This post has been contributed by Dr Craig Cameron, Senior Lecturer in Corporations Law with the Griffith Business School and a member of the Law Futures Centre.
Disclaimer: I am a lecturer in law, a beginner in blockchain, but with a keen interest in blockchain law research and experience in curriculum design. Any errors in terminology are my own.
- Blockchain Law is now a recognised part of Australian legal practice
- The increasing adoption of blockchain technologies, and the evolving regulatory framework, should be a signal to Australian law schools to consider the rollout of a Blockchain Law subject
- A Blockchain Law Audit revealed that only 4 of 38 Australian law schools currently provide students with the option of enrolling in a specialised Blockchain Law subject
- An online Blockchain Law subject is proposed, being a product of industry-university collaboration through a Blockchain Law Education community (perhaps a DAO), and delivered across multiple universities, providing various reputation, strategic, operational, and financial benefits to stakeholders
- There is a call to higher education and blockchain community members to provide feedback on a Blockchain Law Education community, and a Blockchain Law subject
What is Blockchain Law?
Blockchain Law is well beyond a fringe fascination of the traditional lawyer “who likes tech”, and has entered the lexicon of Australian legal practice. I think of Blockchain Law not as a specialist legal discipline, but rather an amalgam of existing laws that do (or may) apply to blockchain technologies and applications (e.g. DeFi, smart contracts and digital assets). The constant innovation underpinning blockchain continues to raise important and complex questions in Australia about the application of existing tax, criminal, corporate, intellectual property, financial services, and securities laws to blockchain. Thankfully, the Australian government has acknowledged that the law needs to catch up to the technology. In October 2021, The Senate Select Committee on Australia as a Technology and Financial Centre released a final report with a series of recommendations designed to advance a regulatory framework for the blockchain ecosystem of providers, technologies, services and products. Subsequently, the Treasury has released a consultation paper about the regulation of crypto asset secondary service providers and classification of crypto assets. The Australian government has also released a terms of reference for a review by the Board of Taxation about a policy framework for the taxation of digital assets and transactions.
Why Blockchain Law in Higher Education?
The developments in Blockchain Law should serve as an important signal for Australian higher education institutions. Our law schools have a responsibility to ensure that students possess the technical knowledge and professional skills to successfully transition to future workplaces. These future workplaces (not just law firms!) and their stakeholders such as clients, suppliers, and employees, will be adopting and applying blockchain technologies. In the context of increasing adoption of blockchain technologies, and a maturing regulatory framework, it is now time for Australian universities to consider offering law students access to a Blockchain Law education.
My thinking around Blockchain Law in higher education raised two questions:
- Which Australian universities offer Blockchain Law subjects?
- How would a Blockchain Law subject be designed?
The answers to these questions are covered in the sections which follow.
Blockchain Law Audit of Australian University Law Schools
In March 2022 I conducted a Blockchain Law audit of the 38 Australian universities that offered an undergraduate and/or postgraduate qualification in Law. I relied on course and program web pages, as well as search functions on university websites, as my primary audit methods. The results were then tabled, with Blockchain Law and Technology Law subjects hyperlinked in the table. For the purposes of the study, Technology Law is a broader curriculum exploring technology and the law, which may include blockchain, whereas Blockchain Law is dedicated to blockchain technologies. If you would like a copy of the table, please feel free to contact me.
The study of 38 Australian university law schools produced the following summary statistics:
- 3 universities offered a Blockchain Law subject at postgraduate level (Australian National University – 2 subjects, Bond University, Monash University). University of Melbourne has previously offered a postgraduate blockchain law course, but it is not running in 2022, and therefore was excluded from the results;
- 2 universities offered Blockchain Law as an undergraduate subject (RMIT University and Bond University);
- 24 universities offered a Technology Law subject at an undergraduate and/or postgraduate level;
- 14 universities did not offer a Technology Law or Blockchain Law subject;
- Technology Law and Blockchain Law are generally offered among a suite of elective subjects. Students have a certain number of elective subjects that they can choose to complete as part of their degree – that number can vary across universities and program of study;
- Many universities have a shell subject called ‘Special Topics in Law’ or similar in which they can ‘parachute’ in an area of law to fill the shell subject for a specific teaching period. Blockchain Law could be used in the shell subject.
In summary, Blockchain Law is generally not offered to Australian law students. There may be financial and operational reasons for the low uptake of Blockchain Law. First, there are few law school academics who have the expertise to deliver a Blockchain Law subject; delivery may otherwise involve multiple academics in a team teaching environment (with associated operational issues) or the appointment of a casual academic (with associated wage payments in designing and delivering the curriculum). Second, not all law Schools are created equal. With reduced government funding and the negative financial impact of Covid-19 varying across institutions, there are law schools that cannot make a financial case for adding a new elective subject. Blockchain Law may not generate any new student enrolments (or a net financial benefit), but instead divert enrolments away from existing elective subjects.
Despite the operational and financial risks, there are good strategic, reputational, and financial reasons to offer a Blockchain Law subject. Arguably a strategic objective of universities is to be ‘future focussed’, that is to deliver a degree that meets the needs of the future workplace, and to ensure that future graduates are ‘work-ready’. An understanding of the legal framework underpinning blockchain is important for the future workplace and the future workforce.
