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
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
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 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."
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
"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
"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
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.
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, a national 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
"Our hope," Hernandez-Ramos said, "is that Microsoft, Correll, 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.