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ArsDigita U. Cuts On-Campus Admissions 39

Cambridge writes: "ArsDigita University, which has been previously featured here, has lost its funding for the 2001-2002 year, and so won't be accepting applications. While it is all perfectly reasonable to expect that the good and great causes rising out of the Internet Boom will suffer the same fate as the many bad causes in the Internet Bust, I find it rather sad nonetheless." Note that the course materials will remain online, though -- so while it's still a sad turn that they can't accept applicants for the on-campus program for now, there is a silver lining.
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ArsDigita U. Cuts On-Campus Admissions

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  • The ArsDigita Foundation which operates the university, made the 1/40th offer.

    The ArsDigita Corporation which is the ArsDigita Foundation's major sponsor also had layoffs of their own this past week (previously mentioned).

  • this program is a __good__ program, make no mistake. It is, however, neither an MIT undergrad (lots 'n lots more math and theory) nor a cube-grub farm. The school is hard and we are expected to figure out more than we are taught. I'm biased, of course, but I feel like the program has been rigorous and that my skills are monster-strong compared to the way they were before we went in. I know a lot about what we have been taught, but better than that I can now quickly research and solve very complex problems that would have totally daunted me previously.

    What PhilG and other have not mentioned is what has happened to ArsDigita, the company that catalyzed its fall with all the others. ArsD, under Phil's direction was a small company where the coders ran the show. They had ~25 employees and charged more for their work but apparently would do more better faster than the drones. This was ostensibly because Phil was a taskmaster and he didn't hire dolts or MBAs. Sounds like heaven. It is totally possible that had the company stayed that small it woud have survived this crunch. But. Just like Steve Jobs and Sculley, PhilG asked the MBA VC bastards in and they took the place over. He went for funding to expand and prep for an IPO 200+ million $US. Then the NASDAQ went down and the VCs hired more MBAs and these MBAs hired more... and so on. They gave PhilG a big shove and now they are firing many others. I hope that they don't think that I am ungrateful for saying so, but if highly payed management was really worth the trouble and the paycheck I would expect to see some big, insightful plays other than canning a lot of people, cutting my school's funding and proceeding on.

    I hope this is a lesson to everyone. Exponential growth, free lunch stock options and VC in general is almost never preferable to honest client based growth and good solid work. These MBAs marching into our offices are not on our side. They are trying to force techies and their work into a 'commodity'-shaped mold, which it (and we) will not fit into and still be innovative and smart. These guys are not on our side. I wish I could graduate from ArsD and work for PhilG at his old school shop, but alas.
  • ... studies have shown that it is not any more effective (or cheaper) than campus-learning. Despite all the hyoe about CAI/CAL, passing on experience is inherently human intensive. Sure you can automate certian things via rote learning/flash but I don't see programs trying to pass across complex concepts or give suitable feedback such as praise. Many of the so-called educational sites are glorified publishers and it is debatable what long-term merit they have. ArsDigita has got some very very bright people, but it is too easy to underestimate the difficulty of teaching people. Formal courses are one factor, but unless you've been up at 3am trying to time a system call on an unloaded machine, you're missing out on the screening for passion (OK obsession) and sheer bloody-mindedness (OK nit-picking) for detail. Good software, like any well-engineered product takes time and teaching these tacit skills (vs merely technical stuff like languages) takes time and experience.

    Also you need a fair amount of mathematical background (compsci is discrete maths for sakes) and you can't teach someone to be a professional racing driver if they don't have a clue in the first place of how to drive.

  • I think maybe you're confused. ArsDigita isn't a site, they're a consulting firm along the line of Organic, Scient, Razorfish, etc. Maybe you're thinking of Ars Technica?
  • Only recently has it been possible for a couple of guys to do something huge like slashdot (for example).
    Bullshit...in 1970 two people did something huge called Unix, on top of doing something much less huge (and with less sanguine effect upon future trends) called C.

    Smallish engineering groups were the norm in the 1970s and throughout most of the 1980s. I was there and lived it, running my own company I might add.

