All About ArsDigita University

What it was (The Program)

ArsDigita University (archived website, alumni website), or ADU, was a tuition-free, one-year, intensive, on-site, post-baccalaureate program in computer science. The curriculum was based on the MIT undergraduate curriculum and most of the professors came from MIT.
"...to offer the world's best computer science education, at an undergraduate level, to people who are currently unable to obtain it"
-ADU mission statement

What it wasn't (On Myths and Misconceptions)

  • It was not a distance learning program. It was exclusively on-site.
  • It was not, like ArsDigita Corporation's "bootcamps" (bootcamps archive), focused on web programming. The curriciulum was based on the MIT undergraduate CS course of study and the program was explcitly non-vocational.
  • The school was not a mechanism of corporate recruiting.

Who taught (The Faculty)

The majority of the faculty was comprised of members or alums of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. Most of this constituent have been recognized for excellence in teaching at MIT. All have established successful careers in research and industry. The former director of the university, Shai Simonson, who was the instructor for 3 courses, is a professor at Stonehill College, where he has taught in every area of the CS curriculum. The teaching assistants, critical to the program's success, came from MIT, Rice, and Harvard.

Who attended (The Students)

The students who chose to attend were a diverse collection of 36 individuals from across the nation (and in a few cases, across the globe). Backgrounds included medicine, law, journalism, the humanities, social science, mathematics, engineering, and the arts. The level of prior computer experience varied from almost none to self-taught network administration and professional programming. Age ranged from 22 to 68 (median 30, mean 33). The initial female to male ratio was 1 to 5. Two students dropped out, seven finished a substantial portion of the program, and 27 completed all requirements. One additional student informally joined the program in the last few months.

What they did (The Curriculum)

The curriculum was modeled on the undergraduate CS program at MIT. The difference was that the curriculum was linear, with one course per month (course catalog archive), and there were no electives. There were 39 weeks of courses, distributed among subject areas as following: Mathematics (10), Software (13), Hardware (3), Systems (6), and Theory (7). Several of the courses were straight-forward adoptions of MIT courses. A few were specifically designed for the program. The program was roughly in line with the ACM's 2001 Model Curricula for Computing. The process of accreditation (ACM or CSAB/ABET) would have been pursued if the program had continued.

When they did it (The Schedule)

The program ran for 10 1/2 months, from September 2000 to mid-July 2001 (academic calendar archive). Each course met six days a week. An average day consisted of two hours of formal lecture in the morning, two hours of informal recitation in the afternoon, and 6-8 additional hours of work on problem sets, for a total time commitment of 10-12 hours/day, excluding meal breaks and time in transit to and from school.

Where they did it (The Site)

The campus was located in the basement of an historic bank adjacent to Technology Square, Cambridge, MA (map). It consisted of a classroom, student lab, administrative office, conference room, and food preparation area. Within the lab, each student had their own Henry Miller desk, Aeron chair, networked Linux box, and 19" ViewSonic monitor. A large popcorn machine sat in the middle of the room; on the walls of the basement hung large framed photos taken by Philip Greenspun. The food area consisted of a counter, refrigerator, and stocked beverage cooler , but no sink. There were two sexed, dual-stall bathrooms on another floor. Students had 24 hour/day access to the building, and they took advantage of it.

What they looked like (Photos)

What they thought in the end (Interviews and Speeches)

Graduation Speeches Here are a couple unedited exit interview transcripts (me with tape recorder):
  • Interview with John West on building a database system to enable families to locate displaced refuges in Kosovo, instead of writing a redundant article about how so and so sat on the the plastic sheet and wept, and his vision of information systems replacing journalism as we know it
    "Most people don't see that as journalism, but for me the principles which underlie journalism are very simple: finding information that people need and presenting it to them in a form they can access."
  • Interview with Todd Sjoblom on the strength of the ADU community and student body
    "I've learned more about things that I wouldn't have studied, because I would have gotten tired, and would not have gotten the feedback and wouldn't have had the camaraderie and team spirit...I've never been surrounded with such a crew."

