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Simon Fraser University embraces Bitcoin, accepts virtual currency for textbooks

Last Updated May 26, 2015 at 4:55 pm PDT

Lauren Shandley (left to right), Mike Yeung, Laurie Macpherson and Scott Nelson are shown in an undated handout photo. Yeung and Nelson have made the first Bitcoin virtual currency donation to Simon Fraser University. The money will be used by Shandley and Macpherson for a humanitarian co-op project in India this fall. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Simon Fraser University

VANCOUVER – Will that be debit or Bitcoin?

A British Columbia university has started accepting the digital currency Bitcoin at all of its bookstores, allowing customers to open their mobile wallets in what’s believed to be a first for post-secondary institutions in Canada.

Simon Fraser University has also installed automated Bitcoin vending machines on its campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver and Surrey.

“It is still a very new, techie kind of subject and it takes — I think, for the average person — a lot of time to be able to understand it and be comfortable using it,” said Michael Yeung, who founded the SFU Bitcoin Club that spearheaded the venture.

“The way we’ve integrated it at the bookstore, allowing you to quickly buy bitcoins under 10 seconds and spend it under 10 seconds, makes it a lot easier.”

Bitcoin is a virtual currency that is transferred online without the help or regulation of any central bank. Students can either load up their mobile wallets apps by exchanging Canadian cash at the new vending machines or pay with bitcoins they already have.

They’re able to buy everything sold at the store, ranging from textbooks to T-shirts and mugs.

The university broke new ground last year when it became Canada’s first post-secondary institution to accept Bitcoin donations.

But Simon Fraser won’t be amassing piles of the alternative currency — and that’s how it mitigates any risk.

As soon as the bookstore receives bitcoins, it’s channelled directly to a U.S. payment processor that exchanges it for Canadian dollars.

The global processor, called BitPay, is used by many major merchandisers including Microsoft, Expedia and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic as payment for space flights.

“People might say, this is not money,” said Yeung, a third-year student planning to major in business administration.

But studying the history of economics and bartering shows many currencies used in previous centuries originated out of community agreement, he said.

“They don’t have to use it if they don’t want to use it. But if they use it, it’s kind of like using gold coins or silver bullion.”

Mark McLaughlin, SFU’s executive director of ancillary services, said the school is providing a first-hand learning experience.

“It is our mission to challenge and engage students and provide them with learning opportunities not only inside the classroom but also outside,” he said in a news release.

Simon Fraser has one of the most active Bitcoin student clubs in the continent. Its members spent the past year encouraging the school to introduce the currency, and they conducted a series of tests before opening for business, said Yeung.

He likened the shift to the early days of the Internet.

“There were students on campuses around the world getting into it. It was not predictable where it was going to go,” he said.

“It may not necessarily mean that Bitcoin is the end all, be all of electronic money or the future of currency, but it is a step forward for exploration and learning.”

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