    This norm existed outside of IBM and other large companies. That exception still lives today, of course, in Microsoft, Oracle and other well-known companies.

    What has changed is that our small groups can be distributed worldwide due to cheap connectivity, and we can work cheaply within our homes due to the fact that you can buy what once would've been considered a supercomputer for the cost of two nights in Amsterdam (well, considering that I like nice hotels rather than hostels).

    The lowering of the economic barrier has made open source much more viable, not vice-versa. But for good folks, the need to work in large groups or to be a drone has never been a reality.

    Perhaps you hang out with the wrong crowd, Philip.

  • aD University certainly isn't a web mill designed to churn out aD employees - a charitable view of the post suggesting this might be that the poster was confusing aD's bootcamps with aD University.

    Though I must say that would be an exceptionally charitable view of the post that triggered your response...

  • If you read http://www.arsdigita.com/asj/professionalism carefully you'll see that the article does not posit large engineering groups either today or any time in the past. It says that the closed-source packaged software business strategy ends up requiring large groups of people for physical packaging, traditional marketing, and fulfillment to retailers.
    One of the nice things about the 1970s and 1980s was the fact that there were a lot of small third-party software firms about, at least in my world. That world was largely centered around DEC , the world's second largest computer company at the time and one that early in life encouraged third-party developers. DEC sold its 10,000th computer in the mid-1970s and many of those were working on factory floors, so it didn't really take a large company to package and distribute software that had a fairly large impact in that world.

    This helped Unix as well, BTW. The world learned about Unix on PDP-11s and it was distributed on RK05 disks, not the 'net, with source available for universities or non-profits (like my group) for $200. Of course, Unix wasn't discovered by all that many folks until the VAX came out, but the popularity of DEC minicomputers within the university environment had quite a bit to do with its popularity. Along with the availability of the source, even if AT&T's lawyers were a bit intimidating (we asked one favor of them in 1975 and never bothered again after reading their response).

    Of course the fact that the PDP-11 was the first minicomputer with an instruction set designed to make compilers for it simple didn't hurt at all, either.

    Now ... there wasn't much money to be made by starting a small third-party software company in those days (when I was a teenager one of my software products owned 10% of the PDP-8 market, closer to 50% of those not humping bits on the factory floor, but at the time only 3,000 PDP-8s had been built). At the time it was pretty clear that one could do better financially by working for a major manufacturer's software engineering department. But opportunities to do what you wanted were there for those willing to take the risk and the fact that the rewards were modest.

    There were no VCs running around minicomputer land offering to dump $35M in your lap, that's certainly a change. Then again, I didn't have to worry about them kicking me out of my own company, did I?

    Beyond this quibbling over details I largely agree with you. The open source model is great for development, but the financial implications are less clear. Certainly making a living selling $30 boxes ala RedHat is a more viable business model in a world with millions of cheap computers. Equally certainly it would've been madness back in the days when the number of potential buyers was in the hundreds or low thousands.

    One of the interesting developments in today's open source world is that people who never meet can build a project and deliver software. That was nearly impossible back in the days of my youth. The OpenACS project numbers about 20 volunteers as of today. Ben and I have met a few times. Ben's met with Dan Wickstrom. None of the others have ever met face-to-face or talked on the phone.

    Cheap connectivity and cheap cycles are what make this possible.

    Another example is the PostgreSQL group, which never met face-to-face until the money people behind Great Bridge brought them together about a fifteen months ago.

    So the world has certainly changed over the years. In 1975 I couldn't bring my laptop to a place that serves decent coffee and hang out, get wired, and work with Oracle. In Portland I could find decent coffee back in those days, but dragging along my VAX 11/780 was unthinkable.

    In Boston all I could find was Dunking Donuts back then...today cheap laptops,good coffee, and rotaries with stop signs or traffic lights combine to make Boston a tolerable and reasonably safe town to visit!