So the question becomes this: how can Australian higher education institutions design and deliver a Blockchain Law subject that is cost-effective and provides strategic, reputation and financial benefits? The answer: An online Blockchain Law subject that is the product of collaborative design, facilitated by experts, and delivered across institutions. Consistent with the ethos of Blockchain, the subject design and delivery is decentralized. My preliminary thoughts and random ideas are covered in the next section. Your feedback would be greatly appreciated.
A Blockchain Law Subject Proposal
I suggest that a university-industry collaboration can produce a ‘turnkey’ Blockchain Law package for Australian higher education. The university-industry collaboration is a Blockchain Law Education community (perhaps a DAO?)—a collection of university and industry representatives who contribute to curriculum development and may participate as facilitators of Blockchain Law workshops. That community designs, but also agrees on changes to the curriculum on a biannual or annual basis. Financial and in-kind support from the community could be obtained to build the content. Universities that provide a specific level of support, pitched at a much lower level than designing the subject themselves, may be granted a license by the community to use the Blockchain Law package. Yes, there is an argument that the package could be offered ‘open-source’, but I suggest that some form of exclusivity may encourage greater university ‘buy-in’ to offering a Blockchain Law subject.
The Blockchain Law package would include: a template subject profile (e.g. subject description, teaching structure, learning objectives and outcomes), online materials, problem questions for discussion in workshops, an online method of student discussion and consultation with workshop facilitators (Microsoft Teams or similar), as well as assessment, with some variation to assessment and content depending on whether the subject is delivered to undergraduate or postgraduate students.
Let’s assume that a typical subject comprises of 10 topics. I envisage that the topics can be structured either:
- According to area of law, given that Blockchain Law is an amalgam of laws, with the elements of the blockchain ecosystem (providers, services, and products) covered under each law;
- According to the elements of the blockchain ecosystem (e.g. smart contracts, tokens, financial markets), with the various laws relevant to that element covered in the topic.
In other words, an element(s) or a law(s) is a separate topic in the Blockchain Law subject. With either structure, the first two topics could be an overview of the Blockchain infrastructure and ecosystem which forms the basis of topics 3 to 10. For example if the remaining topics were organised according to law, it may be (in no specific order): contract; intellectual property, financial services and markets, taxation, business structures, privacy and security, crime, and consumer protection. If there is space in the curriculum, a final topic on international blockchain law may be insightful.
Assessment is only limited by the online delivery of the subject and the imagination of the Blockchain Law Education community: online quizzes, student participation, presentations, a law reform paper, and letters of advice are some examples.
The subject could be delivered online using what the academics term a ‘flipped learning’ format, that is, the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ lecture is made available to students before an online workshop, with online workshop time devoted to discussion questions and problems facilitated by industry experts in the Blockchain Law education community (which may include academics). It is unlikely that one workshop facilitator would be engaged for the entire subject – multiple workshop facilitators could be used in a 10 topic subject dependent on area of expertise in Blockchain Law.
To achieve cross-institutional delivery of the subject, the timing of the subject would need to coordinate with university timetables, and/or be offered outside designated teaching periods (e.g. as an intensive subject). The cross-institutional delivery would be novel, given that Australian higher education institutions traditionally operate within their institutional and faculty silos. Nevertheless, being novel produces the following benefits for students, universities, and other stakeholders:
- Law students can collaborate with students at other universities during the subject – working with students who they are not familiar with positively contributes to their professional growth and university experience;
- The time and availability of industry experts, who are going to be the workshop facilitators, is limited. Calibrating the timing of the Blockchain Law subject across universities means that the workshops only need to be delivered 2-3 times per year, and not at each university;
- Greater subject flexibility and availability for students in that the subject may be available for enrolment at various points during the academic year, rather than once per year at their ‘home’ institution;
- Lower cost for universities in delivering the subject. The curriculum is developed by the Blockchain Law Education community, and delivered by workshop facilitators (who may be paid or unpaid). Any costs of engaging the workshop facilitators may be split across universities who convene the Blockchain Law subject. Perhaps that cost can be paid by the university to the Blockchain Law Education community (or DAO) and workshop facilitators may be willing to volunteer their time for the Blockchain Law cause; and
- The Blockchain Law Education community is exposed to a cross-section of students with an interest in Blockchain Law. This may be a recruitment opportunity for community members.
The ‘turnkey’ Blockchain Law subject can add value to Australian law schools in a variety of ways including:
- Being offered as a micro-credential to lawyers wishing to build their expertise in Blockchain Law. Lawyers could also receive Continuing Professional Development (CPD) credit to meet their annual CPD obligations.
- As an additional or alternative offering to an existing Technology Law subject, currently offered by 24 universities;
- Parachuted into a ‘Special Topics in Law’ shell subject;
- As an additional elective subject for law schools that have limited law elective offerings for students. A wider array of elective subjects may improve student satisfaction with their degree, a reputation benefit;
- As an elective subject for Information Technology and Business students (particularly those majoring in Accounting, Finance and Taxation) in which an understanding of Blockchain Law in their respective disciplines would be beneficial. Remember, non-law student enrolments produce a net financial benefit to law schools.
Where to from here?
Given the increasing popularity and adoption of blockchain technologies, and its evolving regulatory framework, now is the time for Australian universities to consider and deliver a Blockchain Law education. My ideas are now out in the open for your thoughts and feedback on:
- A Blockchain Law Education community; and
- The design and delivery of a Blockchain Law subject.
I envisage the feedback on point 2 can be incorporated into a white paper or journal article and then pitched to Australian universities, with the support of academics in the Blockchain Law Education community. I look forward to learning from and working with the Blockchain Law community!