Princeton Is Teaching a Free Online Course About Bitcoin

And yes, the world’s first-ever cryptocurrency textbook is part of it.

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Jan 23 2015, 9:11pm

​Things you will learn in the class: Bitcoins are not actually coins. Image: Shutterstock

​It's probably safe to bet that there are lots of people out there who use Bitcoin, but who don't really know how it works. And really, why would you? There are primers and forums and news stories out there, sure, but the underlying technology and mechanisms behind cryptocurrencies aren't exactly common knowledge yet. And that's why ​Princeton University is offering its Bitcoin and cryptocurrency course online, for free, to anyone.

​The class, taught by Princeton's Arvind Narayanan, Joseph Bonneau, Edward Felten, and the University of Maryland's Andrew Miller, will be a version of a very popular course taught last year by Narayanan and will consist of 11 video lectures, various homework questions and readings, and a full-fledged textbook.

Yep, a textbook. As part of this, Narayanan says he's working on the world's first Bitcoin textbook, and is in talks with a publisher to release it so that other colleges can use it.

We tell you that you have to eat your cryptographic vegetables

"At Princeton we've been doing research on Bitcoin for the last few years, and I remember, as an experienced computer scientist, that there was quite a bit of a learning curve," Narayanan told me. "Not only because the system is novel, but also because the information you need is spread out all over the web—in Wikis, forum posts, news stories, and, for some concepts, you have to go back to the original source code."

He says that there was no real way to learn about Bitcoin in a structured way, so he made one himself. And there are few metaphors or analogies used to dumb down the concepts. He says that doesn't do anyone any good.

"We tell you that you have to eat your cryptographic vegetables," he said. "That's an important part of this. So many people try to teach Bitcoin by analogy, but that approach doesn't work. It's an intricate technical system, and we have to get into those fundamentals."

The class he taught at Princeton last semester was overbooked, and extremely successful. His students wrote papers analyzing different Bitcoin alternatives (called altcoins) and used its block chain technology to imagine new technologies. Those projects will be available soon to view as supplemental course material.

The actual lecture schedule and topics of discussion for the free online class haven't been rolled out yet, but ​the first three chapters of the book are already available, and Narayanan said that he basically invented several new cryptocurrencies to explain certain aspects of the currency, which will build on each other until the intricacy of Bitcoin is fully explained later in the course. He compared it to teaching Tor.

"I think it's important to learn the concepts gradually. When something like Bitcoin or Tor is announced, it's presented to the world as a fully formed idea in a complex technical research paper," he said. "But that's not how the creators came upon that idea. Instead, there were a series of incremental steps, so you try to teach a system like Tor or Bitcoin as a complex system made up of individual units."

Narayanan joins a host of other professors around the country who have taught their classes to anyone who interested in taking them—​Stanford recently taught a class about Tor and the deep web (on the deep web, for good measure). He said the class certainly isn't targeted toward the complete newbie, but that anyone who knows a bit of computer science should be able to follow along.

"I think it might be good for someone who is enthusiastic about Bitcoin and wants to use it as a way to deepen their knowledge of computer science in general," he said. "That's the kind of audience we're targeting here."