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Columbia University to Close
Posted On January 13, 2003
Columbia University has announced that it plans to close, its money-losing online learning portal, as of March 31. The decision is part of a larger university plan to more closely integrate its wide-ranging digital media operations over the next several months. The reorganization is the result of a recent review of the university's existing online initiatives that had been prompted by Fathom's ongoing deficit.

The site, which launched in early 2000 (see the newsbreak at, offered digital content from Columbia and 13 other academic and cultural institutions. At its launch, the consortial educational site announced that it aimed to become a "main street" for knowledge and education, serving a worldwide audience of business and individual users.

In announcing the news, Robert Kasdin, senior executive vice president of Columbia, said, "Fathom was an important experimental venture. It led Columbia to develop new technologies and innovative ways of teaching and learning. It has brought about excellent academic collaborations. We have learned a great deal from this venture and will put that knowledge to good use."

According to the announcement, Columbia's Digital Knowledge Ventures (DKV), established (at the same time as Fathom) to license intellectual property, will become the university's primary focus for exploring digital media as a connection to alumni and the broader community. It will refocus its activity on building licensing and collaboration opportunities aimed at distribution of content to audiences beyond the Columbia campus.

Dr. Ann Kirschner, Fathom's CEO said, "It has been an honor and a pleasure to collaborate and to innovate with the leaders of pre-eminent institutions and their distinguished faculty, curators, and librarians. Together, we've advanced the important mission of harnessing new technologies to serve educational and cultural goals, creating a vital and distinctive learning community of over 65,000 lifelong learners in 52 countries around the world."

This was indeed a group of the most prestigious institutions. Besides Columbia, Fathom's founding partners were The London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press, The British Library, Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, and The New York Public Library. The site provided access to thousands of online courses and knowledge products for a fee, including XanEdu CoursePacks, and offered free seminars and free access to articles, interviews, lectures, and reference materials.

But, the prestigious brands weren't able to draw the numbers of paying online learners needed to make the dot-com venture succeed during the current economic downturn. Perhaps the surprise is that Columbia didn't pull the plug on the money-losing venture earlier.

In an April 2002 report, a senate committee looking into the university's online learning and digital media initiatives recommended that the university continue to fund Fathom "but at the minimum level to keep basic operations going," and that, in the long term, "Fathom should rethink its business model."

The report also indicated that, in FY 2001, "a privately held C corporation in which the University is a majority shareholder and provides most of the funding, received a total of $14.9 million from the University Fund: $11.9 million to cover operating expenses and $3 million for research and development costs. In addition, Fathom generated $0.7 million from outside institution fees and sales revenues."

It will probably take a significant upturn in the economy plus a new public attitude toward the value of quality educational content to enable the success of a for-profit online venture. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Fathom's demise follows those of for-profit online-learning ventures at New York University, Temple University, and the University of Maryland University College.

However, Outsell, the research firm that focuses on the information content industry, stated in a recent e-brief that: "it would be wrong to rule out this entire space as a failure [and] there will be successful e-learning ventures that get the business models right and stick to the core virtues of minding their growth, profitability, cash reserves, and market value."

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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