  • Once the internet shakes off its unstable bits, regains its composure, and starts over, I think that some of the powerful sites like ArsDigita will thrive once again.

    Some will change, some will stay the same, but when the garbage falls away, only the sites with real content, real creativity, and real usefulness with thrive, and I honestly think that ArsDigita is one of these.

  • Yep. The Pittsburgh office just got cut (taking friends of mine with it). This doubtless means that the CMU edition of Software Engineering for Web Applications is going to go too.

    It sounds like they're becoming just another totally corporate Web house. One hears that the entire code base is going to Java, not because of its technical superiority (servlets are immature compared to most other server-side dev technologies) but because it's easy to sell Java to big enterprise businesses.

    With Greenspun isolated by the Board of Directors I think a lot of the soul of the company is gone.

  • It's a sad day when Philip Greenspun's comments are moderated up only to a 2 or 3, with respect anything ArsDigita related! Oh, well.

    Does anyone know if and where ArsDigita is accepting monetary or other type of donations?

  • So, in other words, it is largely shut down. Is there any word on how likely it is that the school will recover?
  • The original idea was to have a free university with a one year residential program in computer science, and to offer as much as possible online for people who couldn't participate full time. There was a vision of growth from the CS core into a more full-fledged university, although this was an open ended goal.
  • >why did they lose funding for 2001-2002?

    ArsDigita was just another fucked company e-consulting that overpaid their developers and overcharged their clients just like Organic [organic.com] and Razorfish [razorfish.com]. The primary difference being that at least most of the people at ArsDigita could code.

    Anyway ArsDigita University was never really an "Online University that will rival MIT" but instead was part incubator and part training ground for new ArsDigita employees which was obvious from the heavy focus on web programming . Serious CS degree programs do not focues primarily on web scripting and accessing databases. This must have been soon obvious to their funders who rightfully pulled the plug.
  • It was a feeder for Phil Greenspun's [greenspun.com]web incubators. I guess he was the main funder and these businesses aren't as robust as last year.
  • I think it must have been that Microsoft felt threatened by Ars Digitta and pulled some strings to get their funding cut. Microsoft wants their certification programs to be the accepted industry standard, not Ars Digitta.
  • One snag. Most of us are male, and Mills College is for women only (at least, it was when I lived in Oakland, nearby where Mills is located).

  • My impression was that the online material was largely posted as a courtesy. The cirriculum is intensive, and the designers of the program were highly skeptical that anyone not completely devoted to the program for a year would be able to complete it, but still shared the material online.
  • I think the truth is in-between. They wanted to try and give as many people as possible a decent backing in CS...

    However, they also realized that many such people would be cubicle fodder. The end goal was to try and raise the general level of CS related skills across all companies so companies all over would be able to move one step beyond the primitive churn of haphazard design that we see today.

    Wouldn't it be great if all your co-workers knew what a hashtable or linked list was, and in what cases you might want to use them? Even very small basic steps like that would really help everyone, both designers and coders. The benefit of that would extend outside of companies by providing more people who might be working on OSS stuff during spare time, but with an elevated level of skill. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that there are going to be cubicile fodder farms anyway, so why not try and make one that produces a halfway decent product.

    A tangent could be people from other professions (like lawyers) who used knowledge gleaned from Ars Digita courses in other areas of our lives.

    I could be wrong, but that's the impression I get after reading through a lot of Greenspun's material on Photo.net.
  • It was the job of every engineering school to churn out drones for cubicle farms... until open source and the Web came along. See http://www.arsdigita.com/asj/professionalism for how the options of a software engineer back in, say, 1985 were limited to working within a largeish product group. Only recently has it been possible for a couple of guys to do something huge like slashdot (for example).

    What keeps me excited about teaching computer science is the fact that someone with a good CS background is in a great position to touch a lot of human lives. That wasn't true 20 years ago when computers were only in the back rooms of big companies. If someone with a first-rate CS education instead chooses to become a drone, that is sad but we don't live in Roman times (where a parent could kill his adult child if he didn't like the way he or she turned out; not sure if teachers were accorded the same privilege).

