USC Viterbi offers course on blockchain for first time

Professor Nitin Kalé is the instructor of the course on blockchain technology in the Viterbi School of Engineering. Photo by Wanting He | Daily Trojan

This past semester, USC introduced its first-ever course on blockchain, one of the technological databases behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Taught by Nitin Kalé, an associate professor of engineering practice at the Viterbi School of Engineering, the course aims to expose students to the processes of blockchain and spur discussion of its potential impact on society.

Bitcoin is an emerging form of digital currency created in 2008, according to IBM, and blockchain is the technological database that oversees Bitcoin transactions.

“I wanted to bring [blockchain] technology to students,” Kalé said. “[Blockchain technology] is where the industry is growing very rapidly. So companies, start-ups, people are trying to figure out how else to use blockchain to disrupt business, or some other industry.”

In its first run this semester, the course was filled to capacity, and Kalé said he had to keep increasing the class size during registration due to its popularity.

Other institutions like Stanford University, UC Berkeley and Princeton University have taught Bitcoin and cryptocurrency courses in their computer science departments for about two years, according to Kalé.

Kalé has been studying blockchain technology and Bitcoin for about two years and worked to create an opportunity for students to understand how the database works. He has pushed for a trial blockchain course to evaluate student interest and see if it will be implemented as a permanent offering.

“My near-term goal is in 2018, we will probably launch a specialization course by fall,” Kalé said. “Then by Fall 2019, if all goes well, I think we’ll have a minor in blockchain technology.”

In Viterbi’s Information Technology program, there are two types of programs: a minor, in which students are officially enrolled and required to take five or six courses, and a specialization, which only requires students to take three courses.

Kalé explained that although his first attempt to teach the course ran smoothly, he might have been too ambitious in his curriculum focus.

“It turned out I couldn’t cover everything that I’d wanted to, so I’m offering this course again in the spring semester,” Kalé said. “I’m hoping I’ll make the class more efficient, maybe work on the pacing some more, so we can get more topics into the class.”

Various students have expressed their interest in blockchain technology, both before and after taking Kalé’s course. Daniel Aghachi, a junior majoring in business administration, was inspired to start his own organization, called the Trojan Blockchain Society, based on his growing interest in the technology.

“I realized there [is] no central hub for blockchain on campus,” Aghachi said. “There were events scattered around, and there was no one place to go. So I wanted to build a community of people who share the same passion as I do.”

Both Kalé and Aghachi emphasized the importance of getting students and faculty excited about blockchain, and how monumental this technology has been.

Through a class activity, Kalé was able to send his students Bitcoin.

“In order to understand how blockchain works, you’ve got to understand every single step,” Aghachi said. “[Kalé] was so excited once we were able to get to the point where we understood how it all worked and put the pieces together, so he could send us each actually some Bitcoin.”