The Accidental Australian Blockchain CoE

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After RMIT University in Melbourne set up its Blockchain Innovation Hub three years ago, the academics noticed an exciting development. The level of interest from students far outweighed theirs.

According to RMIT’s Professor Jason Potts, the Hub was created as a research center to look at the impact of blockchain technology on business. Such was the interest from students that RMIT is now offering standalone degrees, with the undergraduate Degree in Blockchain Enabled Business beginning in 2021.

This follows the integration of some blockchain modules into other business degrees and a series of highly popular short six to eight-week courses, which have attracted around 600 students.

“Every second Ph.D. in the business school now is around blockchain. So, there is huge interest from students wanting to learn about the technology. And that is when we realized there was an opportunity for a dedicated degree course and a master’s program,” says Potts.

“Younger people, it seems, have a much more innate understanding of blockchain and its possibilities, very much like when the internet was first taking off in the 1990s.”

Future entrepreneurs

Potts says that most of the students who approach the Hub and want to study blockchain don’t want to work in organizations. Instead, they want to start their own businesses.

This, he said, speaks to the fact that blockchain is still in its experimental phases. Younger people see it as a differentiating technology for startups.

“Blockchain is really only ten years old. A lot of the commercial applications have really only gone through Proof of Concept phase in the last three or four years, so we are at a really early point in what is going to happen with blockchain,” says Potts.

While some courses on blockchain deal with the technology’s technical and IT aspects, the RMIT courses — which also includes a graduate certificate —  are focused squarely on business.

Professor Stuart Thomas outlines the basics of the course: “We take in economics and essentially locate blockchain as an important piece of economic infrastructure, we look at ethical and legal aspects and some IT, along with crypto finance, accounting, management strategy and some IT around application development and smart contracts.

“It is all framed around the need to address the emerging job market. And half of the market for blockchain skills is in this area of business enablement rather than purely technical skills. Our graduates should be able to fit into the Government sector, banking, creative industries, and also into social enterprises, where there is quite a bit of interest in blockchain.”

Accelerated digitization

Professor Jason Potts says the COVID-19 disruptions have accelerated business digitization, and blockchain is no exception.

The technology, says Potts, is in the phase of finding “pain points” to fix, many of them around the multiple handling of documents.

Within the Hub, there was an interest in using blockchain in areas such as academic credentials and licensing and in creative industries around copyright and IP transfers to musicians and producers.

“Record keeping in situations where there are multiple parties present as opportunities, but that is just the beginning,” says Potts.

The tipping point, he says, will come when technologies such as AI and IoT are overlayed on blockchain. It then creates a technology stack that can enable other layers of automation.

“We think a lot of benefits won’t come until you see that layer,” says Potts, as the conversation goes into a discussion of the similarities with cloud technology.

Blockchain IaaS

Will there ultimately be blockchain providers with blockchain infrastructure as a service that any business or organization can use for their own bespoke solutions? We are some way away from that.

In the short term, says Potts, blockchain development requires a decisive role from the Government or large businesses such as banks, who have the power and scale to drive projects.

“The barriers aren’t on the technology side right now; they are on the business side because the solutions haven’t been put together,” says Potts.

“But my feeling is that while things might move slowly, slowly for a while, then change will come all at once, and blockchain will develop much faster than people think.”

When that happens, blockchain alumni from RMIT are likely to be at the forefront as the university, which plans to roll out the course to campuses in Vietnam and Singapore. It will become a regional center of excellence in studying this transformative technology.

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