What they stuck up on the walls (Other images)

How it was funded (Financing)

ADU was funded by ArsDigita Foundation (archived website), which was supported by ArsDigita Corporation (archived website), a once successful open source software developer, centered in Cambridge, MA (bought by Red Hat in 2002). This is to say, particular people within the company, and their friends, foot the bill (in some cases for a parking spot at work).
"We are rich. You guys aren't getting it. The $1 million/year that it will cost is like a rounding error in our business (enterprise software)."
-Philip Greenspun

Who came up with the idea (Germination)

The program was the "brainchild" of Philip Greenspun, an MIT professor and internet entrepreneur. Greenspun had previously flirted with the idea of free education when he "refunded" his students' tuition, the motivation of which he explains in his article Tution-free MIT. While meeting a different need, ADU was in the same spirit. That the idea came to fruition is a credit to Philip's magnetism and the strength of his ideas, as experienced by his collegues. It was also made possible by his position within ArsDigita Corporation (as Co-Founder and Chairman), a position he lost during the year the program ran.
"I'll be happy to teach you, and I'll do my best. But I'm not going to take your money."
-Philip Greenspun

How you can benefit (Free Video Lectures and Course Materials)

All course resources (courseware archive) generated as part of the program, including lectures recorded during class, problem sets, and exams, were put online and made available for free distribution (OpenContent License). These materials are available through the alumni website, ADUni.org. While the non-video content can be acquired with some ease, downloading videos is not practically possible due to current server bandwidth limitations. However, the entire collection of lectures and recitations is available on DVD for about $75. See the DVD FAQ or contact Chris Crick at drives[at]aduni.org for more information.

What people said (Press and commentary on the program)

How it was pitched (Selling the Program)

The official line, which was important in terms of selling the program to potential students, can be viewed in the archive of ArsDigita Foundation pages about the university.

Who got in (Admissions)

In order to be considered, an applicant was required to have SAT scores of 1300/1400 (old/new) or GRE of 2100, a bachelor's degree from a four-year program, a "confidence inspiring" transcript, and to submit an essay explaining why they wished to attend. From this pool, candidates were chosen for a phone interview with members of the admission team. This interview was designed to determine the applicant's motivations for attending, prior experience, and general suitability. A series of logic puzzles were administered, a la a Microsoft/Xerox PARC interview, in order to evaluate the applicants ability to solve problems and work cooperatively. In a second interview Philip Greenspun answered questions and talked about what the program would be like, completing the interview process. From over 350 qualified applicants, 40 were granted admission and 36 chose to attend.
"There are a few catches: you'll need a bachelor's degree already, and you'll need to be so bright that people put on sunglasses when you walk into a room."
-Slashdot posting

Who ran the program (Direction and Administration)

Shai Simonson, Guneet Kaur.

Why it ended (Internet Bust and Conflict at ADU Corp)

The program, which was conceived of by one of the corporation's founders, Greenspun, was discontinued beyond graduation of the first class, the foundation, having failed to find future funding, under executive director Barabara Link, amid legal disputes between the corporation's founders and other executive board members (ArsDigita VCs v. Co-founders, ArsDigita: From Start-Up to Bust-Up).

How it lives on (ADUni.org)

The alumni of the univesity have formed a non-profit coporation, ADUni, to preserve the availability of the materials generated as part of the program and to carry on the school's original mission to provide the world's best computer science education for free.

How to help the cause (Donating money and/or bandwidth)

We need money to pay for bandwidth to serve videos. The videos are very big files. Right now it would take one person at least 4 days to get the series, if they were the only person downloading for the entire time. This is obviously inadequate. Donating bandwidth, by mirroring a course (about 20 400MB videos) would help our cause. Please refer to the ADUni donate page regarding small/personal monetary donations.

Archive of arsDigita Foundation webpages

How to learn more

To learn more about the university, explore ADUni's website, read An Introduction to ArsDigita University, by the university's director, Shai Simonson. Also, here is an archive of the official page about the university. Finally, here is a google search result that includes a lot of information (for pages that don't exist anymore, try the google cache or the internet archive). .

Early draft of Shai's ACM article on the program (published Summer 2002):