By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff, 4/24/2000
Can't afford a computer science degree from MIT? Well, Philip Greenspun can offer you the next best thing: a one-year crash course in computing taught by top-notch instructors, many with advanced MIT degrees. And you won't have to pay a penny.
Of course, you will have to already have a college degree, and an enviably high score of 1400 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. And you'll have to be prepared to work 12-hour days, six days a week for an entire academic year. But is that really too much to ask?
At least 30 people don't think so. They're scheduled to arrive in Cambridge in September as part of the first entering class of ArsDigita University (www.arsdigita.org/university).
''We want this to be the greatest experience of any of their lives,'' says Greenspun, who felt the same way when he entered MIT as a computer science student. After earning a bachelor's degree in 1982, he stayed on for a master's and doctorate.
Greenspun was into ''open source'' software before it was cool. He wanted to build a software company that would publish the underlying source code for every program it produced, even letting noncustomers download the source code and use it free of charge.
This hardly sounds like a way to get rich, yet Greenspun and a group of like-minded programmers have managed it. Their ArsDigita Corp. takes in about $20 million a year, selling open source code to major corporations. Part of their profits are now being pumped into the ArsDigita Foundation, created to provide Internet training to young people.
''The company made us all fairly wealthy, wealthy enough to put a million bucks a year into this,'' says Greenspun.
The foundation established a $10,000 prize for the best noncommercial Web site developed by young people. But Greenspun wanted to do more. He thinks there are plenty of educated, capable people who could do great things on the Internet if they just had the technical training. He's especially keen on the computer science curriculum at MIT, where Greenspun teaches a course on software engineering for Web applications.
Unfortunately, MIT won't accept undergraduate applicants who already have a bachelor's degree from some other institution. So midcareer types with a sudden yen for top-notch computer training are frozen out. That's what Greenspun hopes to change.
His company is building its first classroom in its Cambridge corporate headquarters. Already 30 students have been accepted to the program - people with proven intellectual ability in the form of college transcripts and high SAT scores.
The tough entry requirement ensures that only students with a chance of surviving the tough curriculum will be accepted. Even so, Greenspun expects a fairly high dropout rate.
''There's a reason why not everybody goes through the MIT CS [computer science] curriculum. It's really pretty hard.''
So the student body mainly consists of overachievers.
''Some of the applicants are college professors ... some of them are medical doctors,'' says Greenspun. ''They're not looking for a job with some sort of big organization. They have some sort of mission that they're on.''
For example, some of them may want to use their training to create an excellent Web site related to the industry in which they already work. That fits in with the university's goal: ''to encourage the development of Web services that work better for users and society.''
But why give away such training to people who often could afford to pay for it?
''Everything ArsDigita does is free,'' replies Greenspun. The company's software is purchased by the original customer, but then given away free to anyone else who wants it. In the same way, all classroom lectures and exercises at ArsDigita University will be published on the Internet for free use by anyone who wants them. Indeed, Greenspun already publishes the materials for his MIT class.
ArsDigita courses will be taught by Greenspun and a number of his colleagues at ArsDigita Corp., at least 15 of whom have MIT doctorates in computer science. He's also signed up a number of other instructors. One is Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale, and author of several famous books on the visual representation of data.
The school isn't accredited. Greenspun says that because it's not a traditional four-year institution, the usual accreditation bodies haven't created any applicable standards. But he believes that graduates will have no trouble getting jobs, or being accepted into top graduate schools.
''A personal recommendation from an ArsDigita U instructor will carry a lot of weight,'' Greenspun says.
As for finding employment at an Internet company, he figures that should be a snap for his students, who should be better trained than many people with more traditional computer science degrees.
Besides, notes Greenspun: ''The average Web site these days ... can't afford to be that picky.''
Hiawatha Bray is a member of the Globe Staff. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.