EDU: /. Tuition-free computer school is set for launch

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From: Eugene Leitl (
Date: Mon Apr 17 2000 - 09:33:28 PDT

Posted at 9:10 p.m. PDT Thursday, April 13, 2000

Tuition-free computer school is set for launch

Mercury News Technology Columnist

NEWS and views, culled and edited from my online column, eJournal:

SCHOLARSHIP: Philip Greenspun and his colleagues at the ArsDigita
Foundation ( 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'' ( 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


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