March 09--At DePaul University, cryptocurrency has worked its way into a class called Foundations of Finance.
Until recently, bitcoin came up only at the end of assistant professor Lamont Black's undergraduate and graduate finance classes. It was the last day of class, "the fun day," Black said, when they discussed the future of money and the possibilities of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. But things have changed.
Digital currency is now part of the classes' discussions surrounding the definition of money, a core concept in courses that cover money, banking and capital markets. "My students are starting the class thinking about it now," Black said.
Just as bitcoin has infiltrated conversations, headlines and financial exchanges, lessons on the digital currency and its underlying technology are springing up in university classrooms around Illinois. Some professors are altering lesson plans that before just grazed the subject, while some schools are adding entire bitcoin and blockchain classes to their course lists.
The price of bitcoin spiked at more than $19,000 late last year, sending many people on quests for fortune and a better understanding of the potential gold strike. The CBOE Futures Exchange in early December became the first traditional exchange to offer bitcoin futures trading, and contracts for the virtual currency debuted on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange shortly after.
Those milestones added legitimacy to bitcoin, and public interest has lingered even as its price has come down -- it was trading at about $9,300 Thursday. Though many experts remain trepidatious about bitcoin's long-term prospects, it's becoming clear that knowledge of cryptocurrency and blockchain, the technology underlying digital currencies, could be vital for students' future careers.
"It's not so much about being ahead; it's making sure that you're not going to be behind," said Sarit Markovich, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
Blockchain technology can be applied to many fields, and many parties -- from lone coders to financial institutions such as Northern Trust -- are finding new ways to use it.
Blockchain is a ledger of cryptocurrency transactions. It's decentralized and public, allowing people to keep track of the transactions, which are added to the blockchain in chronological order. The software is mostly used now to verify transactions, though it's possible to code and insert other documents into the blockchain.
Markovich began discussing bitcoin and blockchain in a class on innovation in financial markets she developed five years ago. With a doctorate in economics and a degree in computer sciences, Markovich is enchanted by financial technology. But back then, the students didn't share the fascination.
"It was hard for me to fill up the course," she said. "Students were interested in typical traditional banking. They were like, 'We don't want to hear about that. ... Tell us about mergers and acquisitions.'"
The switch flipped last year, and more than half the class wanted to know more about financial technology. She has students that have crafted independent studies around blockchain and cryptocurrency, and alumni have reached out.
Last week, Markovich got approval to build a coarse focused entirely on blockchain and cryptocurrency. The class would be for students in the Master of Business Administration program, and she hopes to offer it next school year.
Illinois Institute of Technology is set to offer its first class on blockchain this summer. The University of Illinois at Chicago doesn't offer any full-fledged classes on cryptocurrency yet, but professor Gib Bassett, head of the finance department, is planning a panel discussion on bitcoin in his Chicago Exchanges MBA course later this month.
It'll be the first time the course, which he has taught for a decade, will delve into bitcoin, and it was the students that sparked the change, Bassett said.
"They want to hear about bitcoin. Their parents have told them it's a tulip bubble," he said, referring to the tulip bulb market in 1600s Holland that bloomed dramatically, then crashed. "It's crazy, it's ridiculous, and their friends who invested three years ago are millionaires. ... There's clearly a generational component to this."
For Johny Roumanidakis, a student in Black's class at DePaul's Driehaus College of Business, the technology driving bitcoin was a much more interesting final paper topic than the CME futures contracts his group first considered writing about.
Roumanidakis, 24, is set to graduate soon with a master's in finance and plans to go work for his family's Wheeling-based manufacturing business. Understanding blockchain and bitcoin isn't a necessity quite yet, he said, but it was worth a look.
"We just wanted to see if we could wrap our heads around the technology and what drives the value behind it," he said Tuesday, just before class started. "It seems so controversial, and not many people understand it."
A row over, two of Roumanidakis' classmates were also getting their feet wet in a formal cryptocurrency education.
Dan Gordon, a fourth-year student in math and computer science, and Nick Ricciardella, a fifth-year student in accounting and finance, run two startups that deal with crowdfunding. They want to incorporate blockchain technology into their work, and the class is a good jumping off point, Ricciardella said.
Students are captivated by the opportunity blockchain presents for involvement, said Andrew Miller, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Miller is preparing to teach a class on smart contracts, or computer programs that run on top of cryptocurrency. Miller has taught classes on the topic before, but interest is surging. Miller was uncertain his class would fit into students' schedules, as it starts midsemester, but it filled up in hours. He increased capacity to 64 students, and it filled up again.
Participation in the traditional finance industry is barred by exams and certifications and typically can only be accessed through a financial institution, Miller said. Blockchain offers a lower barrier to entry. The community is active and strong, and computer science and engineering students are drawn to the opportunity to take part in it.
"A whole lot more seems possible," he said.
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