Oxford Faculty are Building the World’s First Blockchain-Based University 2 93

The academic hive is abuzz with blockchain activity. Students looking to formally study blockchain technology can now do so at a number of prestigious universities, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, Duke, Georgetown and MIT. The blockchain bug has even made its way into the ivy league at Cornell and Princeton Universities.

“The courses are often jam-packed, and most have waiting lists,” CNBC says of blockchain classes at Berkeley, which also has a student club devoted to the block. The club is so popular it turns away 96 percent of applicants, according to CNBC. Most students, they say, are more motivated to improve the world than they are to make tons of money.

Across the pond, faculty from Oxford are going beyond just offering classes and developing what they hope will be the world’s first decentralized, borderless, blockchain-based university, called Woolf University.

The Borderless Blockchain University

Woolf University’s vision is a school where students can ‘show up’ to a class by checking in on the app. The app executes smart contracts that track the student’s academic history and financial aid, automatically pay the professor, and bypass innumerable bureaucratic hurdles usually relegated to lengthy paperwork processes.

For about half the cost of regular tuition, a student in Brooklyn could take a class in Yoruba from a professor in Nigeria and earn an EU degree.

‘The World’s First University ICO’

Woolf University’s founder Joshua Broggi, who also serves on Oxford’s Faculty of Philosophy, has just announced what he’s calling “the world’s first ‘university ICO’.”

“Woolf will use a blockchain to enforce regulatory compliance, eliminate bureaucratic processes, and manage the custodianship of sensitive financial and personal data,” the announcement says.

“Our ultimate aim is for this to be a driver of job opportunities and security for academics, as well as a low-cost alternative for students,” Broggi told Forbes.

Private sale of tokens is open now, and crowd sale will be August 30th through October 10th. Token sales are not available to citizens of China, the United States, or Iran.

Stanford is Taking Blockchain in a Different Direction

Oxford isn’t the only place expanding their blockchain vision beyond 202 classes.

Last month, Stanford announced their Center for Blockchain Research (CBR), which endeavors to develop new blockchain based technologies at one of the world’s top research institutions.

Led by professors Dan Boneh and David Mazières, the center’s first five years of research are backed through partnerships with some of crypto’s big names: the Ethereum Foundation, Protocol Labs, the Interchain Foundation, OmiseGO, DFINITY Stiftung, and PolyChain Capital.

The focus of the CBR will be blockchain as it relates to computer engineering, and its potential impacts on global business. “This is a fascinating area of research with deep scientific questions,” said Boneh. “Once you get into the details you quickly realize that this area will generate many PhD theses across all of computer science and beyond.”

A Global Watershed

Last fall the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts announced that they now accept tuition payments in Bitcoin. In April, the world’s first masters degree in cryptofinance was launched in Brazil. Universities in Moscow, Copenhagen, Cambridge and Cumbria are also researching blockchain’s now and future uses.

These developments, when taken together, could indicate a global watershed moment in the marriage of academia and blockchain tech.

Blockchain and Academia are Transforming Each Other

With the global academic world switching on to blockchain’s potential, and with projects like the CBR and Woolf University taking shape, the world of academia could be at a transformative threshold. Woolf students could conceivably find themselves learning about the blockchain through a blockchain supported infrastructure, while Stanford grads could be taking what they learn in blockchain courses and applying it to doctoral research in the CDR.

We can expect this to transform academia. It’ll transform the blockchain, too.

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A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation, Brian grew up in the Silicon valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. He's lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and now writes from the Pacific Northwest.

2 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I am on the core leadership of Woolf. It is important to make clear for the readers that the Woolf project was designed independently from the University of Oxford, although several of its members are from that university.

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Woz’s Technological Optimism Suggests Promise for Bitcoin, Blockchain 2 3519

The earliest Macintosh PowerBook was chunky and dark gray. It featured a built in trackball, where the touchpad is on today’s Macbook, and little rotating peg legs to elevate the keyboard at an ergonomic tilt. The screen was black and white. You could open it on your desk at school, and tuck it into its special carrying case to sling it over your shoulder when Mom came to pick you up.

Going to school with Steve Wozniak’s kids in Los Gatos, California, meant having special access to cutting edge technology, like the Macintosh PowerBook in 1992. Along with five other students from our small school in the Santa Cruz mountains, I went to after school classes at Woz’s office to learn about Apple computers and emerging technology.

The first day, Woz taught us to dismantle and reassemble a desktop Macintosh, showing us all the pieces and what they did, with diagrams on the whiteboard. We learned the difference between random access memory (RAM) and the storage space on a hard disk, between a hard disk and a floppy disk. We learned how to navigate the innovative GUI that used windows (while PCs were still using DOS) to access the Apple utilities and adjust the settings for peak performance.

A great advocate for the intelligence and capacity of children, Woz challenged us with sophisticated knowledge and trusted us with expensive equipment, eager to see what creative uses we would put them to. He showed us the first version of Adobe Photoshop, a new technology that shook the public into doubting the integrity of photographs. Along with it, we had early model digital cameras called Canon XapShots, which used tiny floppy disks to store around 50 pictures at a time. The day he brought in America Online version 1.0, we were ecstatic that we could chat with each other from different rooms.

