On Campus: Professor Cesare Fracassi on University of Texas Austin’s Expanding Blockchain Initiative
On Campus is a new Ripple Insights series that highlights the institutions, people and research that make up Ripple’s University Blockchain Research Initiative (UBRI), launched earlier this year to promote greater understanding of blockchain, crypto and digital payments through deeper engagement with academia.
Institutions like McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin with its campus-based Blockchain Initiative and annual blockchain conference are at the heart of this UBRI effort. We sat down with Professor Cesare Fracassi, the director of this initiative at the University’s new Center for Analytics and Transformational Technologies, to learn more about the work underway at UT Austin and the impact of UBRI on the program.
Professor Fracassi’s ultimate goal is to leverage UBRI to accelerate what he sees as lagging understanding of blockchain in academia. By expanding its presence on the UT Austin campus and building an interdisciplinary approach to its study, he believes students will be best set up to advance blockchain innovation after graduation.
A Campus Ripe for Further Blockchain Exploration
Driven by a personal interest in the interplay between finance and technology in business applications, Professor Fracassi has long taught fintech courses at the University and was instrumental in creating the campus Blockchain Initiative.
In recent years, he has observed a growing interest amongst students in fintech, and especially blockchain, as evidenced by their eager participation in related coursework and the founding of a graduate blockchain society.
This unique combination of existing blockchain coursework, dynamic leadership and student engagement make UT Austin ripe for further blockchain exploration, and a perfect home for UBRI.
Separating Hype from Reality
At the Center and within his courses, Professor Fracassi touches on three main topics: machine learning and AI, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain. He pointed out that each of these technologies is at a different stage of development within industry, with blockchain being earliest in its adoption and in a proof-of-concept phase.
He believes the primary UBRI program outcomes at UT Austin should be to advance blockchain beyond this initial phase by helping students learn about the underlying technology and its potential applications in the real world — so they can better separate the hype from the reality. He says that as academics, they do not have businesses at stake and so can cast a more critical eye on the space.
An Interdisciplinary Approach to Blockchain
Professor Fracassi suggests that one reason blockchain is so important to the University is its interdisciplinary nature. He observed that academia is traditionally a highly specialized world where teams and students focus on one area of study.
By contrast, a subject like blockchain spans multiple topics such as science, engineering and law, while also having application in distinct industries such as finance, identity and healthcare. Its study allows the University to provide students with exposure to a variety of colleges within UT Austin.
The addition of funds through UBRI has allowed Professor Fracassi and the Center to expand the range of students taking this blockchain-related coursework. This fall, the university expanded course offerings to include MBA, graduate level business analytics and computer science, and undergrad students. He expects about 200 students enrolling in these classes in the spring semester.
This expansion is both exciting and challenging because the same material must be taught in very different ways depending on the students and their areas of study. The MBA, CompSci and undergrad courses cover much of the same ground, but each group has distinct needs and interests. For example, business students are more interested in the applications of blockchain, while computer science students are more focused on the technical coding elements.
Beyond just offering these new classes, UBRI funds will allow for a new fintech-focused track, the addition of more faculty to focus on the topic, and more professional development and subject matter expertise among existing faculty. All of this is geared to funding three UBRI program goals: support for research, support for teaching, and outreach to the community in Austin and Texas more broadly.
A Growing Hub for Research
UBRI will also allow Professor Fracassi to lead more university-wide research into blockchain. He is currently spearheading an effort to review proposals from students and faculty across campus that are interested in receiving funds for blockchain research projects. He is enthusiastic about UBRI because it allows UT Austin to jumpstart their program and to work in tandem with other universities in the UBRI program.
Ultimately, he hopes to have the Center operational and research projects funded within the next six months. By year two or three, he envisions having fully embedded blockchain into the University and its coursework as machine learning is now. He acknowledges that blockchain remains niche today, but his goal is to make it core to the University — in a way that reflects its reach and use in the real world.
To learn more about UBRI, please visit our UBRI website and look for monthly Insights posts in the On Campus series.