    (Oh yes, and please don't sell Oracle employees short. They've got enough PhD computer scientists in their core RDBMS server programming team to equip a medium-size university. That said, I wouldn't want work in their huge bay-side office towers (no dogs allowed))
  • Unix is a good example of a transition/hybrid system. It only took two guys to develop the initial prototype. For distribution, it required cooperation and coordination from the staff of the world's largest and most valuable company (AT&T). It was about as close to open source as anything was in its day (late 1970s and early 1980s). It got distributed largely along the lines of the Internet as it then existed (ARPAnet among the universities). And it only got distributed so cheaply because it had been done in Bell Labs rather than an AT&T product division. Let me quote from http://www.arsdigita.com/asj/professionalism:
    "What were a programmer's options, then, [in the 1980s] if in fact craftsmanship proved to be an unsatisfying career goal? The only escape from the strictures of closed-source and secrecy was the university. A programmer could join a computer science research lab at a university where, very likely, he or she would be permitted to teach others via publication, source code release, and face-to-face instruction of students. However, by going into a university, where the required team of 50 would never be assembled to deliver a software product to market, the programmer was giving up the opportunity to work at the state of the art as well as innovate and teach."]

    Bell Labs, where Unix was developed, is in many ways analogous to a university research lab. Engineers there have to give up on the idea of getting applications into the hands of end-users, though of course occasionally it has happened.

    If you read http://www.arsdigita.com/asj/professionalism carefully you'll see that the article does not posit large engineering groups either today or any time in the past. It says that the closed-source packaged software business strategy ends up requiring large groups of people for physical packaging, traditional marketing, and fulfillment to retailers.

    I'll give you a personal example. I developed a computer-aided engineering system back in the 1980s with one other programmer. This automated the design of large steel structures. We built it on a Symbolics Lisp Machine and therefore our productivity as programmers was extremely high. It took us about a year to get the thing working properly on a test problem of doing one person-year of engineering for an air-cooled heat exchanger (like a car radiator but the size of a house with about 20,000 parts). It probably took another two years before the 100th end-user was looking at his or her design taking shape on the screen. And we needed several full-time business people to convince people to buy the software and a Lisp Machine to run it (more Symbolics machines were sold to run this app than for any other purpose; then it got converted to run on Suns).

    Contrast that with adding a feature to photo.net. If I were to write a new service on photo.net, it would take less than one hour to reach the 100-user mark (photo.net attracts more than 30,000 visitors per day across all services on the site).

    At least for me, the world has changed a lot since I started programming (1976).
  • I've written a small article on how we've refined our software engineering for Internet applications course over the years. It includes some discussion of what has been effective about ArsDigita University. See http://philip.greenspun.com/teaching/teaching-soft ware-engineering [greenspun.com] (still in draft form so please email if you have comments/corrections).
  • Oh yes, for those of you who are tools-obsessed, you'll be pleased to know that the new curriculum is tools-neutral. When we started out, none of our students came in with experience building Web apps and none had used RDBMSes. But now a student might have had a summer job using PostgreSQL/mod_perl/Apache. I don't want to look at his Perl code but I'm not going to tell him he can't use his familiar tools to complete 6.916. If another student is jazzed up about Microsoft .NET and she wants to use C#, VB, and ASP.NET, more power to her. We'll look at her data model, page flow, and what the application accomplishes.

    This is sort of the same progression as has been followed by ACS. When we started packaging up our apps we said "Wouldn't it be nice to have three versions, one for Oracle/AOLserver, one with a Microsoft Active Server Pages presentation layer, and one with a JSP presentation layer". But we were only five part-time programmers. So we never got around to doing the other versions and figured someone else might. Early in the summer of 2000, when I was still at aD, I twisted Jin's arm into leading a small team to do a 100% Java version. And that opened up all kinds of possibilities for new and different execution environments (Tomcat, built-into-Oracle, etc., etc.).

