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October 5, 1999

Microsoft and M.I.T. to Develop Technologies Together

Projects Will Include New Methods of Online Learning

In 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 as I-Campus.

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 initiative."

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 patent it.

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."

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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 taught.

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.

If 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."

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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, aeronautic components.

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.

The 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 standards."

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.

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