Blockchain bursts into student, academic life

By Matt Troher, Interim Features Editor

When talking about blockchain, Luke Clancy, junior in Engineering, shifted in his seat with the excitement of someone who thinks they’re onto the next big thing. 

And he just might be.

Blockchain is a concept favored by engineers, investment bankers, computer types and cryptographers alike — one that requires many definitions of subtopics to truly understand and is often spoken about with an evangelical-esque energetic fervor. Spurred by the creation of Illini Blockchain, a growing group of students are beginning to build a vibrant blockchain community at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professors are taking notice and are beginning to implement blockchain technology within their classrooms.

In short, a blockchain is a decentralized public ledger where records, called blocks, are linked together using cryptography. Each block contains cryptographically secure data regarding the block before it, along with a timestamp and transaction data, thus preventing users from modifying any records stored in the blockchain. While most people associate blockchain technology with cryptocurrency (blockchain was first popularized by the inventor of Bitcoin to serve as the cryptocurrency’s public transaction ledger), blockchain technology has a wide array of uses.

Clancy became interested in blockchain technology toward the beginning of 2021 by hearing the topic mentioned in countless podcasts with venture capitalists and op-eds about the future of the internet. Approaching a dense topic, Clancy found it difficult to pick up at first, but through conversations with friends, he became more familiar with blockchain.

At the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, Clancy and a few friends co-founded Illini Blockchain, an RSO dedicated to growing a student-led blockchain ecosystem at the University.

“We started out as an interest group, sitting around a whiteboard reading different articles and trying to figure out what they were saying,” Clancy said. “It just progressed from there.”

Illini Blockchain progressed at breakneck speed. Just before Thanksgiving break, the group held a community event centered around blockchain applications and featured the minting of an NFT, which Clancy said drew 85 attendees.

“We began promoting the event only like four days before, so to have a draw like that, it was crazy,” Clancy said. “We realized there’s a huge interest. That was a very pivotal moment for Illini Blockchain, where we were educating people, we were having community events, and we were developing.”

In April 2022, Illini Blockchain partnered with the Gies College of Business and the Grainger College of Engineering to hold the inaugural Illini Blockchain Summit, which brought academics and industry professionals together to discuss blockchain technology. Among the participants at the summit was Vitalk Buterin, a co-founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, the cryptocurrency with the second highest market capitalization (only behind Bitcoin).

The Blockchain Summit also served as a chance for the Gies College of Business to showcase iBlock, a private blockchain developed by Gies’ disruption lab to serve as an educational tool for business students to explore blockchain technology.

Jacob Kinsey, the director of Gies Consulting, spearheaded iBlock. Students can use iBlock by logging in through a University sign-in. Once signed in, students can get “Gies Coin,” which can be traded back and forth through iBlock. Although iBlock differs from public blockchains in that it requires users to be affiliated with the University, Kinsey said it can be used to explore and experiment with blockchain technology privately in a controlled environment.

“The project was done to get a better grasp and handle on the underlying technology surrounding blockchain and to create a sandbox where our students can explore blockchain technologies in a safe and easy way,” Kinsey said.

As blockchain technology, as well as other technological developments such as artificial intelligence and automation, is becoming increasingly integrated into the workplace, Kinsey believes that Gies should work to prepare students for a job market where emerging technologies are commonplace.

“If you look at it from the college of business point of view, if companies migrate to using blockchains for their digital ledger technologies, and you also have these trends of automation and AI which are already happening, you could see in the near future where maybe part, or all, accounting is being done by machines,” Kinsey said. “It’s definitely an existential threat, or at least a consideration, that an accounting school like Illinois should be paying attention to.”

Dr. Robert Brunner, associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at Gies College of Business, developed the idea for iBlock in the summer of 2021. 

Since blockchain technology was developed outside academia, many researchers were hesitant to approach the technology from an academic standpoint. Brunner said that, although this presented a challenge, Gies’ disruption lab was ready to take it on and see what they can learn from implementing a blockchain in a business school.

“The first Blockchain was the Bitcoin blockchain, and that was a pseudonymous person who created it,” Brunner said. “We don’t know if it’s a man or a woman or a group, where in the world they are, or whether or not they’re still alive, which makes it hard to say, ‘Yeah this came out of academia.’ There’s a lot of challenges there, but I’m a big believer in just doing and learning — you see what works and what doesn’t and you go from there.”

 

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