up The ADUni Idea

Bryon Gill
ADU Class of 2001

Most commencements involve students saying a sad goodbye to an institution they know will endure without them. They don cap and gown, take pictures with friends and family in the nostalgic lighting of the archways that surround the quad, and symbolically pass a torch to the next generation.

In our case, we carry the legacy and the ideals of this institution with us when we leave, and we have a responsibility to ensure that we are not the only beneficiaries of the ideas that made this place a reality.

Thus we must ask: Just what are the legacy and ideals of ArsDigita University? Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter to his contemporary and rival Richard Hooke, wrote:

"If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Some speculators suggest that this was a swipe at Hooke, who only stood 5 feet tall, but most believe it to mean what it appears to mean: that Newton's genius alone could not have produced his discoveries without the accumulated knowledge that he had to work with.

This is an interesting point. Knowledge is a funny thing, it's not like other things that one acquires. It's not an advantage to be gained then locked away for fear of someone else stealing it, although it's sometimes treated that way. It's certainly not like the other objects that are bought and sold in our economy, since, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, if you share your knowledge, your own knowledge is not diminished, much as the flame of one candle is not diminished when another wick is lit from it. Instead, there are twice as many flames.

No, knowledge is special. Knowledge is our map from perception to reality, and no one owns that map. Newton's statement was important because it emphasizes the notion that knowledge can only advance when it is shared, and that our map of reality will lead us the wrong way more often if we do not approach knowledge as something to be disseminated rather than something to be controlled.

Fast-forward 400 or so years. A number of factors, including free education for virtually all citizens of the technologically priveleged nations of the world, have led to a dramatic increase in our ability to cure diseases, our ability to build and move things, and to destroy things, and perhaps most importantly, our ability to communicate with each other. In short, our map of reality has gotten considerably better than it was when Newton found it. But we still find that some pieces of the map are behind closed doors, whether behind classroom walls, in the halls of corporations, or under the invisible chains of intellectual property law. The dystopias of modern literature and film: Orwell's 1984, Kafka's Trial, The Matrix; all have one thread in common: the protagonists in these stories have only limited access to the map that connects their perception to their reality. The rush of technology is changing the context of nearly all our interactions so quickly that it often feels as if we must run simply to stand in place.

The ADU idea, expressed in the slogan that appears on our t-shirts, is "The best computer science education for everyone". This is certainly a lofty goal. Even with the best outcomes, in the year since the inception of ADU the best we could hope for is "the best computer science education in Boston for 35 people plus whoever happens to find our video feeds." But it's a beginning, and it's important. Perhaps due to Philip's efforts and the example set by ArsDigita University, MIT has also decided to begin openly disseminating their course materials online.

So how has the reality of ADU matched up to the theory? I sent an email to the students to survey opinion about the ADU experience and I got some interesting answers:

*If you were a CEO, would you invest in ADU today?
The majority answer, which surprised me a bit, was a weakly qualified "no". Perhaps corporate interests and the goals of advancing knowledge will always have an uneasy marriage? Perhaps the patronage idea, offered by many as a replacement to the packaged-media model of remuneration for content generation, needs some time to catch on. The jury is still out on this one.

*Is it possible that ADU could run again, or is it just a dot-com pipe dream riding an impossibly over-funded internet bubble?
My favorite response, and the author may take credit if she chooses: "Of course. Think of all the pointless stupid stuff people give money to."

*Finally, was it a success or a failure? What can we do to make it better??
One thing that all the answers had in common was that the program itself, as an educational endeavor, was viewed in a positive light. Furthermore, every respondent said that ADU was by far the most intense educational experience in which they had ever participated. In this respect, the program has been a resounding success. The education that can be crammed into one year given a dedicated student community and highly talented faculty has been a wonder to behold. How can this small success be translated into the larger vision we spoke of earlier?

I know of at least three ways in which we can each help ADU to reach a broader audience. First, become independently wealthy and fund the program yourself. Second, become famous and publicize the program until someone independently wealthy agrees to fund the program. Third, and perhaps more realistically, look for opportunities in daily life to help extend this map we share and to further the ideals of ADU. This means avoiding short term gains that require hiding knowledge from other people. This means challenging institutions that tell you that this just isn't the way the world works, and that urge you to be "realistic" or "pragmatic" and do what's in their interest over everyone else's.

Everyone of us has a different place in society, and every one of us will encounter opportunities to carry on the work that was begun here, whether it be something as simple as sharing your knowledge with a family member, neighbor or colleague, or perhaps in a more formal setting with students or trainees. This can mean staying active in a free software project. It can mean using that knowledge to make information available to others who would not otherwise be able obtain it, for instance by actively participating in the effort to keep the ADU materials available, or perhaps by creating new materials as you learn new skills once you've left ADU.

Someday an opportunity will present itself to you where you will have the chance to make a change that creates opportunities for learning for others, but that involves some degree of personal risk. Perhaps it will be in a board room deciding whether to keep a software project proprietary or to make it free software by licensing it under the GPL, or perhaps you'll be accepting a lower paying job that does not compromise your ideals. Perhaps you'll be risking your reputation, perhaps you'll be risking your salary or your job. Perhaps in extreme situations you'll even be risking arrest or imprisonment. But whatever situation it is you find yourself in, remember the risks that were taken to provide this education for you. Remember that the right way is not always, perhaps not even often, the easy way, but it is still the right way. Remember that the legacy of ArsDigita University leaves this place with you, and lives or dies with the decisions you make. In conclusion, remember the opportunity that was provided for you, and remember that only by leading others by example, taking risks, and doing the right thing can something like ArsDigita University happen again.