Distance Learning Gets $100 Million Pledge

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A Washington-area billionaire who made his fortune in technology has pledged $100 million to start up an online university that he says will provide students worldwide with an "Ivy League education"—free of charge.

Michael J. Saylor, the president, chief executive officer, and chairman of MicroStrategy Inc. in Tysons Corner, Va., announced the donation at the Greater Washington Business Philanthropy Summit last week, but provided few details of the project.

The 35-year-old entrepreneur, whose company sells e-commerce software, told The Washington Post that he envisions hiring top-notch professors and asking them to videotape their lectures in a studio built somewhere in the Washington region. The tapes would be projected over the Internet to students around the world.

Courses would also make use of multimedia resources. For example, a class on the Vietnam War may show both front-line skirmishes and film of policymakers discussing the reasoning behind the escalation of the war, according to an article in the Post that reported Mr. Saylor's plan.

"Done right, this will impact the lives of millions of people forever," Mr. Saylor told the newspaper. "Done wrong, it's just noise in a can."

He added that such an endeavor could become "a cyber Library of Congress."

The philanthropist earned his two bachelor's degrees in traditional classrooms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a company spokesman said. One degree is in aeronautics and astronautics; the other is in humanities and engineering.

Mr. Saylor aims to bridge what is called the "digital divide," separating those who have ready access to technology from those who do not.

His project may or may not accomplish that goal, according to Gary A. Berg, an expert on educational technology and distance learning at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Students "are still going to need access to computers" to participate, Mr. Berg noted in an interview. "That's still going to be an issue."

If the project is realized, a free online university may shake up the distance-learning field, Mr. Berg added. Many colleges and universities currently provide distance-learning courses as both a complement to traditional classes and a moneymaker, he said.

Providing the services at no charge could compel administrators in higher education to shift their methods of building revenue, Mr. Berg suggested, and force institutions to offer free distance education.

"Universities will lose control of knowledge, as they should," Mr. Saylor told the Post. "We all share the right to our leaders and geniuses." He said college administrators "will bow to the inevitable. It will happen without them; it would happen without me. It's too good an idea."

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Page 11

Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Distance Learning Gets $100 Million Pledge
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