DeFi literacy: Universities embrace decentralized finance education

Decentralized finance, or DeFi, has become one of the fastest-growing sectors within the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Data shows that the total value locked (TVL) in all DeFi protocols is now around $130 billion. This is an important metric, as some analysts view TVL as one of the best ways to measure sentiment within the DeFi sector

While growth is apparent, many individuals may still wonder what DeFi is and how it can be applied today. Piers Ridyard, chief executive officer of Radix DLT — a secure decentralized network — stated that DeFi currently only caters to users with sufficient knowledge of the crypto market.

This in mind, it’s notable that a small number of universities are now offering DeFi-focused courses to help educate enrolled students and the general public on the basics of decentralized systems.

Where you can learn about DeFi

The University of California at Berkeley recently added a massively open online course, or MOOC, on decentralized finance to its Fall 2021 semester offering.

Dawn Song, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley and founder of blockchain platform Oasis Network, told Cointelegraph that she will help lead the DeFi course, alongside professors from Stanford and Imperial College London. According to Song, DeFi is becoming a fundamentally new way to build financial infrastructure, which is why it’s important for students everywhere to learn about the topic:

“About 300 computer science and finance students have signed up for the course, yet given the enormous interest of DeFi, we are also offering a MOOC version open to everyone globally. In total, over 1400 students have signed up for Berkeley’s DeFi course.”

Song mentioned that UC Berkeley previously offered a shorter, more experimental DeFi course during its Spring 2021 semester. She explained that due to the success and interest of that class, the university is now offering a full semester course covering the most important concepts in DeFi.

“The first segment of the course will cover an introduction to smart contacts and blockchain. The second segment is the core, where we will discuss different DeFi services including stablecoins, decentralized exchanges, decentralized lending and more,” Song said, adding further: “We will also cover oracles and privacy protocol in DeFi, which have proven to be a big topic lately.”

Song noted that the DeFi course will be entirely remote due to COVID-19 restrictions but that the curriculum will be the same for both UC Berkeley students and participants in the MOOC class. However, she mentioned that Berkeley students will conduct more course work, such as completing open-ended class projects and getting hands-on experience with developing new technologies within the DeFi space. Nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, will be issued as certificates to those who complete the class.

While UC Berkeley’s DeFi course may be one of the first of its kind, it’s notable that the MOOC is open to everyone across the world. “We have students from Europe, India, Asia and other regions outside of the U.S. taking the class,” said Song. Staying true to DeFi’s open, inclusive standards, she added that the goal of Berekely’s DeFi course is to bring together online participants with students enrolled at Berkeley to create a bigger community while improving the technology in the space.

Wyoming, one of the leading states for blockchain innovation, is also offering education on DeFi to students at the University of Wyoming. Ali Nejadmalayeri, a professor of finance at the University of Wyoming, told Cointelegraph that the university offers a blockchain minor and that various disciplines within the sector can be studied as courses.

For example, Nejadmalayeri teaches the Blockchain and Financial Services course, which is a full-semester online class that contains a portion on DeFi concepts:

“The first part of this course during the Spring semester focused on an introduction and review of the blockchain sector. The second module was about the digital money sphere, which included early experimentation of electronic money and central bank digital currencies. DeFi was the last portion, where we discussed platforms like Uniswap and Aave, along with various applications.”

According to Nejadmalayeri, anyone globally can take the Blockchain and Financial Services course. “If you are admitted as a non-traditional student then you can take the course,” he explained, adding that about 10 students took the class during the Spring semester. But given the interest in DeFi, he expects that number to grow moving forward, pointing out that individuals who don’t have a computer science or finance background are starting to find DeFi interesting:

“You’ve got the people who can code, but DeFi products must be catered to a certain clientele. Inside knowledge of those particular industries are important and will therefore be at the forefront of many of these classes.”

Although the United States ranks as the leading region for DeFi adoption according to data from crypto intelligence firm Chainalysis, European universities and schools are also offering DeFi courses to drive innovation.

For example, the University of Nicosia (UNIC) in Cyprus is offering a free DeFi MOOC beginning Oct. 11. George Giaglis, executive director of the Institute for the Future at UNIC, told Cointelegraph that although UNIC has offered a free introductory course on crypto and blockchain since 2013, DeFi has only been briefly covered. Yet given the success of the course — which has attracted over 45,000 students from various countries — UNIC is now offering a six-week-long online course dedicated entirely to DeFi.

Giaglis shared that the course curriculum will cover all DeFi fundamentals: “This includes the full DeFi application stack (decentralized exchanges, automated market making, lending and borrowing, liquidity mining, yield farming, decentralized insurance, synthetic assets, oracles, stablecoins), governance, tokenomics, DAOs.” While the course is entirely free, Giaglis noted that there is an optional cost for graduates who want to receive a UNIC-issued, blockchain-verifiable certificate of completion.

In addition to UNIC, European Tech School — which launched in July and features two blockchain programs — also discusses DeFi in depth. Victoria Gago, co-chief executive officer of European Tech School, told Cointelegraph that both the Blockchain Executive Program course the Certified Blockchain Expert Course contain a DeFi unit taught by Monica Singer, the South Africa lead at ConsenSys.

Unlike the other DeFi courses mentioned, Gago believes that these blockchain courses are small and focused — requiring students to pay a fee to join and also submit an application for acceptance. Gago elaborated:

“These are all live, online, cohort-based classes that begin on September 15. The classes will consist of 25 students each to ensure that students can interact with professors and their colleagues.”

According to Gago, what is commonly referred to as decentralized finance today will eventually become simply finance in the future, which is why she believes that teaching DeFi-focused courses is necessary: “We hope that the students taking these courses can build an impactful network by being surrounded by others who are there to learn and contribute to the blockchain sector.”

Challenges of teaching DeFi

While it’s notable that universities are beginning to offer DeFi courses, the fast-paced, developing nature of the cryptocurrency sector may create challenges for professors.

For instance, coming up with a syllabus that addresses the most relevant topics in DeFi may be problematic. Nejadmalayeri explained that during the Spring 2021 semester, he had to change everything in his Blockchain and Financial Services course as DeFi started to gain traction: “I had to take out many of my lectures and replace those with DeFi concepts.”

Echoing this concern, Giaglis noted that it can be challenging to develop a curriculum when there’s almost nothing to rely upon and when the sector is literally changing by the day: “Suffice to say that we do not consider the material finalized at any point: we are making and will continue to make changes to reflect new developments up until (and beyond) the date of each session.”

However, industry participants believe that DeFi courses are here to stay and will become an integral part of education moving forward. For instance, Alex Tapscott, author and instructor of Coursera’s Blockchain Revolution Specialization series of courses, told Cointelegraph that as the DeFi industry grows, the demand for educational content will also increase:

“In the early days of Bitcoin, schools like Cornell and Berkeley started offering courses around the topic. I wouldn’t be surprised if DeFi is part of the curriculum of every MBA program in the future. We are still very early.”

Adding to this, Kimberly Grauer, director of research at Chainalysis, told Cointelegraph that DeFi courses will be an ongoing trend at many universities, alongside the probable incorporation of other crypto-related courses: “In this sense, DeFi acts as the foundational building block for a wider array of classes.”

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