November/December 2001 // Commentary
New Times, New Rules:
An Interview with Fathom's Ann Kirschner
by James L. Morrison and Ann Kirschner
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Ann Kirschner "New Times, New Rules:
An Interview with Fathom's Ann Kirschner" The Technology Source, November/December 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Ann Kirschner, a media and marketing pioneer in broadcast television, cable and satellite television, and interactive media, is president and CEO of Fathom. Co-founded by Kirschner and Columbia University, Fathom offers a full range of learning opportunities for professional development and personal enrichment, from free seminars to accredited courses. These learning opportunities are facilitated by Fathom's global network of leading learning institutions—universities, libraries, museums, and a university press. Recently I spoke with Kirschner about Fathom and its groundbreaking work in higher education.

James L. Morrison [JLM]: Tell us about Fathom's inception as well as its relationship to Columbia University and its other partners.

Ann Kirschner [AK]: In 1998, Columbia made a high-level strategic decision to understand how the Internet would transform higher education. The university's intellectual capital was becoming increasingly valuable, as revenues from patent licensing continued to climb and as faculty were increasingly sought after by for-profit ventures.

Fathom was built on the notion of international partnerships. Worldwide interest in corporate training and learning has spawned the concept that education is a global business, which means that the greatest strength of universities—their intellectual capital—is more valuable than ever. The best way to take advantage of that strength is through international partnerships that balance the goal of reaching a global audience with local educational objectives and values. In other words, Fathom is a knowledge network, collaborating with institutions and educational companies all over the world.

JLM: What makes Fathom a "knowledge network?"

AK: Fathom?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s consortium collaborates on the creation and distribution of high quality knowledge. Fathom provides a focus and an infrastructure through which we can share production resources, technology platforms, and market intelligence. We also identify and share best practices from our consortium members on areas as diverse as intellectual property policies and organizational structures for digital media development. Working with the members of the network, as well as course providers at other institutions and companies, we are able to aggregate content and courses from literally dozens of sources—in much the same way that a great bookstore combines the output of many publishing companies, or a television network relies on quality production sources. Our goal is to select the best content and courses and offer them to a global learning community.

JLM: With whom does Fathom share its international partnerships?

AK: We now have partnerships with the London School of Economics, Cambridge University Press, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the American Film Institute, the Rand, the London Museum of Science and Natural History, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. We also have relationships with dozens of other course providers—educational institutions as well as for-profit companies.

The idea of partnering with other universities came to us early in the planning of Fathom because we recognized the value of expanding beyond a single institution, broadening our access to intellectual property, and thinking outside the borders of any single culture or country. Additionally, partnerships broaden our marketing reach. Universities have strong ties to their alumni and, beyond that, to the university?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s extended community of families, faculty, and researchers.

Libraries and museums have an even broader reach through their patrons and on-site visitors. At the New York Public Library alone, for instance, millions of visitors use the library facilities each year.

Fathom sought participation from libraries and museums not only because their curators and librarians are experts in their field—faculty of another kind—but because they already serve their visitors and researchers as "clients" in a more consumer-centric model than universities. A great museum exhibition, for example, is focused on serving museum visitors with information and context that will inform their understanding of the collection. Museums measure their success at least in part by attendance at exhibitions and the sales of collateral material such as exhibition catalogues. That doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t make them less serious or scholarly, but it suggests some different metrics for success.

Overall, the Fathom consortium has direct contact with over one million people through alumni publications, newsletters, direct mail, websites, and e-mail. And through its 13 member institutions, Fathom also has the opportunity to work with about 10,000 faculty members, researchers, museum curators, and librarians—quite likely one of the largest, and most important, groups of experts in the world.

In addition to our consortium, we are building important partnerships that aid in distribution and marketing. Fathom recently announced a unique relationship with the BBC, for example, to create and promote history studies online, beginning with an e-course we created with Columbia University?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s renowned history professor, Simon Schama. We hope that the BBC model will become the foundation for future online seminars.