    But guess what? Nobody cares. You might think C sucks but you still run your spreadsheet. When I give talks to people in big organizations they often are most impressed by WimpyPoint (see http://www.arsdigita.com/wp/ [arsdigita.com]). They've never seen anything like it before and think it is amazing that you can view, at a glance, the most recent work of a whole bunch of people in one orgazation. Having seen it, they ask how to get it. But nobody has ever asked what computer languages were used to build it.
  • Get a little pool together where people use resources to study the invention they want to build and have a contest. 100 winners get 1/3 of the pot, 1/3 goes to running the school, and one 1/3 to resources for inventors.

    Also put donations into the pool.
  • Maybe Philip didn't express his idea quite right. I think his point was that the internet enables smart people to have a big impact without seeking permission from some entrenched gatekeeper. The creators of Unix were a bit unique - they worked in a time and place where the gatekeepers were unusually lax, and they got permission to build this very cool, geeky project on the premise that they were building a text processing system for the patent department.
    The lowering of the economic barrier has made open source much more viable, not vice-versa.

    Slashdot would have been theoretically possible without Free software - it could be built on Sun/Oracle/Netscape Enterprise. But those products require money, and money generally requires permission from gatekeepers of some kind, and Slashdot wouldn't be what it is if some investor or faculty committee had the upper hand from the start.
    I'd say the flourishing web is a result of three things: Cheap generic hardware (which you cited), Free software, and affordable bandwidth.
  • Whatever your motivation was for posting your course material online is, this individual learner is grateful. Thanks, Phil.

  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but this university is mostly on-line in the first place.

    Thus, how badly will it hurt them to not accept on-campus students, an action that would shut down most schools?
  • Hours of real video lectures by Phillip Greenspun and others (Richard Stallman for instance) here [aduni.org] or http://aduni.org/about/colloquium_schedule.tcl if you're scared of links.
  • Where's Philip Greenspun [arsdigita.com] (thread from the ArsDigita web/db forum)

  • I have been downloading the mpegs of the Ars Digita University lectures and soaking up a little of the knowledge. Seems like a very focused, intense program in CS - too bad it may not make it.
  • Many of the courses, according to the online syllabi, strongly resemble the MIT courses I took. Many of faculty had associations with MIT one way or the other. These courses were to be taught in intensive one month chunks, sort of the way the tech school University of Phoenix teaches. I guess the aim was to distill some of MIT without its overhead.
  • I missed the first posting about ArsDigita U., but I read over their web pages and it got me thinking.

    In the promotional paragraph they mention that it is a one year (albeit intense) undergraduate program. In the News section they mention a thanks to Oracle for their donation. These coupled with the fact that they have lost funding during the hightech landslide brings up a question; Is ArsDigita really the scholastic wave of the furture, striving to produce competent and innovative CS mjors who will help us take the great leap into the technology era, or is it just a mill for the big companies to churn out drones for the cubilcle farms?

    And just because Stallman gave a lecture there doesn't, in my opnion, prove that they are the former. I am all for educating toward technological tolerance and ease as we will need it in the years to come. I just hope that it will be the need for knowledge and not the need for revenue that wins out.
  • That is not entirely accurate. There was a lay off at ArsDigita Foundation. We didn't want to completely exclude people from the Foudation if they wanted to stay involved, so we offerred a 1 hour/week status until we could raise more funds. This message did not go over as intended and I sincerely apologize that this seemed insulting. I'm also willing to apologize in person. Fortunately, we are able keep all the ArsDigita University Faculty and its administrator until the end of the school year. ArsDigita Corporation will continue to fund ArsDigita University through the end of the year as originally planned. After that, the Foundation is on its own to find funding (also as originally planned). But, unfortunately, and unlike the original plan, we were not able to raise the funding.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 31, 2001 @10:42AM (#325208)
    Philip Greenspun was asked to leave ArsDigita late last year, though he's still giving lectures etc. Yesterday, the company laid off roughly 20% of staff. In light of these developments the fact that ArsDigita University has lost its funding isn't terribly surprising, is it?
  • by Ellen Spertus ( 31819 ) on Saturday March 31, 2001 @03:15PM (#325209) Homepage
    Mills is single-sex at the undergraduate level but coed at the graduate level.
  • by pgreenspun ( 64424 ) on Saturday March 31, 2001 @04:46PM (#325210) Homepage
    Actually we posted the content online in hopes primarily of helping other universities (both established ones and start-up one-year post-bacc programs like ADU). Also we figured it would be nice for individual learners. Finally we posted the content online because we post everything online! That's what the Internet is for!
  • by Ellen Spertus ( 31819 ) on Saturday March 31, 2001 @10:27AM (#325211) Homepage

