Have you ever wanted to learn about cryptography at college, but just never really had the opportunity? The University of Washington has made it possible without having to set foot outside your home or pay a penny in tuition fees. CSE P 590TU: Practical Aspects of Modern Cryptography is now available online.

I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Cryptography is one of the most interesting and important subjects in the IT industry, in my opinion — right up there with AI. Something they both have in common is that they are open-ended fields that will not ever really have a single, clean “solution”, as far as I can tell. Like strategies for a game of Go, there’s always room for advancement, which means there’s always another challenge ahead.

As such, I’m always interested in another approach to teaching the topic. There is always something new to learn. As such, I’ll be going through the materials available in this online presentation of the University of Washington course as soon as I can set the time aside. I estimate I’ll get around to it in January.

In a recent IBM-sponsored webcast titled Securing Networks Without Borders, in which I was one of the featured guests, the subject of how to secure our online activities when they are so rarely limited by the traditional network perimeters defined by firewalls and routers was central to discussion. In a discussion that was less than an hour long and covered such a wide range of topics, I could not be sure I knew what everyone thought about every subject of discussion, of course. It’s hard to imagine, though, that a security professional like John Pironti (another featured guest) doesn’t regard encryption as a matter central to the ability to secure our data when it leaves the perimeters of our networks.

That being the case, it seems obvious to me that anyone with an eye toward the effective security techniques of the near future should familiarize himself or herself with the basic concepts of cryptography. While I have not been through all the materials yet, the textbook list alone is encouraging. Some of the most respected introductory texts on cryptography in the world are represented there.

People ask me fairly often about the best places to start learning about IT security, and the question came up in that 28 November webcast. I wrote an article about that for my first entry here at TechRepublic’s IT Security weblog, but that was only a general overview to give you an idea where to start searching. More specifics depend on which areas of IT security you think deserve your focus. Your needs will differ depending on what you are going to do with your growing knowledge, of course, such as whether you will be writing software for a web startup or protecting a medical records database — or even just trying to protect yourself while using the wireless network at a coffee shop.

If you see cryptography in your future, the free, online availability of a complete college course in “practical aspects of modern cryptography”, complete with presentation slides and recordings of class sessions, is nothing to sneeze at.