Universities should address demand for blockchain skills

Calls are mounting for African universities to keep pace with the world’s top 50 higher education institutions in offering more courses to harness the power of blockchain-based innovation, which could also support university administration.

In a recent report, Babu Paul, director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, suggested that higher education providers on the continent train more technology and science students in blockchain technology, as this was part of the fourth industrial revolution.

The African Blockchain Report 2018, a publication of the Central and Southern African internet provider Liquid Telecom, described blockchain as a distributed ledger technology that allowed digital information to be exchanged among parties but not altered or copied.

The Liquid Telecom report listed African companies that had already embraced blockchain technology and highlighted potential use cases and applications, as well as examined challenges for its adoption throughout the continent. It said blockchain presented an important platform for digital empowerment in Africa and could transform the way businesses shared information, tracked assets and delivered services.

“Pockets of blockchain innovation are springing up in innovation hubs across Africa, as the public and private sector seek effective new systems of record with trust embedded,” the report noted.

Little adoption of courses in Africa

However, despite a recent report by cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase and data startup Qriously – “The Rise of Crypto in Higher Education” – which found that “42% of the world’s top 50 universities offered at least one blockchain or crypto course”, John Karanja, founder of BitHub.Africa, told University World News by email that there was “little to no adoption” of blockchain courses by African higher education institutions.

Paul advised universities to keep pace, despite the challenges, and provide “the necessary resources and knowledge for students to be able to thrive in the space”. He said universities were best suited to training entrepreneurs and developers as they had the expertise to teach technologies that were becoming more multidisciplinary and multisectorial.

African blockchain education courses on offer included those at the African Blockchain Initiative, the Africa Blockchain University and the Blockchain Academy. The Rwanda-based Carnegie Mellon University Africa also offered a university course on blockchain technologies, according to one news story.

A 2018 report on blockchain, “EduCTX: A Blockchain-Based Higher Education Credit Platform”, noted the development of a prototype for a global blockchain-based higher education credit platform, EduCTX, which could become a globally trusted higher education credit and grading system.

The Liquid Telecom report said that Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa were leading the continent in blockchain experimentation, with the biggest uptake in the financial sector. Trials were also underway to apply the technology to other sectors, including health, social development, retail and agriculture.

Need for digital transformation

In an email interview with University World News, Paritosh Basu, a senior professor and chairperson of the MBA (Law) programme at the School of Business Management at NMIMS University in India, said: “The need for the digital transformation of operating activities must not be overemphasised in this era of Industry 4.0. Blockchain, with the simultaneous application of artificial intelligence [AI], as well as the Internet of Things [IoT], will help derive better benefits through digital transformation.”

“Academic administration, teaching and learning are no exception to this phenomenon,” added Basu, author of a recent report entitled “Blockchain Technology – A prismatic analysis”.

He said that blockchain would also be effective in the higher education sector, in preserving and administering academic records and library resources, viewing records and protecting intellectual property rights. He noted that its underlying principle was a trust protocol and the impact of blockchain on the education sector would affect “all ecosystems that rely on trust”.

Expanding further, Timothy Oriedo, a Kenya-based strategist in blockchain, told University World News that practical applications of blockchain in Africa’s higher education sector “could include sharing of intellectual property research, recognition and remuneration of royalties on academic writings, assessment and examination of learners and management and supervision of the delivery of academic programmes”.

Maintaining reputation and trust

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) also noted in a 2017 report, Blockchain Technology in Africa, that the technology could “enable anyone to be able to securely store badges, credits and qualifications which make educational data available to others. As education becomes more diversified, democratised, decentralised and disintermediated, we need to maintain reputation, trust in certification and proof of learning.”

The UNECA report added that “blockchain could provide a system – a massive open, online, secure database – that educational systems need”.

Despite this, challenges included “the lack of appreciation of most governments to set a guiding policy in place. Most commissions of higher education are challenged in approving curricula for learning,” Oriedo said.

BitHub.Africa founder Karanja noted that it was important for African universities to “keep abreast of blockchain technology advancements based on … foundational maths, economics, cryptography, computer science, electronics and electrical engineering, and sociology”. However, he added that blockchain technology was “costly and complicated to develop and maintain currently”.

Paul also pointed out that university administrations needed to adopt blockchain as well and would have to hire new staff with specific knowledge. With its wide-ranging applications that spanned cryptocurrencies, property exchanges, retail supply chain tracking, transportation of exports and ability to improve internal efficiencies, it was not a technology that academic institutions could afford to ignore, he said.

Institutions offering blockchain courses

While the Liquid Telecom report said the University of Johannesburg was rolling out a postgraduate course in financial engineering that would include aspects of blockchain, other South African higher education institutions were included in a list of those offering crypto and blockchain courses, including Vega and the Red and Yellow Creative School of Business.

In dealing with the challenges of adoption at African universities, Karaja called for partnerships to be established with national, regional and international incubators and hubs that were on the cutting edge of blockchain technology that integrated with AI and the IoT.

To encourage active participation, Basu said some blockchain codes were “available on an open-source basis”, which I have quoted in my June 2018 report, “Blockchain Technology – The power house for Industry 4.0 era”.

“Alternatively one can buy solutions from vendors. However, identifying the right vendor with the right solution at the right cost will be a task,” Basu added.

He suggested that African governments set up regulatory agencies to develop a common policy for the application of blockchain and that all IT students and staff at universities be trained in the new technology.

Oriedo also called for governmental task forces to set up policies: “Kenya has already established a taskforce that is ensuring most of the challenges facing blockchain technology are being addressed.”