ArsDigita Offers Free High-Tech Program

Aug. 18, 2000 -- Who says you can’t get something for nothing?

As students gear up for the back-to-school season, tightening their wallets after a long summer break, some are heading back to class for free … but there’s a catch. You have to be a tech whiz.

Just down the street from the esteemed institutions of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lies ArsDigita University, the new kid on the block with an entirely new approach to higher learning.

With an acute focus on computer science, the 10-month, tuition-free, post-baccalaureate program is attracting the attention of thousands of people around the world, says Barbara Link, executive director of the ArsDigita Foundation, the school’s parent company and money-raising arm.

But only a choice few will fill the 35 spots available for the class of 2001.

The school is geared toward people excited to learn the ins and outs of computers and who have SAT scores above 1400 and an undergraduate degree with a solid grade-point average, says Link. Though the school is not accredited, officials believe students can theoretically learn in a compressed amount of time as much as an MIT or Caltech computer science undergraduate learns in four years.

ArsDigita is the brainchild of Philip Greenspun, MIT professor and author of Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing. Part of the ArsDigita Foundation, which has the backing of such high-tech heavy hitters as Internet developer Dave Clark and World Wide Web developer Tim Berners-Lee, the school is partially funded and supported by the ArsDigita Corporation, a software company that builds and maintains open-source application software for e-commerce sites. It has ties to high-tech companies such as Oracle and Hewlett-Packard.

This may be the first year of its unconventional computer science offering, but the school and the corporation have a history going back several years. The company began developing Web services for itself in 1993 and then for other companies the following year. And since the beginning of this year, the school has offered a Web programming boot camp. (See sidebar, below.)

An Intense Program for Programmers

This fall, starting Sept. 5, ArsDigita University is embarking on its meatiest offering yet. And school officials are looking to what they consider “high achievers” to test its rigorous waters.

The course load for the intensive program includes about 12 hours of schooling a day, six to seven days a week. This breaks down to approximately 90 minutes of lecture with the remaining hours comprised of review and practice time and team-oriented problem-solving activities. Faculty members make themselves available throughout the day to help with students’ questions.

“The program is … [the equivalent] of one course a month,” says Link. “Even with the high caliber of students coming in, we’re not sure if all of them will be able to make it. If we don’t have people with a high aptitude for learning, and commitment and drive, it’s not going to work.”

Luis Rodriguez, an MIT professor with three degrees from MIT, will be volunteering his time this fall working as a teacher and an after-class academic mentor. Rodriguez, who helped in the interviewing and selection process, says the type of student the school wants is someone passionate about learning.

“What we wanted to do is help people who have a passion for something in life learn computer science to help further their passion,” he says. “We wanted someone who can describe all the cool things they can do in art, history, law, whatever, and how a year of hard-core computer science education is going to help further that.”

Another crucial quality for the ArsDigita student, says Rodriguez, is the ability to work well with others.

“We’re also hoping that with the diversity of the students that there will be a cross-pollination of experiences and insights,” says Rodriguez, adding it’s sometimes helpful to learn in a group setting.

A Model Student

Pradeep Atluri, originally from Chicago, was accepted into the program this summer. Atluri, who is taking a break from his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, says he’s used to the rigors the ArsDigita curriculum will require.

“[ArsDigita University] reminds me of the way medical school was set up,” he says. “It was a concentrated effort, and all of this medical science was thrown at a set of committed learners.”

By exploring the possibilities of Internet applications, he looks to sharing his research with other doctors and students to examine. The distance learning aspect of the ArsDigita program will possibly give him insight into how the Internet will change the way doctors all over the world work, he says.

The distance learning program, which has a slightly less stringent application process, is being offered online to those who want to take a slightly less intense version of the course. Lecture notes and chats will be available to these students on the Internet, but they will not have the benefit of a high level of faculty assistance. Links says that next year the school hopes to offer online students streaming video of the lectures.

Like the standard program in computer science, the university’s online program is an experiment in education.

“We know we have a lot to learn here,” Link says. “We have to understand a lot more about distance learning before we can do that well.”

‘Something to Keep an Eye On’

In attracting what it considers the best and the brightest interested in computer science, the university believes its untraditional approach to learning is “rock solid.”

“These guys in the program should be able to write their own ticket,” Links says.

Rodriguez agrees. He points out the skills learned at ArsDigita may be part of a bachelor’s degree program, but they’re not the equivalent.

“ArsDigita is not to take the place of a MIT or Caltech education,” he said. “It … has no reputation.”

But it does have a focus that’s not just on computer science; the program is very much about education and the learning process.

“It’s going to be a fascinating experiment,” Rodriguez says. “There may be some hiccups along the way, but it will be a fabulous experience for everyone who comes and participates — and something to keep an eye on.”