up The Legacy of ADU

Kevin McCulloch
ADU Class of 2001

I'm pleased to have been volunteered to be one of the graduation speakers today.

Graduations are ritual occasions, as you know. They mark the end of a chapter in our lives and celebrate the achievement of our goals while encouraging us to reflect on the work we still have yet to do. It's therefore appropriate for us to be proud of what we have accomplished and humble about what we have not.

I would therefore like to begin with a quick expression of thanks that I hope will leave all of you bursting with pride. I can't begin to describe how enriching and rewarding I've found this program to be. It has been wonderful to spend so much time with a subject that I have always been curious about, in the company of other smart and curious people.

We have been blessed with the quality of our curriculum. We have our professors, our teaching assistants, and our administrators to thank. In addition, we have been blessed by the quality of the company we've had in our fellow students. I'm still amazed that the University was able to recruit such an extraordinary group of people in such a short time, and I am extremely grateful for the chance to have known each one of you. I am not exaggerating when I say that I expect to look back on this year as one of the best things I've done.

Even so, I'm afraid that I will continue in the future to have a kind of trouble that I've had all year when attempting to describe ArsDigita University. Despite the praise I've had for the curriculum and the people, I've been hard-pressed to explain, to myself or others, exactly why this program exists or why we've done it.

Let me clarify. It hasn't been hard at all to explain why I have done it. Nor, I suspect, has it been hard for any of you to do the same. The opportunity for a free computer science education makes sense to all of us, in the context of our histories, our aspirations, and our curiosities. We know this about each other.

What is not clear is why we have done it, or why it was worth the money it took to make it happen.

One of the first things about ArsDigita University that caught my attention when I heard about the program was the sense of mission that was communicated on the website.

I quote: "The goal of ArsDigita University is to offer the world's best computer science education, at an undergraduate level, to people who are currently unable to obtain it. Our foundation's overall mission is to encourage the development of Web services that work better for users and society. The mission will be easier if a large group of people who agree with our philosophy are educated to the highest levels of skill in computer science."

There were two ideas that stood out to me here. First, "to offer the world's best education to people who are currently unable to obtain it." Second, "the development of Web services" -- which, given our curriculum, could be fairly extended to include all sorts of technical services -- "that work better for users and society."

It seemed to me that these two ideas cut to the core of the social issues surrounding computer technology and the corresponding information revolution. How do these technologies make life better or worse, and for whom? Who has access to these technologies, and why? These are important issues for us to consider, not as programmers but as citizens, and I looked forward to the opportunity to discuss them with a group of bright people in an intentional setting.

That we have not discussed these things as a group is a real shame, in my opinion, although from the way the program was initiated and has developed I don't feel it's a surprise.

Take, for example, the question of education for people who are currently unable to obtain it. This seems to beg corresponding questions of who is able to obtain education, what sort of education they are able to obtain, and why. It seemed natural to me that a program with this goal might want to pay special attention to identifying promising students from a diversity of backgrounds, including non-traditional ones: students who might be expected to put energy into building infrastructures for communities that are currently under-served by the ongoing technical revolution. I thought it odd that admissions was to be based largely on SAT scores and past educational achievement if the goal of the program was, in some way, to challenge the status quo.

I asked about this on two separate occasions during my telephone interview process, even though I had already begun to guess what the answer would be. I was expecting to hear that the University's primary concern was the recruitment of students who had already proved their ability to perform, and that given the short timeframe conventional means such as SAT scores were a necessary help. I expected to hear that the program is of no use to anyone if its academic value is not high, that the quality of the academics would depend on the quality of the students, that the prime mission at this stage in the game was to put the school on solid academic footing, and that other considerations -- larger considerations of who really is and is not "currently able to obtain" a computer science education, or why -- would have to take a back seat.

This was the answer I got, more or less. At least, it was clear that the primary goal of the admissions process was to recruit people who would be able to withstand the rigors of the curriculum. What I did not get was a sense that anybody at the top agreed with me that the larger issue of who does and does not have access to education -- or, in particular, who does and does not have access to good SAT scores, or promising four-year transcripts -- was important, something to be taken more seriously when the school was more established, or really even something to be addressed in the admissions process.

I began to fear that I would not encounter at ArsDigita University a curricular commitment to the question of what is better for users and society where technology is concerned. Nevertheless, I arrived to much enthusiasm and optimism among the students. I have heard over and over from almost all of you that this course has, indeed, been a Great Idea, and a great success, and that it is a shame that it will not continue next year.

I agree that this course has been great -- in particular, I agree that we have proved that it is possible to educate adults of various backgrounds in the fundamentals of computer science in the course of a year. This was not a trivial task, and it is good to know that such an immersion strategy can be successful in this area. But the fact that we can do what we have just done does not explain why we should do it, or why others should support us.

When we first discussed topics for our speeches today, Bryon and I agreed that, in some vague way, he would talk about the past and I would talk about the future.

Here, then, is my prediction: for ArsDigita University to have a future, we must do a better job of articulating the purpose it serves. We must find a deeper justification of why it is good and why it should be supported. In particular, we must take seriously the key question posed on our website: using our new skills, what can we do that is better for society?

I don't mean to suggest that, as individuals, we don't take this question seriously, for I know that we do. We each have our private convictions and passions, and we have had many chances -- including an embarrassingly large number at Coyote and the Cambridge Brewing Company -- to share them with each other. What we have not done is approached this question as a group concern, or thought about how technology might enable others to approach this question as a group concern. In the future, we must do both.