New online course will make blockchain so clear ‘you can explain it to your grandma’

UC Berkeley’s new online “Blockchain Fundamentals” course goes live on July 8. A second course will open to the public in September. (Courtesy edX)

A popular UC Berkeley course on blockchain — the complex, bewildering technology that underpins things like bitcoin — will soon be a public online course accessible to anyone across the world eager to learn about the decentralized bookkeeping method that many believe could be the future of the digital economy.

[Read more: Berkeley offers its fastest-growing course – data science – online, for free]

The course, offered through edX, will be a reformatted online version of Berkeley’s popular “Blockchain Fundamentals” DeCal course, a class designed and led by students.

Last semester, more than 300 students competed for 100 spaces in the course, which is taught by two members of the Blockchain at Berkeley student group. Starting next month, the six-week course “Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies” will be available online for free. A second course on “Blockchain Technology” will go live in September. For a $180 fee, both courses will offer a professional certificate to graduates.

A sample course slide.

A sample course slide

“Blockchain sounds like a very niche technology, and it doesn’t sound relevant, but if you take the time to understand it, you can see it will soon relate to everything,” said Gloria Wang, 21, a senior majoring in environmental economics who is an instructor of the online course.

Some people have compared blockchain in 2018 to a web browser in 1994: It is a technology with little utility, but fantastic potential. Blockchain, its proponents say, could eventually be used to securely swap housing deeds, or monitor the pharmaceutical supply chain. But for all the potential,  the field has also attracted blockchain entrepreneurs who are hucksters out to make a buck on gullible investors.

Enter the “Blockchain Fundamentals” course, which seeks to give students with no background in computer science a firm understanding of how blockchain and the things that depend on it, like bitcoin, work. Units include “Blockchain History: From the Cypherpunk Movement to JPMorgan Chase” and “Bitcoin In Real Life: Wallets, Mining and More.”

“We explain blockchain simply enough where you can explain it to your grandma,” said Rustie Lin, 20, a junior computer science major who also is a course instructor.

Two students, Rustie Lin and Gloria Wang, helped develop and taught the DeCal course. Here they pose in front a green-screen they used for the class.

Both Lin and Wang were drawn to the potential of blockchain, using their spare time to understand all they could about how it works. They both become members of the prestigious Blockchain at Berkeley club, a group of entrepreneurial students who understood the potential of blockchain before computer science professors could catch up and offer introductory courses. The club now consults for Fortune 500 companies and is a hub for Bay Area’s blockchain community. Their DeCal course, taught by a team of students and lecturers, is the starting point for anyone on UC Berkeley’s campus interested in learning more about blockchain.

“There has been a long tradition of empowering our undergraduate students to put together courses like this,” said Armando Fox, a professor of computer science who helps Berkeley put popular courses online. “We see this as a feature. Some of Berkeley’s best assets are its students, and we want to put them front and center.”

For all his knowledge of internet systems and machine learning, Fox said he has much to learn from Lin and Wang.

“I’m going to sign up,” he said. “As an educated member of the general public, I owe it to (myself to) learn about this topic.”

Contact Will Kane at