Blockchain in the classroom: More than just NFTs, crypto scams

By Rebecca Oriza, Staff Writer

What is blockchain? Some students were unable to answer, while others like Bella Mensing, sophomore in LAS, said they specifically know of memes that mention NFTs or cryptocurrency.

“All I know is they made NFT’s for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and I know about one specific NFT called Brick 100,” Mensing said. “That’s it.”

But for students in finance and technology-related fields, there is a growing demand for blockchain technology from the industry. So when Matt Schawel, a Business alum, tried to find a course that focused on blockchain during his last semester, he was surprised when he ran into Professor Vishal Sachdev, who was in the process of creating one.

Ki Yun Lee, a graduate student studying mechanical engineering, also shared an interest in blockchain. He joined the team last year, alongside then Gies seniors Matt Schawel and Nico Zhu. The course was first offered to graduate students in the summer, where Lee got to be the course assistant.

“I was lucky enough to build the curriculum with him from scratch,” Lee said. “I collected reading materials, made quizzes and most importantly, designed about 20 blockchain analytics projects on my own.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Sachdev is a faculty member of the information systems area in the College of Business, the director of the master’s in Business Analytics and runs the Illinois Maker Lab. This coming spring, a revised course will be available to undergraduates.

Some of the exercises in the course require them to actually Mint an NFT,” Sachdev explained. “They take a quiz and they get an NFT which is recorded on the blockchain. I think I had 42 students. So for that kind of a new topic, it went pretty well. People were quite happy with it, and a couple people got jobs as a result of that.”

Sachdev noted that there is much progress for more blockchain material to be implemented in academia to meet industry demand.

“Academia is always a little slower than the broader market in bringing stuff,” Sachdev explained. “But there is a lot of unmet demand. Now people are saying we need people who understand people and processes, rather than just technology. I think that that’s where the business (students) shine; getting stuff implemented, into the hands of users and making sure it’s the right interface.”

Schawel said there are issues with this space relating to the many misconceptions about blockchain and its association with cryptocurrency.

“You say crypto, and people think it’s a scam,” Schawel said. “They’ve heard of people making millions and losing millions. But what people don’t understand is that crypto is just one-use case of blockchains. And of course, it’s the most popular because you can make money with it.”

Lee echoed this sentiment, claiming that there is a bias in the media. While people think of it as an asset or an investment, it is a technology meant to resolve technological issues for efficiency. Lee used the internet as an analogy.

“Many people think the internet is complete, but there is an issue of double spending,” Lee said. “For example, I send an image to someone, the receiver has the image, but you as a sender also have the image. So, the images are duplicable. In 2008, the Bitcoin white paper came out, and it’s only about a solution to double spending. It does not talk about (profit) at all.”

Sachdev said there is more bad reputation in the media due to the current crypto winter, which he said is not necessarily a bad thing.

“There was a lot of hype, so there was an inevitable crash — what we call crypto winter,” Sachdev said. “Probably healthy for the ecosystem in the long run because it removes the business models which are not sustainable. Some of them were frauds, some were just badly designed.”

Sachdev also clarified that regulation does not counter decentralization — the essence of blockchain.

“Regulation happens when people consolidate power and are not responsible,” Sachdev said. “If a protocol is sufficiently decentralized, it doesn’t have to worry about regulation. You will get more of the bigger players using the technology at the back end, which would mean more people would benefit from lower costs. They don’t even need to know there is a blockchain behind the wheels — they shouldn’t care.” 

The team encourages students interested in the space to look beyond academia, such as getting involved with the Disruption Lab and other related campus RSOs.


[email protected]