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Demand for specialized business programs in new technologies has been increasing all over the world, especially in cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology behind them.metamorworks/iStockphoto

Rebecca Guy, an associate at Scotiabank Global Capital Markets, went back to school to learn a second language. But she’s not trying to become fluent in French, Italian or Mandarin. Rather, it’s technology.

Last September, the 24-year-old started the master of management in artificial intelligence (MMAI) program at Smith School of Business in Kingston to help her become as savvy in new technologies as in business.

“I found the program because one day I found myself becoming so frustrated working on a project with a team because I felt like I only understood half of the puzzle,” Ms. Guy recalls. “I thought I was eventually going to have to do a computer science degree to be able to fill in those gaps because I just didn’t think there was a hybrid that existed until I found [the MMAI] program.”

Artificial intelligence (AI), cryptocurrency and blockchain are no longer terms reserved for nerdy subsets of technology. They are front and centre to many aspects of industry, and business education programs around the world are trying to keep up with demand from graduates and their companies who want a hybrid education in business and these technologies.

Ms. Guy says she knew she wanted a combination of the two in her professional life since her undergraduate studies in commerce at Dalhousie University in Halifax, where she was introduced to the possibilities of AI and analytics in the business world.

“I went into more of a business-management role, but analytics was still front and centre and I realized there was a need for people that could speak to both areas and understand the data and the business,” Ms. Guy explains, “[because] you have to make decisions but you may not understand everything.”

This demand for employees that can “speak both languages” is exactly how the MMAI degree came to be, explains Stephen Thomas, director of the program at Queen’s University’s Smith.

“We were hearing from our industry contacts, ‘There’s a hole that we have in business. … We’re hiring data scientists in AI and analytics, and other tech-perts on the technical side, but there is no common link or translation between the two,’ " Dr. Thomas says. “And that’s what our program is designed to do, to create a graduate that can speak to both sides and create the link between the two.”

The 12-month course is designed for working professionals, holding courses in the evenings and weekends, and requires three years of work experience. The fundamentals of business management are explored in the first weeks “to make sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to financial reports, business models, etc.,” Dr. Thomas explains. "But then we go deep.”

Students in the AI management program take courses that tackle both soft and hard skills, from the ethics of AI to actually building models and being more hands-on and technical with the data.

“Building models is the core essence of AI and advanced analytics,” Dr. Thomas says. “It’s about predicting the future. It involves using machine learning algorithms to construct a mathematical relationship between the features of the input and the target label.”

Demand for these specialized business programs has been increasing all over the world, especially in cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology behind them – both of which have seen a significant surge in market recognition in 2018.

U.S. schools such as Harvard Business School, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University’s Stern School of Business have all launched introductory courses in blockchain and bitcoin in the past 18 months.

Internationally, the University of Amsterdam’s business school offers a course dedicated to blockchain and cryptocurrencies for its master of finance students, and the London School of Economics has an online course available. Even Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea is thought to be offering courses on cryptocurrency.

Business schools around the globe have been aware of cryptocurrencies for almost a decade, but the recent turbulence in the bitcoin market has caused the business and finance world to take more notice of its effects and possibilities. It also has universities updating their curriculums to accommodate the recent recognition, explains Chris Rowell, who teaches an executive education course on blockchain through the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business.

“The target for me, when I designed the course, was people in established organizations who wondered how blockchain works and how they could do stuff with the technology to make what they’re already doing more efficient,” recalls Dr. Rowell, who adds that many of these topics remain mysterious and all but unheard of for many.

“People aren’t really being trained, so we’re trying to address the dearth in the industry by training students in these areas,” he says.

Some Canadian business schools, including UBC Sauder and University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, have teachings on blockchain and cryptocurrencies, but they are often a small part of a larger course or limited to one- or two-day executive education classes.

Because these are relatively new technologies and still being explored by industry, it can be difficult to teach a specific course dedicated to blockchain as it touches everything from real estate to accounting, marketing, economics and law.

Dr. Rowell’s solution is to sprinkle blockchain throughout existing business courses. Recently he provided a guest lecture on blockchain to introductory accounting students, “because these are the areas that students are going to have to tackle.”

As for Ms. Guy, she’s excited to see what this hybrid education can do for her in the future, as she does her part in filling what she calls a “gap in the talent market."

“I really enjoy the business aspect of my current role,” she says, “so I’m hoping I can leverage both that business side and the knowledge I’ve gained in school to help organizations reap the benefits of these technology opportunities.”

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