowledge of ongoing trends in this emerging field.

Programming smart contracts. Everyone whose work will be impacted by blockchain should understand and be able to program simple smart contracts. To understand smart contracts, students must at least try implementing a simple escrow process by writing a couple of lines of code in the program language Solidity. Understanding this process will be important not only for employees in the field of information systems, but also those in the fields of business, economics, and law.

Purchasing and transferring cryptocurrencies. Using a trading platform like coinbase, students can get hands-on experience making live blockchain transactions. In the process, they can gain insight into how blockchain-based transactions work and how user-friendly the technology is.

Of course, to support all of the activities that contribute to a robust blockchain education ecosystem, schools will need to hire faculty who understand the field. Ideally, these will be individuals who have held senior positions in blockchain startups, think tanks, or corporate departments—who have learned about the technology in everyday practice.

Unfortunately, these experts are highly sought after by employers, which makes them difficult to hire. When such specialists aren’t available, IT professors or other researchers can obtain the necessary knowledge and convey it to students. What’s important is that they have proven expertise in one or more facets of technology, preferably in practice-oriented environments.

OUR INTEGRATED APPROACH

At the Frankfurt School, we create such an ecosystem through our Frankfurt School Blockchain Center (FSBC). Through the FSBC, we develop and deliver a portfolio of resources to support blockchain education:

Readings. We maintain a list of our most recommended readings, for beginners as well as for those with advanced knowledge.  

Short courses. The FSBC currently offers nine short online courses, comprising 40 hours of video. Philipp Sandner, a co-author of this article, is one of eight lecturers who deliver courses that range from Blockchain Basics to a Blockchain Master Class, covering topics such as tokenization, smart contracts, and regulation.

Course participants also gain access to additional resources such as Industry Insights, which spotlight the perspectives of leaders in the field; Business Cases, which show real-world uses of the technology; and feedback sessions where students can discuss their own ideas in detail.

We offer a dashboard where participants can track their training activities. They also can interact with each other in a special community, as well as with experts who answer questions and share reading recommendations for further independent study.

A certificate program. Our in-person Certified Blockchain Expert program consists of eight weeklong modules. Students can book each of these modules individually, as their schedules allow. This certificate program targets business developers and IT managers seeking an in-depth understanding of blockchain and its underlying technology.

BY ACCELERATING AND SCALING UP BLOCKCHAIN EDUCATION, BUSINESS SCHOOLS ARE HELPING THE WORLD SET ITS COURSE FOR THE FUTURE.

Specialized electives. Our BSc or MSc students can take individual modules about blockchain technology as part of their specialization electives. Taught by professors and staff with extensive knowledge about blockchain technology, these courses can be combined with other IT-related topics such as artificial intelligence. Students can choose to write their final theses on topics related to blockchain, whether they take a technical view or focus on related economic or legal issues.

We work to integrate the FSBC’s activities into the everyday life of the university, in ways that offer faculty and students a high level of practical orientation via real-world cases and corporate partnerships. As our offerings continue to attract increased student interest, our goal is to make blockchain technology highly visible within the Frankfurt School and provide added value to students and the business community. 

A TRANSFORMATIVE SECTOR

As we have seen during the current pandemic, an increased capacity to deploy technology effectively will be key to the survival of every organization—and of society as a whole. By accelerating and scaling up blockchain education, business schools aren’t just preparing students for promising careers; they’re also helping the world set its course for the future.

In the process, our students won’t simply observe how their workplaces are being transformed, or even supplanted, by blockchain. They will be able to help guide that transformation. We are confident that they will stay busy for at least the next ten to 20 years, as they keep up with this dynamic and fast-growing sector.


Philipp Sandner heads the Frankfurt School Blockchain Center (FSBC) at the Frankfurt School of Finance & Management in Germany, and he has co-founded a management consultancy specializing in innovation and technology transfer.

Felix Bekemeier is a senior management consultant at Struktur Management Partner GmbH in Germany, where he helps companies effectively use digital technologies, with a focus on blockchain technology. He is currently pursuing his PhD in blockchain and decentralized finance at the University of Basel, Switzerland.