October 5, 1999
Microsoft and M.I.T. to Develop Technologies Together
Projects Will Include New Methods of Online Learning
By SARA ROBINSON and LISA GUERNSEY
n a move that is expected to have a
significant impact on the role of technology
in university education, the Microsoft Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology will announce today a singular
partnership to develop educational technologies.
The collaboration, in which Microsoft
will initially invest $25 million over five
years, is the largest alliance both in size
and scale that the company has made to
date with any university. It will be known
But the agreement is unusual not because of the amount of money involved but
because of the nature and scope of the
types of projects that will be financed. The
money will be used for a broad array of
projects ranging from online learning to
new models for academic publishing.
The project was hailed by many researchers for bringing attention to the field
of instructional technology at a time when
the Internet is starting to make an impact
on college education. However, some academic officials questioned whether it was
in the best interests of the higher-education
community for one giant corporation and
one leading university to be trying to develop these technologies alone.
"On one hand, it's great that Microsoft is
investing in this area; this is a topic that is
still not well understood," said Richard
Newton, chairman of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department at the University of California at
Berkeley. "But any restrictions on the use
of this technology would be unfortunate.
Ultimately, this is the sort of stuff that
shouldn't be in the hands of one company
or one university. It needs to be a national
Some of the researchers have taken to
calling I-Campus MSMIT, an allusion to MSNBC, the collaboration between Microsoft and NBC.
Under terms of the agreement, the
intellectual property financed by Microsoft but done at M.I.T. will belong
to M.I.T., but Microsoft will have the
right to license it without paying
royalties. But for research done
jointly at Microsoft and M.I.T., Microsoft will have the first option to
Microsoft products for word-processing and networking have already
become de facto standards on many
campuses, as they have for most
corporations and home-based computer users. But Microsoft does not
dominate the realms of instructional
technology, Web-based courses or
academic publishing -- at least not
yet, many educators say.
"The issue of Microsoft always
being viewed as having an agenda, of
trying to impose standards, is very
important here," said Gerald
Heeger, president of the University
of Maryland University College,
which had an enrollment of more
than 21,000 students in its online
courses last year. "I'm comfortable
thinking that M.I.T. is cognizant of
the need for accessible research. I'm
less comfortable if we arrive at a
standard that Microsoft controls."
A corporation investing in university research is nothing new. But
typically, the investments are focused on a set of projects that are
related to the core business of the
corporation. In this case, the focus of
the alliance is education, the core
business of universities.
"What's good about it is that the
long-term development of educational technologies is going to have to be
institutionalized by major industry
players," said John L. Hennessy,
provost and professor of electrical
engineering and computer science at
Stanford University. "You need companies to come in with the sort the
resources they can bring to bear."
"But," he added, "having one company involved in a large academic
program can put that company in a
position where they can dictate too
much of the agenda."
The extent to which corporations
should get involved in online education programs has become a heated
issue on many campuses, as educators and administrators struggle to
cover the costs of new technology
while maintaining control over the
environments in which students are
And the choice of M.I.T. for the
project has raised some eyebrows as
well. While a leading techology university, it is not generally considered
one of the top providers of online
education or of research on education itself. It is, however, well known
and respected for its research into
new user interfaces for computing.
"I can't help but note that it would
be useful if Microsoft would also
work with institutions that are heavily engaged in this enterprise,"
Heeger said. Both Microsoft and
M.I.T. said yesterday that they intended to make their research results widely available to other institutions.
"What is intended is for the work
that we're doing to be as openly
available as possible," said Rick Rashid, vice president of Microsoft Research.
"This area is of interest to
Microsoft because we believe in the
university system and education.
we don't have a steady stream of
people coming out of the universities
and into information technology,
then we're not going to prosper."
Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of
M.I.T.'s School of Engineering, said,
"We welcome the interaction with
the appropriate safeguards."
Initial projects will include the improvement of the administrative infrastucture at M.I.T., an expansion of
M.I.T.'s Shakespeare Electronic Archive by eveloping new software
tools to manage and access the content over the Internet; a collaborative design of a global education system together with the National University of Singapore and the development of tools for large-scale collaborative engineering design projects
where students around the world
work with researchers in industrial
labs over the Internet to design, say,
The alliance will also address academic publishing.
As of yet, academics said, the Internet's potential in
this area has not been realized.
Researchers talk of developing formats
for posting preliminary drafts of
their results on the Web so that they
can be checked by several parties
before appearing in a journal.
Los Alamos Web server, which publishes preprints of results in physics,
does something like this, but broad
standards for academic publishing
that work across many disciplines
have not been developed.
The collaboration will be managed
by a joint steering committee composed of three members of Microsoft
Research and three from M.I.T.
Researchers will travel back and forth
between the two campuses --
M.I.T.'s in Cambridge, Mass. and Microsoft's in Redmond, Wash.
But Pedro Hernandez-Ramos, the director
of market development for a standards project run by Educause, an international organization of universities
and corporations, takes comfort in
the fact that Microsoft has already
been cooperating with other companies and universities to develop open
standards for digital educational materials.
"Our hope," Hernandez-Ramos said, "is that Microsoft, Corel,
Sun and any other companies will
recognize the standards and say, it's
in our benefit if we play by these
Microsoft is one of 36 investors
taking part in the Educause standards program and has invested
$150,000 in it so far. The program has
created templates for technical
pieces of new software, like tags that
are embedded in Web pages so that
professors, administrators and students can easily share documents
created using different software.