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Prof Stephen Hill
"Quality-assured knowledge"
 real 28k

Monday, 3 April, 2000, 15:57 GMT 16:57 UK
Online knowledge alliance
british library
The British Library is a founding partner
Six big-name educational and cultural organisations have formed a transatlantic company to deliver their resources over the internet.

But the founders of Fathom.com are stressing their public service credentials and are offering material free.

The founding partners are the London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, the British Library, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, New York, and the New York Public Library.

Online courses will be on offer through Fathom - but central to the idea will be "a wealth of free content usually only available on university campuses and at leading museums and libraries", it says.

Other universities in the US and the UK have already set up joint ventures, and the UK's education secretary has urged all higher education institutions to get online if they are to compete globally.

Professor Stephen Hill, deputy director of the London School of Economics, said the LSE's move online began a couple of years ago.

Private backing

"I think what's interesting about Fathom is that it's driven by what one might call public service providers, rather than by private financial interests," he told BBC News Online.

"So we, as the owners of the content, have got together to say this is how we want to distribute it.

"At some point we'll invite private financiers to come in and help fund the project."

Others providers are expected to join the Fathom consortium, which is headed by Ann Kirschner, previously head of new media for the American National Football League.

"Fathom is far more than another distance learning site," said Dr. Kirschner.

"We are creating a vibrant 'main street' for knowledge and education. We intend to go beyond the current limits of information sites scattered across the web and also go beyond online initiatives from individual schools.

Quality promise

"Today, most initiatives by educational institutions are focused on courses.

"But learning is not limited to the classroom, and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will provide a more complete and accessible context for knowledge.

"We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader interactive knowledge marketplace."

Fathom will include a directory of related online courses, plus textbooks and other academic titles, specialised publications, CD-ROMs, and academic travel.

The cost of online courses will be set by the participating institutions. But the promised free content will include multimedia lectures, seminars, databases, publications, and performances, Fathom says.

The range of subjects includes business, law, economics, social sciences, medicine, computer science and technology, the arts, journalism and physics.

Professor Hill at the LSE says the other key aspect to Fathom is quality assurance - not always the case, he argues, with profit-driven educational internet "portals".

"This is, if you like, quality-assured knowledge. We're all major, world-class institutions and we hope to get more partners joining in, so that you know if you come to Fathom you're getting the best that's available."

Academic and editorial standards will be monitored by an academic council, chaired by Columbia's Provost and Dean of Faculties, Dr Jonathan Cole.

Examples of content currently in development include multimedia presentations from the British Library on such things as the Magna Carta and the Lindisfarne Gospels, and a collection of more than 54,000 photographic views of New York City from the public library.

Whether other institutions will join in the idea, or continue former other strategic alliances, remains to be seen.

Fathom is pitching to be a market leader in a rapidly growing sector of the educational market, estimated to be worth $6bn by 2002 in the United States alone.

It is likely to be several months before Fathom is operating properly, although the website has been set up already.

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See also:

22 Dec 99 | Education
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28 Mar 00 | Education
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