JLM: How did you go about selecting your partners?

AK: The first criterion was to choose world leaders in education, beginning in the US and UK. All shared a common vision: that higher education was at a crossroads, at the threshold of dramatic change. A second criterion was to choose institutions with a serious commitment to meeting the changing needs of students, who are as comfortable with computers and the Internet as my generation was with television.

Finally, we were looking for executive leaders who could make effective decisions, not only committing their institutions but also building grassroots support within their institutions, particularly among the faculty.

You might ask too, what were the institutions looking for? The notion of knowledge entrepreneurship is integral to university culture, and the value to the private sector is great. But the dangers are great as well; universities have scarce resources and must balance the investment in their future against their current needs. They have to choose their partners carefully, looking for ones that have long-term potential and compatible goals.

JLM: What benefits do your partners realize?

AK: Everything relates to our primary goal: projecting the spirit of the university in a quality online learning environment. In these early days, the benefits to our partners are not financial. They see Fathom as unique vehicle to showcase their institution and the work of their faculty. Fathom offers ways to accelerate or extend their online initiatives with practical support in the form of production and technology resources. In the good company of like-minded institutions, they are exploring the best ways to enhance classroom teaching through digital media.

We also help institutions figure out what and how to produce by serving as an important source of market intelligence. It is our business to understand and analyze the changing competitive landscape in e-learning, to anticipate and fill the needs of potential students. To achieve these benefits and guide Fathom?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s development, a senior academic officer of each institution sits on an academic council chaired by Jonathan Cole, provost of Columbia University. That group meets quarterly to talk about broad strategic issues facing Fathom.

As Fathom becomes an important sales channel for courses and other services, there will be financial benefits for the institutions through marketing and distribution arrangements, and eventually, distribution of profits to the shareholders. Fathom markets on behalf of all the institutions in its network, enabling them to reach a broader global audience than any single institution would be likely to reach.

JLM: What benefits do your users realize?

AK: The major benefit is the convenient access to one source that is committed to identifying high-quality knowledge and courses. Where do you start if you want to learn online? An encyclopedia delivers an archive of knowledge, but it doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t tell you about new knowledge—the groundbreaking work that is being discussed and evaluated every day at leading research institutions. And when you have decided to take a course in a specific subject, how do you select from the bewildering variety that is already available online? How do you weigh quality, convenience, and cost? You might start with your alma mater, but your quest at some point will likely lead you to seek a broader selection than you could have at any single institution.

Only at Fathom will you have access to hundreds of free courses and a comprehensive variety of paid e-learning options. Some learners are ready to commit to a semester-length program, but most are looking for shorter options. Fathom delivers the broadest possible range of subjects and pedagogical approaches since we select the best courses from many institutions rather than creating the courses ourselves. Currently, the Fathom course directory offers 600 courses. All have been evaluated according to criteria determined by our Academic Council. We also offer more than 1,000 free seminars and special features from our consortium. We provide a service to a worldwide audience of knowledge consumers looking for professional development and lifelong learning.

JLM: How would your strategy be different if you were to partner with fewer elite institutions?

AK: My strategy would be the same. My motivation is not to recreate the Ivy League online. We look for private and public institutions with quality in their resources and in their leadership, as well a strategic commitment to discovering how digital media can enhance the mission of the institution. We are still building partnerships, growing larger rather than smaller.

JLM: What kind of federal support do you have?

AK: None. We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re a for-profit company, and our funding has come thus far primarily from Columbia University, which has also committed to long-term support for the company.

JLM: How can technology benefit educational organizations?

AK: The Internet is creating a level playing field. The size of the school, its library, or its location, is now less important than the creativity and quality of teachers and their pedagogical approaches. I hope that faculty as well as university administrators will take advantage of this level playing field to set an ambitious agenda for higher education in the 21st century.

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