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Mar 7, 2022 2022-03 Accountancy Alumni Business Administration Faculty Finance Student

Gies builds iBlock, leading blockchain revolution in higher education

Gies College of Business is solidifying its place at the forefront of the blockchain revolution with the creation of its own blockchain, to be used for both teaching and research. The blockchain – called iBlock – is a product of the College’s Disruption Lab and grew out of the growing demand for a deep understanding of blockchain applications and the desire to disrupt the marketplace with new ones.

“We believe iBlock is the first blockchain created by a business school. It’s exactly the type of active learning project our Disruption Lab was set up to create,” said Robert Brunner, associate dean for innovation and chief disruption officer at Gies. “The Disruption Lab is a place where students and faculty can learn about and experiment with emerging technologies in a safe and controlled learning environment. iBlock creates hands-on opportunities for faculty and students to understand and help create the transparent, data-sharing infrastructure of tomorrow.”

Blockchain is a digital public ledger that records online transactions and is the core technology for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and non-fungible tokens (NFT), which can certify ownership of objects like art or music. While blockchain is still in its infancy, much like the internet of the 1980s, its applications are expected to change everything from buying a house to registering a business to presenting yourself in the Metaverse. It may also shift consumer data compensation and control from Meta (formerly Facebook) and Alphabet (formerly Google) to individuals.

The vision for iBlock is to allow Gies to easily embed blockchain/Web3 technology and applications into the classroom. Right now, faculty and students can sign up for their own account on the blockchain and view transactions through the iBlock website. Professors will be able to "check out" their own blockchains and use the Disruption Lab's library of decentralized apps or smart contracts so students can interact with it. Students can also contribute to the blockchain by writing their own smart contracts and user interfaces.

Brunner is the architect of iBlock, which is scalable and built on Ethereum, a well-regarded decentralized public platform. He has tapped Jake Kinsey, an advisor to the Disruption Lab, to lead the project. Kinsey is also the director of Illinois Business Consulting, the largest professionally managed, student-run consulting organization in the US.

“There are many tutorials available on how to run blockchains locally on a single computer, but there is relatively little documentation on how to make a scalable, production system,” said Kinsey, who last summer hired eight Disruption Lab students to spend 10 weeks building a blockchain base, which is called a node. Since then, more than a dozen students from across campus have worked on various aspects of the project. “Now we can easily build customized blockchain environments that can be used for any class.”

This means that within a few moments a researcher, professor, or student can have their own blockchain to simulate real-world situations in a safe and controlled learning environment without knowing how to code. iBlock will help Gies develop future business leaders who are well-versed in blockchain’s capabilities.

“This is an example of the bold moves were prepared to make to ensure our students get the best education possible,” said Kinsey. “We want to improve access for all to new technologies and complex ideas. We work to simplify complexity so more people can leverage the tools and possibilities of blockchain.”

Making blockchain safe and easy to use was the goal of MBA student Saroja Hanasoge, who is enrolled in Gies’ fully online iMBA program and was the blockchain systems architect on the project.

“It was a steep learning curve and very exhilarating,” said Hanasoge, who lives in Boston and has worked as a program manager at technology companies.

Last summer, she worked on iBlock’s proof of work (a way to secure the blockchain using compute power) and in the fall developed the blockchain’s proof of authority (allows for a single authority to secure the blockchain). She said she was given the creative freedom to build code without restrictions based on different components.

The result is a blockchain architecture that strips away the cumbersome configuration of parameters. With a university ID, users can log into the iBlock Explorer to claim their address on the Gies chain. There is a “faucet” to provide free Gies Coin and the ability to connect to a MetaMask wallet to trade coin and publish smart contracts to the blockchain.

“If we really want to understand how blockchain can benefit the world, let’s simplify the ability to use it,” said Hanasoge. “You shouldn’t have to be an engineer. Our clean approach empowers more people to use it regardless of their background.”

Kinsey said the next steps are to create a blockchain-as-a-service portal so anyone can create their own blockchain and decentralized applications with a click of a button. The Disruption Lab will also work on a skills wallet application where instructors can publish student certifications as NFTs, a marketplace where students can create and trade their own NFTs, and a Gies merchandise store where people can spend a “Merch Coin” to buy Gies apparel.

The Disruption Lab is already working with The Grainger College of Engineering to create smart contracts on iBlock and has engaged the College of Law on legal issues related to blockchain assets as securities. Because of its close ties with the Radiant cloud managed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, Gies can also provide a sandbox for corporate partners or other institutions to easily build blockchain solutions before deploying them into the marketplace.

“We are leading and modeling what’s next, and we’re being intentional about creating a strategy that will have a big impact. iBlock gives Gies College of Business and the University of Illinois the foundational tools to integrate blockchain principles into every level of higher education and research,” said Kinsey. “It’s everything we need to democratize blockchain education – scalable, interoperable, secure, and easy to use.”