NET NEWS: Free Online University

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Science  24 Mar 2000:
Vol. 287, Issue 5461, pp. 2111
DOI: 10.1126/science.287.5461.2111b

A software entrepreneur has pledged $100 million to launch an online university taught by the world's great thinkers that anyone could attend for free.

Michael Saylor, the billionaire CEO of MicroStrategy in Vienna, Virginia, described his plan to newspapers and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece last week. He wants to compile a “cyberlibrary” of lectures videotaped pro bono by thousands of leading educators and great minds—from investor Warren Buffet to Nobel Prize winners. Answers to students' typical questions and exams would also be put on the Web. For some students, Saylor writes, the cybercourses “might replace a traditional university,” while for others they “would be a supplement.” They would make an education available to people around the world who “aren't so lucky” as Saylor himself, who could afford to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering and science, technology, and society.

Elements of Saylor's plan aren't novel—the U.K.'s Open University has mailed videotaped lectures to distance learners for decades, and hundreds of universities now offer online courses. But one new twist is that it would all be free. Observers, while intrigued, have many questions. Brian L. Hawkins of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that helps universities use technologies, wonders whether professors will want to give away their course material when they're now selling it to online education companies. The answer may come soon: Saylor plans to set up a nonprofit studio near Washington, D.C., and begin taping lectures within a few months.

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