    Mills College [mills.edu], located in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a longstanding program targetting the same demographic: bright people interested in computer science with a bachelor's degree in another field. After completing their studies, graduates go on to computer science graduate school, industry, or teaching. Like ADU, there is a strong MIT influence. (Half of the CS professors at Mills are MIT graduates.) Visit the web site [mills.edu] or contact me [mailto] for more information. While the official deadline has passed for Fall admission, I may be able to get strong applications considered.

  • by pgreenspun ( 64424 ) on Saturday March 31, 2001 @04:38PM (#325212) Homepage
    Our aim was NOT to be "MIT without overhead". ADU is/was a post-baccalaureate program. Only college graduates could apply. Whereas for MIT undergrad CS, people who already have bachelor's degrees are excluded from even applying. The idea was to give people with bachelor's in other fields as much of the CS undergrad education as practical within 9 or 10 months.

    MIT remains great for what it is (undergrad education for people done with high school; grad education for people done with college) and we never claimed that we would be able to do better than MIT at MIT's chosen mission.

    See http://philip.greenspun.com/teaching/teaching-soft ware-engineering for some analysis of what worked well so far at ADU.
  • by actual student ( 413684 ) on Saturday March 31, 2001 @03:20PM (#325213)
    Now I remember why I never read the comments on Slashdot.
    • this year ADU is exclusively on-campus. We are taught in person, have TAs stationed in the same room as us, etc. Materials have been made available online, to some extent, to benefit people capable of doing something constructive with their time, but without the resources, flexibility, or eligibility to attend a quality CS program.
    • ADU is not focused on web scripting and databases. There is one course explicitly on programming for the web (yes this will involve using a scripting language). Personally, I plan to use the popular LAMP combo that month, whereas Philip has in the past used AOL server and Oracle and TCL. To the extent that the program is more focused on the Web than other programs, there is good reason, both for the direction computing is going and because of the sorts of goals the students here have. This is not to say that courses such as discrete math, algorithms, OOP, theory of computation, and computer hardware aren't a part of the curriculum.
    • suggesting that ADU might be a mill for big companies desiring drones for cubicle farms is really stupid. Hello, they're not even funding us. Not to mention that a review of the student body would clear up any idea that ADU students are the sort that would resign themselves to such a pathetic fate.
    • ADU was never intended to be a breeding grounds for arsDigita employees. While this is less obvious, it is consistent with the stated mission of this place, with Philip's comments in interviews, and, hey, there is no evidence to the contrary, but don't let that stop you.
    • obviously a 1 year program cannot be everything that a 4+ year program can be, but people should keep in mind that this is an intensive program. The 12 hour a day, 6 day a week desciption is accurate. The resources available, the interaction between students, these sorts of things result in the time being used much more effectively than is typical in the programs this is being held up against. The learning taking place here, whatever the limit, is not at a dumbed down/non-interactive level. This should be obvious to anyone who looks at the curriculum and is familiar with what it covers.
    • We did not lose funding because Microsoft pulled some strings. That is my favorite. Acutally Microsoft is sending us 40 Win2K machines next week.
    • yes, we run Linux.
    I suggest taking a look at the following links. -ahb

Basic is a high level languish. APL is a high level anguish.