Originally published in the Mercury News. This copy acquired at: http://www.edu-cyberpg.com/Teachers/freeed.html

Tuition-free computer school is set for launch

by Dan Gillmore 4/13/00
Mercury News Technology Columnist

SCHOLARSHIP: Philip Greenspun and his colleagues at the ArsDigita Foundation (www.arsdigita.org) are launching a tuition-free, university-level program in computer science. You read that right -- there's no tuition cost for students.

``We want to help people build better (technology-based) services for society,'' says Greenspun. ``A lot of people who have really good service ideas are really hampered -- they don't have a solid foundation in technology.''

Thirty highly motivated and talented students will get their chance this fall, when the ``ArsDigita University'' opens in Cambridge, Mass. Several faculty members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already signed up as part-time instructors.

For Greenspun, who also teaches part-time at MIT, the new school is an extension of his long, passionate advocacy of an open-source philosophy in computing -- referring to the genre in which software programming instructions, also called source code, are openly available to anyone who wants to use or modify the program.

The ArsDigita school won't be about getting a well-rounded education, the kind where liberal arts courses complement computer science classes. Nor will they get a piece of parchment from an accredited college or university.

They will get something valuable, though. The on-campus program is a one-year immersion where students will spend 12 hours a day, six days a week, in lectures and tutorials along with collaborative and solo problem solving.

The goal is ambitious, to put it mildly. Greenspun wants to provide nothing less than MIT- or Stanford-level computer-science instruction.

The ArsDigita Foundation is itself a spinoff of Cambridge-based ArsDigita, a company that Greenspun (who's also an author and well-known photographer) founded to provide consulting and programming services for e-commerce operations, Web sites and other clients. The company just closed a $53 million round of venture financing, he says, and had $20 million in revenues last year.

``We decided we could afford to spend a million a year'' on the tuition-free school, he says.

Greenspun's open-source advocacy extends to the program. Class assignments and lecture notes will be posted on the Web, and the school plans to videotape lectures and then put them online as streaming media, viewable from a browser. Distance learners will be able to participate right away, but that part of the program won't be fully up to speed for another year. ArsDigita will also make the software that runs the program available free to other schools.

If he can find a sympathetic Silicon Valley billionaire who likes the idea, Greenspun hopes to open a Palo Alto version of the school. ``You know anybody?'' he asks me. Not offhand, but maybe this will shake someone loose.

What kind of people will be students? Distance learners will select themselves. On-campus students will have college degrees, excellent brains and the right kind of motivation, according to the ``sales pitch'' (http://arsdigita.org/university/why-apply/) posted on the foundation's Web site. They can be recently out of school, or well into other careers.

They'll need a certain view of the world, however. Here's one piece of advice the site offers to prospective applicants: ``Please don't apply to ArsDigita University if your only goal is to have a comfortable income.''