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knowledge marketplace" can be established and become a profitable business.
According to a press release (April 3, 2000) it aims at becoming the
category leader on a marketplace that is seen to be growing rapidly:"Significant growth in
online education is expected over the next few years. According to IDC, the size of the U.S.
market for distance learning is already $2 billion and is projected to be $6 billion in 2002
and $9 billion by 2003, a growing component of the $750 billion higher education market
in the U.S. alone. Enrolment in online programs is expected to increase at an annual rate of
30-35 percent."
The Fathom venture was brought into life by the spearheading Columbia University in
alliance with a mix of institutional partners that come from different cultural and academic
corners (i.e. libraries, museums, and scholarly institutions). Fathom's list of founding partners
and members is impressive: Founding partners, beside Columbia University, are:The
London School of Economics and Political Science, Cambridge University Press,The
British Library, National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian), and The New York
Public Library. Members include the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the
American Film Institute, RAND,Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Victoria and
Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.
Drawing on the intellectual resources of its partners, aims to cover a wide
range of subjects such as business, law, economics, social sciences, medicine, computer
science and technology, physics, the arts, journalism, and more.While Fathom is the
knowledge market place and e-learning access platform, tuition fees, accreditation, and
admission policies are set at the discretion of the content offering institutions. One clear
target group and possibly the greatest potential for growth are alumni of member academic
institutions. In mid 2001, Fathom offered 800 seminars and, for a fee, links to online courses
that have been selected from the member institutions' curricula. Beside the online courses
and other subscription based services, much free content is provided to attract users (e.g.
interviews, articles, exhibits).
The Fathom consortium represents a vast intellectual capital to build on.Though it is not
easy to "migrate" it onto the Internet and provide e-learning solutions people are willing to
pay for. In particular, developing attractive and high-value e-learning content together with
faculty members and curators of the partner and member institutions, as well as offering the
right packages, is clearly not an easy business.
For example: Fathom first thought it feasible to market courses that might last weeks or
months, however the emphasis needed to be switched to shorter courses and self-contained
seminars. It is reported that "some people interested in distance education experience
`sticker shock' upon discovering that an eight-week course costs more than $ 500.To
respond to this concern, Fathom is developing shorter, less expensive courses (e.g., a one-
week course for $ 100) that can help build its customer base." (Smith, 2001)
For starting the venture Columbia invested $18 million, and at the beginning of 2000 it was
reported to have put another $10 million into the project to keep it afloat. In an interview
Ann Kirschner, president of, admitted that it will be "a long hard road", but
"rumours of our death are exaggerated"; and she added:"This is not for the faint of heart
only those with institutional and strategic commitment are going to make it." (Kirschner in
MacLeod, 2001) Expectation is that it will be at least two years before is able
to prove itself as a success.
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