Learn how to build a blockchain from start to finish — free!

Web3 Foundation ran Web3MOOC: Web3 Foundation’s “Blockchain for Beginners” course live from April to August, 2020. This completely free course teaches blockchain from the very basics all the way up to building your own blockchain and is still available at mooc.web3.foundation. Before it started, we spoke to the course designer, Bill Laboon to find out more about it.

First, let’s hear a bit about you and how you became interested in blockchain.

I have been interested in technology ever since I received an Atari 8-bit computer for Christmas when I was 6 years old. I was a software engineer for about 15 years and then went back into academia for a while — I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s when I first found out about Bitcoin — and then later, about Ethereum and other blockchains — and got really interested in it from an academic point of view. I was an editor at Ledger, which is a journal of cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies. I taught a blockchain course at the University of Pittsburgh and worked with some students on developing Ethereum smart contracts. But as I became more and more interested in the technology, I found that I wanted to get back into industry, and so eventually I ended up here at Web3 Foundation where I’m the technical education lead.

How did you make that jump from academia in the States to working at Web3 Foundation in Switzerland?

One of the main reasons I came here was that I saw Gavin Wood’s talk on Substrate at the Web3 Summit 2018. During the course of the talk he showed how to build a blockchain from scratch. Since I was interested in a multi-chain world, a phrase that he used during that presentation really stuck with me: “the biggest bet against blockchain maximalism” — that there wasn’t just one blockchain that was good for everybody. I had been thinking about leaving academia for a little while and had actually just recently been in Switzerland for vacation, so when I found out that Web3 Foundation was based here it was a good time to convince my wife that Switzerland would be a good place to move. And then I saw that they were looking for a technical educator, which is in line with what I was already doing and my skillset, so I talked with them. I have been here now since March 2019.

What inspired you to write the course?

I wanted to teach blockchain from the very foundations all the way up to being able to produce distributed applications, blockchains and parachains. There are courses that you can take, especially at the university level, that focus on the theoretical side of cryptographics and mathematics, and there are courses that teach you how to use a particular blockchain technology, or write an application that will run on a network in a particular programming language. It’s rare to find something that goes from the very basics all the way up to what blockchain technology is doing today and how to make projects that use blockchain technology on your own.

What exactly is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a massive open online course, a course that is entirely taught online. It consists of lectures that are recorded by me, and several practical exercises so that you can learn more about actually programming a blockchain and understanding it from the first principles.

Why a MOOC?

I decided on a MOOC essentially for scalability reasons. I enjoy teaching classes and giving workshops, but that doesn’t give me a chance to reach more than a few people at a time. With a MOOC we can have a large number of people participate in the course, and we can scale it up. There’s no limit to the amount of people who can benefit from it.

What exactly does the course entail and who is it for?

It begins with the fundamentals — What is a blockchain? How is it stored? What are the different algorithms and protocols that are used in a blockchain? What’s the history of blockchain technology? It goes from absolute zero knowledge of blockchain or cryptography all the way to showing how to produce actual products on blockchain. See the syllabus.

It doesn’t assume any knowledge of the blockchain space or technology, although it is a rather technical course. While you don’t need to know the specifics of blockchain technology, we are going to assume that you have some basic programming knowledge and some technical expertise.

So, anyone with basic programming knowledge can start your MOOC and learn how to build their own blockchain as they go along?

Exactly. Someone that has some development experience but may not have heard of blockchain or may not know exactly how it works can start understanding what a blockchain is and what it’s good for, from a very deep and fundamental level. Once they’ve completed the course they’ll not only be ready to produce blockchain applications themselves, they will also understand what blockchains can be useful for, and when not to use them as well.

There are some other MOOCs on the market. What makes this one different?

