University of Jamestown offers cryptocurrency and blockchain class

Bear said he signed up for a cryptocurrency and blockchain course after he found out the University of Jamestown was offering the class this fall.

“It is interesting. It is a unique class because the ecosystem is always changing with cryptocurrency,” said Bear, a junior majoring in management information systems.

University of Jamestown offered a cryptocurrency and blockchain course as a special topics class this fall. There are 15 students in the class with most being computer science and information technology majors.

“Fifteen for a starting class where there was a short three-sentence course description and that’s all the students knew about it,” said Jakob Barnard, assistant professor in the computer science and technology department who is teaching the class. “I thought it was pretty promising. It means there is interest in the topic.”

The cryptocurrency and blockchain course is a special-topics class, which is a mechanism that the university uses to try new things and see how they work, said Chris Redfearn, associate provost and dean of the undergraduate college at UJ.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain are subjects that are generating a lot of interest among students and the general public, he said.

“I’m excited that one of our faculty members has taken this on as a course to help our students to understand this new and emerging technology,” he said.

Barnard said having “cryptocurrency” and “blockchain” in the course name was important because the class is not just about cryptocurrency.

“It’s blockchain through the lens of cryptocurrency,” he said.

Cryptocurrency is a type of digital money that can be used for payments or held as an investment similar to the stock market. Cryptocurrency is not a government currency and doesn’t have a central bank, interest rates or a long history of exchange rates against other currencies.

Blockchain is decentralized and consists of records called blocks that record transactions across many computers.

Blockchain is an unchangeable record and records getting packaged together, Barnard said.

“We package records together and then we link it to the previous package, which links to the previous package,” he said. “That makes our chain, and that’s where the term blockchain comes from. Our package is called a block.”

Mining is when complex mathematical problems double check that block, Barnard said.

“When you own some cryptocurrency, you own a little key card to a tiny chunk of that block and everybody has checked it to agree,” he said. “Nobody owns that little chunk but you.”

Content for the class

Blockchain is a new technology so it doesn’t have any curricular guidance for teaching it, Barnard said. He said the Association for Computing Machinery – an educational and scientific computing society – just updated its guidance and mentions that blockchain exists as an emerging technology.

Barnard said he wants students to figure out how cryptocurrency and blockchain could apply to them and to carry that information forward to be prepared for their careers.

Barnard said the class has discussions on why cryptocurrency has value. He said the volatility of cryptocurrency prices helps drive some of the discussions in class.

He asks questions to students about cryptocurrency laws and regulations, the fluctuation in cryptocurrency prices, if it is financially worth it to mine cryptocurrency and the use of electricity to mine cryptocurrency. Then he gets students to do their own research so they can have discussions during class.

“How will this impact you is kind of the big question we are trying to get the students to answer for themselves,” he said. “How does that impact things you might have learned down in the business department? How does exploring cryptocurrency, the news, the hype, right now if you had to do a social media campaign on it, how would that impact things?”

Barnard said the university has been supportive and helpful in getting the class started. He said the university granted him a budget to get equipment for the class.

Cryptocurrency mining machine

Redfearn said the class gives students an opportunity to learn about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology in a hands-on way.

“It really is the best kind of learning in which students are applying the learning they get in a classroom in a real-world situation,” he said. “The fact that professor Barnard has developed a cryptocurrency rig and is having the students work actively with the machine, I think it is going to help them learn more about it in a concrete way.”

Barnard built a cryptocurrency mining machine that has six graphic cards and runs a software program called NiceHash that picks which cryptocurrency is the most profitable to mine.

Barnard said the NiceHash software has a little bit of an overhead cost to use but he does not have to worry about managing the mining machine. NiceHash has an app that can be downloaded on a cellphone, and Barnard can make sure the mining machine is running 24/7.

“The scale in which our machine is operating will allow students to see how it works and what some of the issues and challenges are related to mining and computing power and everything that goes into it,” Redfearn said. “I think it is a perfect machine for students to learn on.”

Barnard said he will have about six months worth of cryptocurrency mining data for class discussions.

“We have data that we generated with our stuff on campus,” he said. “We are not just grabbing magical numbers from the internet.”

Working with Applied Blockchain Inc.

Barnard said he has been working with Applied Blockchain Inc. on possible partnerships with the class.

Applied Blockchain delivers cryptocurrency mining and infrastructure solutions to its customers, according to its website. The company is building a cryptocurrency hosting facility that will be located about 7 miles north of Jamestown.

Applied Blockchain has engineers and other experts who are knowledgeable about cryptocurrency and blockchain, Barnard said. He said it will be an excellent opportunity for him and students to learn from experts how they manage software and work with blockchain applications.

“I can talk about small-scale run mining rigs,” he said. “Well, alright can your folks with our technology nowadays dial in do a Zoom call with us and explain to our students what it means to scale from six graphic cards to a massive facility and what technology is involved with that.”

Redfearn said the conversations about potential partnerships with Applied Blockchain are in the preliminary stages and he is pleased that the company reached out to the university but it is too early to speculate what that may look like.

“Those conversations will continue to develop over time,” he said. “We are interested in seeing what the possibilities are and having our students do some work there.”