Woz was childlike himself, especially in his enthusiasm for developing technology. When laser pens were new, you could always find one clipped to the collar of his Hard Rock Cafe tshirt. He seemed to like them more for playing tricks on people than for any practical purpose.

Me (in the awesome blue sweatshirt) with Woz at his office in the early 90s. Photo courtesy of Gretchen King.

Early Techs Championed by Woz Became Familiar Names

Most of the technologies Woz championed have evolved. Some went big. As dial up AOL gave way to internet browsers like Netscape, I remember sitting in our middle school’s Wozniak Library Media Center learning how to use a world wide web page called Yahoo!, the novelty of which I put to work looking up David Letterman’s recent Top 10 lists.

America Online set the original chatroom model, complete with primitive emojis. It grew so big that in 2000, the year we kids were graduating high school, it bought Time Warner for $165 billion and became AOL Time Warner, then the world’s biggest media conglomerate. Now, estranged from Time and Warner after a decade and a half of new mergers, AOL is part of the Verizon subsidiary Oath, which also owns Yahoo! and, believe it or not, Netscape, which is still around.

The success of Photoshop, of course, positioned Adobe to set industry standards, now untouchable as king of the Silicon Valley’s creativeware. Macintosh PowerBooks evolved into Macbooks. Digital photography sure became a thing. And there are exceptions, too. Those laser pens, well, occasionally you still see someone using one to disrupt their cat.

Woz on Bitcoin

Wozniak hasn’t taken his finger off the pulse of emerging tech. Still full of wonder for the promise and possibility of technological advances, he’s been outward about his enthusiasm for Bitcoin, calling it “pure digital gold,” and placing his faith ardently in its mathematical integrity.

“I believe so strongly in mathematics and purity and science as defining the world,” he told CNBC in June.

“Bitcoin is mathematically defined. There’s a certain quantity of Bitcoin,” he said, “and it’s pure. There’s no human running it. There’s no company running it, and it’s just going and going, and growing and growing, and surviving! That, to me, says something that is about—something that is natural. And nature is more important than all our human conventions.”

His journey with Bitcoin is well documented. He tried to buy some around $70, ended up not getting any until they hit $700. Then he lost a few to fraud, and when prices soared “way up in the sky,” he said he “got scared, and sold everything but one Bitcoin.”

Woz stresses that he isn’t an investor. Still a man who loves laughter, he puts a premium on happiness, not wealth, and only holds his single Bitcoin for the sake of experimentation. “Part of my happiness is not to have worries, so I sold it all — just got rid of it — except just enough to still experiment with,” he told CNBC last year.

He said he agrees with Twitter founder and Square CEO Jack Dorsey, that Bitcoin could be the first global currency. At New York’s Consensus, a blockchain conference last May, Dorsey said “the internet is going to have a native currency so let’s not wait for it to happen, let’s help it happen… I don’t know if it will be Bitcoin but I hope it will be.”

Woz responded: “I buy into what Jack Dorsey says, not that I necessarily believe it’s going to happen, but because I want it to be that way.”

By contrast, Woz has called federal fiat currency “kind of phony.”

…And on Blockchain

But Bitcoin isn’t blockchain. It’s just the first and most well known use of blockchain technology. Last month at New York’s NEX technology conference, Woz called blockchain a bubble, similar to the dotcom hype bubble of the early aughts. “It was a bubble, and I feel that way about blockchain,” he said on stage.

“Blockchain in all forms is so popular and being studied by so many people,” he previously said in June’s CNBC interview. “It may be long term. I do see it, as you said, as a bubble… There’s a huge amount of interest in it right now, but things aren’t going to change that rapidly. That’s what the internet bubble was about.”

When asked how long he expects it to take for blockchain to gain widespread traction, he referred to the lag between the dotcom bubble and today, when we’ve finally realized many of the dotcom era dreams: “I’m going to give it 10-15 years.”

Part of the reason for this is human adjustment to new technology. “People have to have their mindset change,” he said. “Culture and tradition, and status quo and the way things are doesn’t change that rapidly, instantly, when it’s that huge.”

His faith in blockchain appears to be mixed. But in a seeming contradiction, Woz has suggested Ethereum could be the next Apple. “Ethereum interests me because it can do things and because it’s a platform,” he said at a May tech conference in Vienna.

Woz’s view of Bitcoin as solid gold but blockchain as a bubble is the inverse of that held by Jack Ma, chairman of China’s Alibaba and its fintech affiliate Ant Financial. Last month Ma said that the “technology itself isn’t the bubble, but Bitcoin likely is.”

Bubble or No, the Future Still Seems to be Blockchain

Which way is it? Is Bitcoin the bubble while blockchain is solid, as Jack Ma says, or the other way around, as Woz indicates?

