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Bitcoin & Blockchain: The Future of Money & Business

These reflections are from Week 1 of the above course that I am facilitating as part of the GenWise Summer School (Apr-May 2019), at the idyllic Ecumenical Christian Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore. Students in my classroom have completed grades 8/9 in 2019.

There are three important building blocks needed in the understanding of blockchain technology:

  • How the internet works

  • How cryptography (the study of codes) is used to provide security in online systems

  • Economics in general, and an understanding of money in particular

In week 1, we covered the first two of these, through some theory, and a lot of activities and exercises. For example, to get an appreciation of how the internet works, the students played a game in which they had to pass messages to one another on chits of paper, one letter at a time, and the chits had to be passed through a chain of intermediate people. This game was made increasingly difficult over time, as the intermediaries started delivering the chits of paper out-of-order, or just throwing away some chits, and other such obstacles. By coming up with solutions to these problems, the students experienced a very intuitive understanding of the strengths of the internet (reliability of the whole system, in spite of unreliable components) as well as the weaknesses (the various ways to break it, and also security issues).

They understood how the internet is neither owned by any one entity nor is any aspect of it controlled by any one entity. They understood how the whole world is connected together, and how typical websites/apps like Gmail and Wikipedia work. They got an overview of the different kinds of security issues on the internet, including phishing, snooping, malware, keyloggers, and other exploits. We also covered money on the internet, or digital banking, the systems and processes used, and their strengths and weaknesses. By the middle of the week, we started with blockchain technology by taking an example of how land records are currently managed, the various problems that need to be solved to prevent fraud, and how those are currently solved. We then tried to come up with an online solution for this, and began thinking of how to solve the problems of preventing fraud, through the use of passwords, digital signatures, and other cryptographic algorithms. We went through a series of possible frauds, and digital solutions to prevent those, and by the time we were done with implementing all the solutions, we found that our system was storing the land records and related transactions as a chain of blocks: giving us a blockchain!!

All of this is a lot of information for students to remember, and it is easy to get overwhelmed. To help the students retain the information without stress or excessive (boring!) revisions, we taught them a system to improve retention of learning - a spaced repetition system (SRS). We are using an SRS memory app called Anki. At the end of each day, students spend some time thinking of the important things they've learnt and adding them to Anki, and at the beginning of each day, the app shows them (only) those bits of information that they're likely to forget. Using this system, the students are able to retain all the necessary information needed to be able to keep pace with this complex topic. (Our hope is that even after this course is over, the students will continue using Anki in their day-to-day like to learn/retain/remember other things.)

Watch this space for updates after Week 2, and Week 3 (End of the course!)