As an instructor, I have a unique (or at least unusual) perspective in that I have an academic and teaching background, but I also work for Web3 Foundation, so I’m in the trenches helping to bring about Polkadot and other blockchain technology. I think this provides a good mixture of both understanding what is important in terms of the theory and fundamentals and what is important in terms of actually producing a blockchain product. Therefore, it’s not just a MOOC on “here’s how to produce a particular piece of software for a particular chain”. Conversely, it’s also not so deep into the math and theory that it doesn’t actually help you at all. It gives you a good mix of practical knowledge along with the particular aspects of theory that I have personally found useful in actually producing products for blockchains.

When does it start?

The first class will be released on April 8th at 5pm CET. Then an additional class will be released every Wednesday after that, for 20 weeks altogether. See syllabus.

If someone can’t make April 8th can they start later in the week or the following week?

Yes. There are no time limits. We want this to be as flexible as possible to make it easy for people to participate. You can start any time you want. Once all the videos and exercises are online, they’ll remain online. You can take this at your own speed and your own pace, no matter what time zone you are in or how much free time you have. We understand that life gets in the way. If it takes you three weeks to complete a project and move on to the next class, that’s perfectly fine, it won’t impact you at all. Or you can finish it up that night. Either way, you’ll still get the knowledge from it.

How much time would it take to complete each class?

This can vary a lot. If someone just wants to watch the videos to get a basic understanding of what blockchain is all about, it wouldn’t take much time at all — half an hour or 45 minutes every week. However, if you want to do all the exercises, make sure that you do them correctly, maybe interact with others who are working on them to double-check your work, then you could be looking at several hours each week. But it’s certainly not meant to be a full-time course.

You mentioned interacting with others doing the course. How does that work?

We’re going to set up a chat room for people to discuss the projects with each other, ask for advice, interact, talk about what they’re doing, help others out that may be stuck on something. I’ve always found that the best way to learn something is to teach it, so this interaction really helps learning. When you have to explain something to somebody else you get to figure out where your weaknesses or misunderstandings are.

Will the course be graded? Will there be certificates with it?

Not at first — this may be something we do in the future, but right now we’re releasing it without any grading or certificates. It’s more for people that are interested in learning for their own sake.

Once this is launched, do you have plans to extend it?

We don’t have specific plans at the moment, but we do have ideas for other things that could be taught. Cryptography for blockchain professionals might be interesting, or going deeper into a particular technology or programming language, or developing products with a particular framework. I’m really looking forward to getting feedback from the people that take this course on what other kinds of things are they interested in, especially after they have finished and have a better understanding of what’s out there. What are the things you wish we would have dived deeper into, or what other courses would you like to see?

How much does the course cost?

It’s totally free.

Where do people sign up for the MOOC?

The MOOC will be hosted at mooc.web3.foundation. Our mission at Web3 Foundation is to create a decentralized and fair internet, and helping others to build their own blockchain is one way of achieving this. Even when the live course is finished you can still follow the program here.

And of course, if people want to take it further once they have learned how to create a blockchain, they can apply for a Web3 Foundation grant for any interesting projects they have.

Some people reading this may be curious about blockchain but don’t have a technical background. For those who want to start with something lighter, you’ve also written a book that is a fun introduction to crypto for beginners. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Sure. I’m the author of “Strength in Numbers: A Novel of Cryptocurrency”. It’s a science fiction novel set in the near future at the University of Pittsburgh, where an English literature student discovers there may be a key to five Bitcoin hidden in her room. If she can figure out how to access it, her money worries will be over. Along with her friends, who are studying computer science and mathematics, she tries to understand how cryptocurrencies work. It’s not a textbook at all, but along the way it gives a good grounding in not only how blockchains and technologies like Bitcoin and Ethereum work, but also how these might impact the world. I firmly believe blockchain technology is going to change the world, in lots of different ways! I also go into depth on that in aspects of the book, as part of the story.

Thanks Bill. We look forward to the first release.

Web3MOOC: The free Web3 Foundation “Blockchain for Beginners” course started live on Wednesday April 8, 2020 and ran for 20 weeks. The MOOC is still available here.

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