Woz’s hope for Bitcoin as the pure-form currency of the future could prove misplaced if demand for it suddenly falls off. Blockchain, meanwhile, has myriad potential uses in finance, logistics, travel, even the art world. Developers and entrepreneurs are testing the mettle of this new technology with fervor and abandon. If we’ve learned from the dotcom bubble not to bet all our chips on untested technology, we can watch it develop steadily, as the internet did around the turn of the century. And even if the hype around blockchain is a bubble, Woz is probably right about the technology’s ultimate staying power.

To say the least, he’s seen a lot of technologies come and go. Sometimes, like the novelty laser pens of the late 1990s, new tech is just a fun experiment. But Woz’s enthusiasm for Bitcoin and measured interest in blockchain platforms like Ethereum is an indicator. A mathematically pure ledger system that governs transactions with transparency and automation holds emergent promise for the childlike optimist in any of us, much the way the Macintosh PowerBook did in 1992.

Blockchain-Based Lending Could Mean Trouble for Big Banks 0 2003

If there’s one industry that could use a good dose of disruption, it’s global finance. The established lending systems and their calcified pantheon of banking institutions are practically begging to be undermined with fresh, humanitarian technology.

To date, the banks have been iffy on acknowledging the legitimacy of the blockchain, trying to capitalize on it here, then publicly denouncing it as a fad there. Shortly after Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein called Bitcoin “a vehicle to perpetrate fraud,” Sachs hired a crypto trader as head of its digital assets.

Their waffling apprehension is no shocker. Blockchain is designed to cut out the middlemen in any given transaction. In the world of lending, that middleman is the bank. Seemingly all it would take is the public embrace of a blockchain-based lending system to set the classical era overlords quaking in their ivory towers. The public, meanwhile, stands to gain.

The Problem With Banks

It’s no news that the banking world is fraught with heinous ethical transgressions. When you bank with major institutions, you have no control over where your money goes. The bank lends it to whomever they choose. Wells Fargo, Citibank and Chase, to name only a few, contribute money to illegal and hazardous oil pipeline construction on First Nations’ sovereign land. Examples of problematic profiteering like this are plentiful.

And if it were up to the banks, you would never know. Because big banks are so entrenched in the global flow of money, exploited resources, and, consequently, political power, transparency is not an option. When it comes to giving and receiving loans, we need an alternative.

Blockchain Empowers Responsible Lending

Decentralized lending would theoretically solve these problems. You would lend your money directly, instead of giving it to a bank to lend out. You select ventures based on your own criteria, which are reflected in the smart contracts that govern the transaction. The whole process would be transparent and automated. At the end of a successful transaction, you reap the rewards directly in interest.

Conversely, borrowing would be available to everyone. And unlike banks, blockchain lending platforms could reward borrowers for completing successful loan payments as well. That’s what’s proposed by platforms like ELIX. They’re building a token-backed credit system to incentivize successful loan completion for both lenders and borrowers.

Trustworthy borrowers would gain tokens for timely payments and establish a credit reputation, readable in the ledger, to make themselves more attractive to future lenders. Lenders, in addition to seeing a return on their investment, would gain tokens as well. In classic blockchain form, everybody benefits.

Borderless Lending Would Promote Global Economic Equality

On a global scale, which ELIX is aiming for as a long term growth strategy, funds would be available to anyone, irrespective of their location or access to things like venture capital or amenable banking rates. This would promote equality of opportunity between the citizens of developing nations, and subjects of first world powers. Anyone looking to build a house or launch a startup, for example, could connect with financial backers directly. Backers would set their terms in smart contracts, and the whole process would be automated and tracked in the ledger. A rice farmer in Southeast Asia could get funding from a private citizen in Munich, a family member in California, and an investment firm in Sydney.

If this sounds like crowdfunding on a bigger scale, that’s no accident. In fact, ELIX includes a crowdfunding platform, as well. It improves on traditional crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo because it doesn’t need any kind of escrow or third party mediator to complete transactions.

Blockchain crowdfunding is one of those match-made-in-heaven ideas that has us all facepalming for not thinking of it first. But like most things blockchain, it’s still too new to see if it flies. Borderless crowdfunding and lending could revolutionize the way we finance, and everyone who’s not a bank stands to gain from it. But we have to try it first, and it has to strike a chord. Then there are the banks’ responses to consider.

It’s Not All Doom and Gloom for the Banks Who Will Play Ball

Adopting blockchain technology instead of competing with it could be the future of banking. Some banks, such as Spain’s Santander Group, are exploring the possibilities of using blockchain technology themselves. Santander recently introduced a blockchain-based service to facilitate money transfers across international European borders, for example.

According to the Financial Times, who interviewed a handful of bankers, consultants and analysts, the banking world has “a serious chance of being transformed by blockchain” in the following areas: clearings and settlements; payments; trade finance; identity; and syndicated loans. This assumes a bank’s willingness to adopt blockchain technology. It may be their only option for survival in the long run.

Whether blockchain lending topples the big banks or merely tills the soil of the financial world, the possibilities for the public make it hard to ignore. With its endemic transparency, automation and decentralization, blockchain looks like the ideal platform to support real world people looking to finance their dreams.

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